24.09.2023

That, Madam / Sir, Is None of Your Business.

In an earlier age that response may have been an acceptable answer to the question:

So, what is your writing process? "It's none of your business" is no longer acceptable because process is just so important.

Why are the writing habits of an author considered interesting? Is it because the stereotype that depicts writing as a solitary pursuit, produces the impression writers conduct themselves with mysterious practices? What is behind exercising the combinatory system of words in the private world of the writer, that makes it seem so compelling a subject? So compelling as to appear it possesses freehold title on time in discussions about the end product of the writer's work?

Discussions that include the particular goings on around the act of writing can take on the feeling of a natural history documentary because they apparently offer a peek into an otherwise hidden world. But unlike a documentary camera following, let's say, an Iguana, a writer's time is not exclusively devoted to sunning and snoozing on a rock ledge, hunting for food, and seeking a mate... Err, well, the point I think I'm trying to make here is that the writer's activity of getting down the words is not necessarily where the creative process dwells, though it does, to a lesser or greater degree. The greatest proportion of the work is the mundanity, the hauling of bricks and mortar, the sawing of trees into precision lengths and widths and thicknesses, the chipping away and polishing of marble, the conducting and layering of paint while seducing the light, the birthing and bringing up of a constellation of notes upon five lines of a stave. Monty Python's, Novel Writing sketch, it isn't.

Whether describing their mode of working in a cramped bedsit corner, or reclining in capacious penthouse thought balloons, writer descriptions of process seem to give equal emphasis to the mysteries therein. It's a handy stereotype for the game of comparing one author's way with another's: this author's solitariness is more ascetic than that author's solitariness... Variations on this theme deliver the particular personal preferences that suggest it's this or that author who has the 'most interesting' routine, method, habit, or discipline.

When that inevitable question: what's your process? has been put to me, it's produced a smile because, as I've discovered—only barely—the answer to that question ought to be laced with a little bit of humour. It seems a simple question, and it feels that a simple answer to it might just do. It can, but it's a certainty that the warmth generated by the use of levity in answer to the question is always preferable than to receive the grimace to a tepid, or anodyne answer. The grimace near-guarantees further questions. But beware, it's possible one might end up needing to nurse the bladder. One doesn't wish to offend. The grimace can also mean a slippery slope: the muddy ramp up from the hole you've dug for yourself, justifying one thing and another, such as speaking of arcane writing methods, or worse, writer rituals that suggest superstition has a word in the business of putting pen to paper. Accepting the exceptions, few could believe that there is self-flagellation involved in writing, though, the word 'slog' is often the wide-net term used to position the challenges in the task of word-smithing with an acceptable generalisation. Heads nod on slog!

Of course, little is more infuriating to the writer who prefers the mystique of their solitary way, than that other handy stereotype, that of, let's call them writer 'X', who seems to effortlessly bake their literary pound cake—with all its humble yet satisfying ingredients, measured just so—while standing on their head at the busiest underground platform in peak hour, simultaneously removing infestations of nits from their triplet kindergartner's hair - and baking them a cake, as well!

The clichéd lonely garret of writers most often likely exists only inside their skulls, whether they toil in a damp basement, in a garage, in the booth of a burger joint, amidst the turmoil of a family's kitchen table, or in rarer instances, on a green hillside of Ireland...

Where truth and PR meet on this subject is anybody's guess.

The answer to the question can also be romantic. I'd read that the actor, Richard Burton—while not principally known for being a writer—would rise well before dawn, go quietly down to the kitchen, make tea, and in the solitude of the early grey light, sit at the kitchen table and write his diaries - while, in the bedroom overhead, Elizabeth slept. It helps to imagine this scene taking place in the Welsh countryside as these stars took to their retreat between celluloid engagements. On the other hand, the celebrated one-time prodigy and recently-departed, Martin Amis, it is reported, followed the following daily routine: drove from his place of residence the short distance to his office around 11 am, wrote, and then departed the office for lunch at around 1 pm - a regular schedule with a nice bit of work, done. To my mind, Amis's physical presence always suggested he was in slippers, and that foremost for him comfort was uppermost, therefore he appeared—and sounded—relaxed, producing the effect of a great slight-of-hand. If nothing else, that image goes some distance to confirming in me that the most effective writing process emerges from habit, which delivers some level of tranquillity, with the consequence that personal permissions may flow in order to gain enough confidence to commence work. It's at that point one is agreeable to the sitting down, and the raising of the laptop's lid.

The writing of my first novel, The Last Promise—the greater part of which was done amidst the green hills of Ireland—was mostly through the approach of Spring, for four or five hours from 6.30, or 7 in the morning, six, or seven days a week. This was mostly accompanied by the crackle of a fireplace as mist, or rain passed over, with a modest to reasonable chance a slice of blue sky might appear through the afternoon of the blossoming season. These periods of writing were carried out over a five-year period, during sessions between four weeks and three months, many years after I'd commenced the writing of the book. Appropriate conditions had first to present themselves.

To answer the question what's your process, the second sentence of the previous paragraph might be called the secret sauce. There's an interdependence between it and the first sentence, but truthfully, for me, it's pretty much entirely in the first sentence.

What's a writer's process? Whatever is apposite: the disciplined pre-dawn rising, the late-night push-through, or even amidst a café crowd. Sometimes it's the opposite. That's the meat of it - and the marrow. The process for me, at least, was: awaken, and get to it. Sometimes even before the coffee and oats are made, and if at all possible, in circumstances that allow one to think. Then, there's the habit, and the absorption. Blue sky, or not, first comes the acknowledgment of the personal contract. Only then will the magnetism of the outdoors be its reward. For the sake of respite from the keyboard, and the need for physical exercise, what remains is the back-burner, where critical thought must go to simmer quietly. Mysteriousness dwells there, a back-office of sorts, which oddly seems to have nothing to do with me, and even on occasion laughs at me in the face when I attempt a coy enquiry. For, in spite of the thinking about writing the story having been put temporarily on hold, the people and the world of the story have demanded they be let out with you for a breather, they too, to feel a little of that chill air, a little of that higher noon-time light.

TA

image of a laptop keyboard, and next to it a saucer with a knife and fork, and leftover crumbs on it

looking from a cottage in Reavilleen, Ireland down the view of a lush green valley out to the Atlantic Ocean