Writer About Town

Some time ago, I posted a picture of my writing desk at home. I’ve included an up-to-date one in this entry.

Although I type up pieces here, they normally begin life as pencil on paper and usually far away from the room. This includes not only fiction and poetry, but often blog posts and routine correspondence.

When I was stuck with a piece, I used to head to a café called The Empire State, with a view of the city centre from each of its three levels. The ambient sound was Motown and classic hits, and I found these helped me to break through writing blocks.

I haven’t been there lately, but mainly because I’ve found somewhere else that’s slightly more convenient.

My nearest BrewDog bar opens at midday and is usually quiet enough for writing undisturbed until mid-afternoon. What’s more, there are power sockets for laptops, plus my shareholder card gives me a discount. The only downside is that the music repeats on a 60-minute loop.

I have one more place I like to write, and it’s the most bizarre of all. It’s in a retail park on the edge of the city, surrounded by a DIY retailer, a supermarket and other warehouse-style outlets. It’s a McDonald’s restaurant.

At some point over the last five years, I’ve discovered that it’s most conducive to writing. I know I can turn up there with a notepad and by the time I finish my coffee, I’ll have something on the page, and not just crumbs.

Great as it is for creative work, though, it’s not so good for my weight loss attempts.

 

 

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Paper boon.

Until a year or two ago, I didn’t do much writing on a notepad. It generally went straight into a computer unless one wasn’t handy.

I began to use a pad extensively for two reasons. Firstly, my small laptop has only just enough RAM to run Windows and was a pain to use. Secondly, I type extensively in my day job and my fingers began to hurt, whereas holding a pencil was a sufficiently different motion and it didn’t hurt.

Using a pad is also a different experience from typing: It slows down your thoughts so you become more focused on what to say next. It also looks less like a finished product and I’m more inclined to edit it. Furthermore, it’s easier on the eye to read paper than a screen.

Kids of the 22nd century: these are called books, which are a bit like websites on paper.
Kids of the 22nd century: these are called books, which are a bit like websites on paper.

My fingers aren’t nearly so bad now, but I’ve kept up another habit I fell into during this time. I dug out my printed dictionary and thesaurus. Online references generally focus only on the words searched for, whereas flicking through a book can throw up possibilities from other pages. The trade-off is that paper references go out of date – mine are over 25 years old, but I rarely need new-fangled words.

On Saturday, it’s the 37th birthday of one of my influences, Peter Doherty. I feel compelled to point out that he prefers Peter over Pete. Last year, I bought The Books of Albion, containing writings from his many notebooks. I expected to read drafts of his poems and songs in there, and I wasn’t disappointed.

But he also includes a lot of diary entries, many of them with the dates on which they were written. He talks about what’s happening to him at the time, whether it be relationship problems, a budget trip to Germany, or his first professional poetry gig.

I stopped keeping a diary when I was about 20, and started a blog on the relatively young LiveJournal. Almost overnight, my style changed from private and unguarded to public and slightly more guarded. I still have some of the diaries but they’re unlikely to be available in the shops any time soon.

By contrast, Doherty’s diaries start when he was about 20, so there’s a maturity in them that mine don’t have. Yet it’s still clear he never intended them for publication, and it’s perhaps this honesty that makes his writing so compelling.

Initially, I found myself thinking back to what I was doing around the time he was keeping his notes. Then I began to wonder whether I could experiment with bringing back my pre-LiveJournal days and writing the occasional dated diary entry in my current pad. It contains mainly poem and story drafts, yet true events are at the heart of many literary works.

I would then have some events to draw upon when I need ideas.

That’s the place, uh-huh uh-huh, I write it.

I know you shouldn’t pay too much attention to those pictures that circulate around Facebook, but I recently saw one that deserves a response:

2016-02-13 09.53.43

It strikes me that the solution is hidden within the problem: why stare at a blank page if that doesn’t help you produce work? Go and lie down in bed, or have a shower, or drive around town. But be sure to have a safe way of recording your ideas as they occur.

The perfect spot for a writer is as individual as his or her work. I recently attended a workshop in a library. One of the organisers asked us to pick a spot in the building where we each felt comfortable, then to complete a writing exercise. Some participants preferred an open area, others preferred a little niche; one person lay on the floor while another nipped upstairs.

For my own part, I found a shelf at chest height and placed my work on top of it. When I’m using my computer at home, I prefer to stand up with my back to my bedroom window; I’ve experimented with other places in the house but they simply don’t have the same vibe.

It’s also timeworn advice to keep a notepad and pen by your bedside table in case a great idea occurs during the night. This has rarely worked for me; I find going for a walk for a walk, especially in the cold, is much more effective.

Consider also the sounds around you. I was writing a play a few years ago that had a rather dark theme, and I found the only music that helped me write this way was Radiohead. Any other time, I listen to the soundtrack from the film The Assassination of Jesse James, written by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

So be sure to experiment with your particular writing place. A lot of people believe that to be a writer you have to sit a mahogany desk for a set time each day in silence and write a certain number of words. That works for some people, but if it doesn’t do anything for you, find a method that does.

Think of it this way: if you weren’t receiving your milk delivery, you wouldn’t complain to the postman. Similarly, if your current actions aren’t helping you to place words on paper, it’s time to take new actions.

Julyish.

We’re midway through July now. In some respects, this is a troubling month for me.

Firstly, there’s the weather. I can’t speak for anywhere else, but I’m from Scotland and it can fluctuate wildly. Thursday brought the sort of weather for lying in a hammock and listening to the Isley Brothers. I took the opportunity to walk to the seaside and enjoy a round of crazy golf and a trip on the road train. By Saturday, the rain was tipping down in the least Julyish fashion you can imagine.

Secondly, the daylight. Regardless of the weather, near-perpetual daylight does things to the brain. I find myself waking sometimes an hour or two before my alarm, which does nothing for my concentration.

Thirdly, it’s holiday season for many people. You’re out of your normal routine and writing might not feature as highly as it does during your normal day.

But there are ways to keep your writing flowing even through the least Julyish July. A gloriously warm day or a change of scenery might provide you with fresh ideas. I make it a habit to carry a pencil and notebook with me, and I recommend taking a sharpener as well. And if it’s practical, perhaps a 5am writing session would work for you, or at least give you an opportunity to catch up on your reading, and that can be as important as writing.

Just remember that if you’re writing about summer and you plan to interest a publisher in your work, it might be up to a year before you see it in print as lead times are months long. Right now, editors are planning for Halloween and even Christmas, and probably won’t take you on until the New Year. So if you have any festively-themed stories, this would be a prime time to dig them out, even if it seems a very long time away.

Some Salvaged Scribbles.

A few days after my handwritten entry last week, I was looking for something in my bottom drawer, when I discovered an old notepad. It’s nothing special; it’s a Tesco Value spiral-bound A4 pad with a slightly ripped cover.

I’ve used a quarter of its 80 pages, and most of it is taken up with attempts to expand on a fragment of poetry that I tried to expand into a song, although there is also a brief novel idea, pages of free writing, and a poem on the topic of my own handwriting.

Of these, I only consider the poem be a decent piece of work. As for the rest, I know what I was trying to express, but I didn’t have the techniques at my disposal to do it properly. But looking at the content, I’ve calculated that I last wrote in this notebook in September 2009, more than a year before I began writing. I’m therefore not surprised about the quality.

My filing system
My filing system

Yesterday, I discovered other half-completed notebooks, but none as full or detailed as this one. I’ve noticed I rarely reached the last page, although I’m more than likely to complete my current ones. Also, there are hardly any drawings or even doodles, just text.

But the one notebook I would like to look at again is missing, believed lost. At my very first National Novel Writing Month meeting, my laptop battery died. I had to rush out and buy a notepad and mechanical pencil so I could continue my story. I had it about a year before its disappearance, and it contains drafts of my first novel, and some of my earliest stories. I don’t think I’ve lost anything, but I might have.

I know I’m not the only writer with notepads dotted about, and I’d like to hear about yours. Do you have any hidden in a drawer somewhere? What did you discover when you pulled them out again? Have you misplaced an important story you wish you could recover?