The writing ritual: from blank page to Booker contender
Doughnuts and cigarettes or blindfold, earmuffs and earplugs? Writers can have odd ways of getting ready for their working day – or night. Gavin Corbett, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Henrietta McKervey, Thomas Morris and Paul Murray take us into their creative worlds
Me time: Sarah Bannan writes each day from 4.30am to 6.30am. “At that time nobody can disturb me – not my husband or my daughter or my email, nor even social media.” Illustration: CSA/Getty
I write in a tiny crawl space in my one-bedroom cottage every morning from 4.30am to 6.30am. At that time nobody can disturb me – not my husband or my daughter or my email, nor even social media – and I’m so tired that I can’t think about how silly, and how impossible, the idea of me writing a novel actually is.
I’m fascinated by how other writers work. Fascinated to know if there’s an optimum way to do it, if there’s a formula I could apply that would ensure maximum productivity at minimum cost to my happiness and the happiness of my family. The writer Mason Currey has compiled an absorbing anthology, titled Daily Rituals, that explores how artists, across all disciplines and across many generations, create their work. Patricia Highsmith surrounded herself with doughnuts and cigarettes; Jonathan Franzen wrote The Corrections wearing a blindfold, earmuffs and earplugs; Jane Austen hid her writing away on scraps of paper, so callers wouldn’t know what she was doing.
Mostly, writers describe their processes as mundane, repetitive, thankless. In many cases writers admit self-doubt and self-loathing. They admit delusion and frustration. But there’s an act of faith in these rituals, too: a belief that getting into a particular chair at a particular time will yield something, eventually. A belief that the endeavour is worth it, even when the process is untestable.
I have no routine and no superstitions. I find it hard to begin writing but equally hard to stop, because once I’m in the frame of mind I’m captive for the day. The thing is getting into the frame of mind in the first place. I’ll try to tinker with a piece of writing from the previous day before proceeding to the blank page; usually that gets me tuned up, but it can take a while. It’s a little like working through the stages of sleep.
If I’m writing from home I’ll drink 15 to 18 cups of tea and three cups of coffee a day. I have a very bad personal-reward system. I’ll make myself a cup at the end of every paragraph, pretty much. While I’m pouring the water from the kettle my mind will still be whirring. Often I’ve had to run back to the computer before the tea is made. I’d love to install a CCTV camera in my house and then put together a video montage of clips of me running from the kettle, or running from the toilet with my trousers around my ankles, or running from the shower with a towel around my head like Carmen Miranda – each time looking sweaty and panicked – as some bright idea strikes me.
Gavin Corbett’s latest novel, Green Glowing Skull, is published by Fourth Estate
Christine Dwyer Hickey
At the moment I am living a journeyman’s life, travelling around from event to interview and back again, dragging my book behind me. This is always the way when a writer has a new novel out, and how I long for a return to normality. For me this usually consists of four hours’ work a day – more than enough, in my opinion. The rest goes on behind the scenes of my mind, and I find the less I think about it away from my desk, the more of it comes flooding out when I sit back down.
And so that’s 10 am and a mountain of toast and tea. Then a break for an hour and a return to my desk for a second hour, with coffee and another plate of bribes to keep me going. Then a walk by the river, where I find the sound and movement of water help get the words flowing, and in the right direction. After lunch I put in another hour, then have a little rest and a read of something that is purely for pleasure. One final hour before calling it a day of either writing or, if needs be, research. This can be reading and taking notes in a school copybook (I have hundreds of them by now) or it can be a drawing of one of the characters – but never their faces: I don’t want to know exactly what they look like. I work six days a week and take one day off unless I’m really immersed in a novel, when I forget to cross off the hours.
Christine Dwyer Hickey’s new novel, The Lives of Women, is published by Atlantic Books
Before I began to write I used to think that I needed to create an ideal setting, involving huge blocks of dedicated time. What rubbish that was. Basically, I grab any bits of time I can. It all adds up in the end. Best-case scenario is that during the week I write from about 8.30am – okay, it’s more of a “be started by 9am” thing – until lunchtime, then pick it up again in the evening for a few hours. At weekends writing is more if and when. I would always have said that I don’t have any rituals, until I realised that, guess what, I do. Writing rules, I call them. Or, on those days when nothing goes according to plan, wronging rules. They’re fairly standard-issue:
Hair and teeth must be brushed.
No PJs, tatty sweatpants or anything I’d be reluctant to go farther than the bins in: when I feel scruffy I write scruffy.
Thick socks always, fingerless gloves sometimes. (I have Raynaud’s syndrome and cold hands and feet hurt. A lot.)
Coffee in my Eric Morecambe mug.
I can usually answer the phone and check emails without breaking my concentration, but no music, no radio and, preferably, no people.
Henrietta McKervey won the 2015 First Fiction Hennessy Literary Award. Her debut novel, What Becomes of Us, is published by Hachette
I don’t write every day, but when I do write it’s at night. I need calories to work, so if I’m writing in the evening I’ll eat a massive pizza. But I generally do my best work between 11pm and 3am, so I’ll boil an egg, make a sweet tea and keep myself going like that. I once spent eight consecutive nights working on the final paragraph of a story, staying up till 5am. Each night I ate a tub of Pringles and a giant bag of M&Ms. I’m worried that the next book will leave me obese.
I like to huddle up somewhere warm – against a radiator or under a blanket – with the laptop resting on a pillow on my lap. I read everything aloud, so I need to be on my own when I work. When I was trying to finish one story I got into a terrible argument with a girlfriend because I wouldn’t let her stay over. At my front door, at 1am, I scooted her out into the cold, wet night, and she said to me, “Seriously, are you really doing this?”
I nodded my head slowly and said, “It would appear so.”
And then I closed the door on her.
I still feel dreadful about the incident. Indeed, a crucial part of the writing process is mastering what the poet Billy Ramsell calls the gentle art of inflicting disappointment. It seems I still have some way to go.
Thomas Morris’s debut collection of short stories, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, will be published by Faber & Faber in August
I don’t really have any writing rituals. I used to go for a walk before I started work, which was a nice way to clear my head. Now I work in town, so I have a stress-filled cycle, dodging taxis and Luases, instead. I’m not sure it makes any difference to the work.
I’d be wary of getting too attached to a ritual or a special pen or any kind of magical totem, in case it got taken away. The one article of faith I have is Woody Allen’s line that 80 per cent of success is showing up. Writing a novel is a long road, and the only chance you have of getting to the end is to show up doggedly at your desk every day. Even if you’re sick or hungover, even if it’s one of those days your brain feels totally empty, you’ll usually find that once you get to the desk something will happen and the wheels will start to turn. Keep showing up and keep redrafting. As Hemingway said, the first draft of anything is shit. Often the second and third draft, too. Everything sucks till it’s good. Keep showing up until that happens. Other than that, clearing your head at the end of the day is important. Walking is fantastic for this. Running is like walking – only quicker.
Paul Murray is the author of Skippy Dies. His third novel, The Mark and the Void, will be published by Hamish Hamilton in July
I live on a sea-front; my desk is positioned to face it. I watch the tide rise and fall or fall and rise, depending on the day. I always work on the most important thing in the morning. In the afternoon, I dwindle, coax myself through the hours with snacks. Often times, a jar of honey stands open on my desk, a spoon. I buy the set sort to slow myself down. I never count words or hours, which is, perhaps, a bad thing, and I listen to the radio incessantly, which probably isn’t great either. Walking is definitely a ritual, for my benefit as much as for the dogs, for thought as much as for exercise. They know the sound my computer makes when I send it to sleep; they leap up and go to fetch their leads. When I’m away from my desk, I always long to be back again; when I’m at my desk, I always long to be elsewhere. In the evening, I reward myself with reading, or just give in, and read anyway.
Sara Baume is the author of Spill Simmer Falter Wither, published by Tramp Press
When I started out, I was working in restaurants and would get home after midnight. I got into a habit of doing an hour or two of writing then, as a way to decompress and distract myself and straighten things out in my head. I’ve stuck with it since then. Ideally, I’d think about what I wanted to do in the evening, get going at 10pm and would write until four in the morning. There are advantages to working when everybody else is asleep. The phone doesn’t ring, shops are closed, there’s nobody to talk to. Menial tasks, which during the day seem urgently attractive in comparison to writing, cannot be done in a house full of sleeping people. Distractions are fewer. There’s always the internet, but you have to find ways of avoiding it.
I’m naturally a night person. I think more clearly towards the end of the day. Apart from a hum of anxiety, there is nothing in my head in the mornings. Or the afternoons. I can get things done, but whatever creative or imaginative energy I have seems to emerge when everything else shuts down. If I get to whatever target I’ve set, I sleep extremely well.
Chris Binchy’s latest novel Five Days Apart was published by Harper Collins in 201. He is the 2015 Arts Council writer-in-residence at the School of English, Drama and Film in UCD.
I wrote full time for twelve years and produced four novels. People asked whether I was disciplined, but really it was just habit. There was always a certain amount of preliminary arsing, then I started each day at one, and turned on Drivetime at five and had lunch. I had no TV or internet in my apartment. I was given a smartphone, which I would post into my mailbox downstairs. I wrote until the job was done – until the word count was reached or the requisite amount of pages edited. That depended on what stage I was at. First drafting was terrifying and I could only stick it for a few hours. Final drafting meant a gun to your head so I'd work into the small hours. It was hard but peaceful.
Yes, I am writing this in the past tense. I became a mother in 2012. Everything is different. I would be lying if I said I had cracked it. I have a part-time job now, which makes it harder again to write. If I whip out my laptop, the boy goes kkkkkkkkkkkkkjukhhhhhhhhhhhhh on the keyboard (he's a genius). That said, I have tentatively started putting sentences together during his naps. Early days, but we'll see.
Claire Kilroy’s latest novel, The Devil I Know, was published by Faber and Faber in 2013.
The first draft of a novel can spawn words, ideas, paragraphs and scenes in an unnerving, disorderly way. It grows and grows and then there’s a tipping point, beyond which my poor frazzled brain can’t hold – or access – the whole thing. It’s literally too much for me.
My secret weapon is: file cards. I’m talking about those packs of index cards you can buy in different colours and sizes for about €1. I sit down with the draft and assign one scene to each card, with a very brief description. I spread them on the kitchen table or tack them to a corkboard and sit with them. Some cards suggest images, events, ideas or fresh scenes. I make cards for those as well, adding more as the draft grows and changes. Every now and then I take them out and shuffle them to see how they might work in a different order. If there are two or three versions of the same thing, they have to be cut or consolidated. If random possibilities present themselves, there might be a card with one word only: “party” or “funeral”.
I do this with later drafts too. It’s a physical, spatial version of cut-and-paste. In pre-PC days I used to cut drafts into separate paragraphs and move them around until I arrived at a structure that worked. The advantage over an electronic cut-and-paste option is that you can see everything at once – if your kitchen table is big enough.
Lia Mills’s latest novel Fallen was published in 2014 by Penguin Ireland.
Up early, hurry downstairs to organise breakfast and school lunch, the dog and I standing in the kitchen chewing our toast and thinking about the day ahead. After the school walk it’s back to the desk, coffee in hand, phone turned off, bucket of rotten apples placed under the desk. Well, no, that was Schiller. My equivalent is music, the same dully obsessive playlist, tunes played 10 times a day, soul music, ghost music, the pieces chosen for emotional effect or because they have become associated with particular projects. Poetry, of course, refuses all rituals: show me your routines, your precious habits, your cherished ceremonies and sacraments, it laughs, and I’ll show you an empty page. Prose, on the other hand, is an entire civil service of strict demands: sit on that chair and monitor your inputs and outcomes, attain your daily goals or face perdition. There are allowable distractions – the odd squint at the web, reading, putting on a wash, coffee with the missus on the way home from school. And then the dog gets his way, and it’s time for the daily march along the canal, or by the Dodder or round the Iveagh Gardens, with maybe the germ of an idea for accompaniment, before the rush back to the non-blinking cursor (disabling the blink is a proud achievement) and a giant green mug of tea.
Peter Sirr’s most recent collection of poems is The Rooms, was published by Gallery Press. His first novel for children, Black Wreath, was published by the O’Brien Press in 2014.
I am easily distracted, so always sit with my back to the window. Other rituals help. An apple to my left, enormous mug of lemon tea to my right, hot water bottle on my lap. I touch my talisman - an amethyst for good luck. Read a poem for guidance. Holub. Milosz. Then I am ready to fall into the world of the children’s novel I am working on.
It’s not always easy. I pause for long periods to think, dream - pull at my hair. The dog replaces the hot water bottle, nestles for a while on my knees as I type, before the gate clinks, signaling the postman. He leaps downstairs. A barking chaos follows.
Undeterred by the noise, the story somehow edges its way further into the world. The day is bright. I head for the canal - swans and high, swaying reeds - my desk far behind. But the walk surprises me, beats lines for a new poem in my head and I memorise them, will scribble them down later. At home, in the evening, I go over my day’s work – become its first critic. In the morning, if I’m lucky, I’ll begin all over again.
Enda Wyley’s Borrowed Space, New and Selected Poems was published 2014. She was elected to Aosdána in March 2015.
Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless, published by Bloomsbury Circus