Now that I’m free from exams, I’ve tried to turn my attention to writing again. As I said in my last post, I feel that time is getting on – I’m twenty-one, which is practically twenty-five, which is practically thirty, which is practically dead – and I really need to write The Novel before the drudgery of nine-to-five work shrivels up my brain and I lose the ability to produce anything beautiful or meaningful. The Novel is like the holy grail, which will save me from the all-consuming black hole of arts graduate unemployment. It will save me from having to make endless cups of tea and tidy cupboards in a grovelling attempt to scrabble my way up the career ladder. The Novel will produce a ten-book deal, a movie franchise and a series of action dolls, and leave me richer than the Queen (though that probably doesn’t require much these days). The problem is that my muse simply refuses to come. Every time I sit down in front of my computer to write, I decide that ‘oh I’m a bit too tired actually’ and end up doing what I always do, which is clicking through recipes I am never going to cook on BBC Good Food and pretending in my head I am eating them. Inspiration simply refuses to come. Hunger, shame and self-doubt, yes, but not inspiration.
My muse is like my cat when he’s got a mouse. Weird simile, I know, but that’s how I imagine it. The cat is my muse, the half-dead mouse is The Novel. I can see him in front of me, the tail hanging out of his mouth, attempting to meow but just going MMMMMMRRROOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHH like someone who’s just taken an overambitious mouthful of really hot soup, but every time I try to get close enough to extract the poor creature from his jaws he’ll growl and crawl backwards into a bush. Yep, my muse is hiding in a bush, and no matter how hard I shake a tub of Kitbits at it, I can’t get it to come out.
I think the problem is that the atmosphere in my room is all wrong. I need either a completely bare, whitewashed room in a dilapidated apartment somewhere in Victorian London, containing no furniture except a battered desk and chair because I’ve sold everything else to the pawnbroker to fuel my laudanum addiction, and where the wind whistling through the broken window pane exascerbates my rattling, consumptive cough – or else a cluttered, quirky independent coffee shop full of douchebaggy men in polo-neck jumpers pounding away at their netbooks to the sound of atmospheric jazz. There are lots of independent coffee shops here, but I don’t think they’d take too kindly to me squatting in their establishments without actually buying any coffee. Hey, I’m a student. We don’t buy things unless we have vouchers for them.
So I’ve been experimenting with different ways to create the perfect writing atmosphere, and I think I’m slowly starting to find what works for me. Every writer works differently, and everyone has his or her own little quirks that help to coax out that elusive muse. Here’s some of the factors I considered:
Song with words tend to be distracting. I wouldn’t want to produce a beautiful sentence, only to later make the humiliating discovery that it was in fact penned by Lady Gaga (and let’s face it, her lyrics are beautiful – what is the name of this club? So the greatest philosophers have asked for centuries). There may be some situations in which lyrics might be useful, though. If I were writing a bleak, cynical novel about the debasement of modern culture and the death of civilisation but was feeling a bit too cheery, for example, I might turn on Capital FM and listen to the latest fifteen-year-old rap sensation telling me about them sexy bitches getting dirty on the dancefloor, or whoever is the current tweenage spawn of the Disney Channel singing in a nasally voice about how going to the Year Eleven prom with Chad made her feel like a beautiful sparkly princess. This would be enough to make me lose faith in humanity once more.
I used to write exclusively to movie soundtracks (mainly the three Lord of the Rings soundtracks, which are incredible), but I’m starting to find those offputting too. When I’m writing a pretty pedestrian scene about my main character driving down the M25 to visit her mum (not that my novel solely contains scenes of such crippling mundanity) I don’t want to listen to the swelling, screeching crescendo as Shelob chases Sam and Frodo through her cave. Oh, or that bit of music that comes just after Aragorn says ‘friends, you bow to no one‘ and then everyone kneels to the hobbits in the third movie, because then I start crying to myself and it reminds me how I really need to get a life. Classic FM tends to be a good middle ground, though I’ve recently discovered Dinner Jazz on Jazz FM, which somehow sounds even better when I turn out the lights and light a candle. That leads me onto my next category…
I like low, romantic lighting when I’m writing: often just fairy lights and a flickering candle. It can’t be good for my eyes, and probably explains why I frequently try to pet the washing basket, eat my soup with a fork, and wave enthusiastically at people who have no idea who I am. It’s worth it for the mood that candlelight creates though – it feels magical and ethereal, as if anything could happen, which of course in the world of a novel it can. Incense and scented candles are very calming, too, and they make writing feel like a sacred ritual. For my room in London next year I’m going to buy an enormous scented Yankee Candle, which will also help with the fact my kitchenette is in the same room as my bed and desk, meaning everything is going to smell of salmon and garlic all the time. That can’t be inducive to creativity.
Food and drink
Caffeine is obviously a must; I am adamant if you don’t drink tea or coffee, you can’t be a writer, because there’s something horribly wrong about trying to produce a literary masterpiece while drinking a glass of squash. I usually lose count of how much tea I’ve drunk when I’m writing, but I try to stop before I start twitching/bouncing off the walls/rushing to the toilet every five minutes. Often, my obsessive caffeine consumption isn’t actually about keeping awake. It’s just comforting to see the mug sitting next to my laptop, emitting a friendly curl of steam to me know it’s there to comfort me if I ever feel the urge to faceplant my keyboard in despair. If I’m feeling particularly quaint, I’ll use proper tea leaves and a teapot, because tea tastes so much better when drunk from china (it’s science, innit).
Now, onto the important issue of food. If you’re an impoverished writer like Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, starving is a necessary requirement, but since I don’t inhabit a nineteenth-century Russian novel, and am in fact middle-class enough that I can afford to snack on goji berries and organic oat biscuits from Waitrose, it would be silly not to eat. The problem with snacking while writing is that it can be quite dangerous. My fingers, when they fail to produce words, automatically reach for the 2-for-£4 tub of M&S extremely chocolately mini-bites to compensate. Once in my first year of uni I unwittingly ate an entire bag of Percy Pigs whilst trying to write an essay, and before I knew it I was running up and down the corridor like a seven-year-old who has just eaten the entire chocolate cake from Matilda, in the middle of Disneyland, before being informed by messenger owl that she will be attending Hogwarts next year. It took a long time to calm me down.
I would advise, then, that you avoid too much artificial sugar. Fruit and nut mix is brilliant. I remember our art teacher in year ten told us off for chewing gum in her lesson, and said we should carry around a bag of nuts in our pocket instead to ‘nibble on throughout the day’. We all thought she was weird at the time, and any kid who offered around a bag of nuts in the playground at my school would probably have got ‘beats’, but she did have a point. I recently had a few Graze boxes delivered to my house, which are expensive but very exciting, because you never know which healthy snacks they’re going to give you. I definitely get a kick from the element of surprise – that’s how exciting my life is.
I believe it was Keats who said he had to get dressed up in his best shirt before he sat down to write. He also usually had to be off his face on drugs, but we won’t go there. Anyway, I understand why Keats had to get dressed up. When I spend an entire day in my dressing gown and slippers with greasy bush hair and yesterday’s makeup smeared all over my face (it doesn’t happen often, okay?) I don’t feel like a proper person. When I get up, get dressed and make an effort, I feel like my writing is work. Comfort is important too, however – I don’t want writing to feel too much like work, or it kills inspiration. I have a weird habit of wearing a hoody with the hood pulled up when I’m writing – it makes me feel cocooned in my own cosy little world where no one can disturb me. I’ve always wondered about themed clothing, too. Next time I’m writing a medieval fantasy action-adventure I might put on a pointy wizard’s hat or some elf ears and see if that helps me to feel fully immersed in my world, like the authorial version of method acting. Become the elf.
It’s the age-old debate: laptop or notepad? I won’t go into it here because it’s been done to death. I tend to opt for the laptop for speed and saving the trees and all that. I bought myself a notebook so that I can be a complete arse and sit alone with it and a latte in Starbucks, in a smarmy ‘I don’t need your company because I’m so absorbed in writing my novel’ kind of way (see the Family Guy ‘watch me type in public!’ sketch). I also cross out things a lot, so my notebooks end up looking very angry. Saying that, sometimes I do get an urge to write by hand – it does make you feel more writerly. In these cases, it is essential to find the perfect pen. A crappy biro that splutters ink all over the page and then runs out halfway through a vital sentence just won’t do. My personal preference is a black stainless steel Zebra pen: it feels sleek and smooth and fast, like an inky ninja in my hand. The perfect weapon for killing off a character…
If you’re writing by hand, getting the perfect notebook is also important. I’m a bit of a notebook hoarder – I buy them but then don’t want to ruin their lovely creamy pages with my second-rate writing. I’m a sucker for the Moleskine notebooks, which I know are a rip-off, but I don’t really care. I’m a mug, and the fact they whack ‘ERNEST HEMINGWAY AND PICASSO!!!’ on the packaging is enough to sell it to me. If I buy one, I’ll be a genius like them, right? Even if I just end up drawing smiley triangles wearing little bowler hats in the margins? Oh, and the lovely soft bendy leather covers… Is it weird that I want to stroke them? I wouldn’t go so far as saying that they turn me on, but, you know…
I thought it would be quite romantic to go out to the park, sit on a picnic blanket and write, but it was quite difficult when I tried. Firstly, I found myself needing the toilet after about five minutes, which meant I had to pack up all my stuff and trudge to the nearest manky public conveniences. Then, the wind picked up, making me regret my unfortunate choice of floaty skirt: it’s difficult to write with the pages blowing about everywhere, when one hand’s holding the pen and the other’s trying to prevent the exposure of my bum to the entire park. Then, I got molested by dogs and ducks, two types of animal I am convinced are pure evil (ever seen a group of ducks marching in a perfect line with a disconcerting air of purpose? I bet you have. As for dogs, they’re just slobbery, gross, overenthusiastic and far too fond of each others’ excrement). Then, a mother and her screaming child set up camp next to me. The problem with public spaces is precisely the word public. Other people are simply awful, and I should know, because I’ve worked in retail.
It would be nice if I could sit down and write whenever, wherever, in whatever conditions, without having to perform a series of bizarre pointless rituals, but in reality it’s just not possible. Even Shakespeare himself couldn’t have written a hit play whilst at the bus stop in a torrential downpour, or in the middle of a nursery full of wailing children, or (in a more Elizabethan-appropriate situation) languishing from bubonic plague in a rat-infested back alley of London. In every case, a little bit of coaxing is required to get the angry growling muse to drop the mouse – and even if it is a bit mangled and saliva-coated, at least it’s a start.