Our own Lauren Johnson (author, historian and editor of this here blog) takes us through the reality of a day in the life of a writer…
A day in the life of a writer sounds pretty exciting. If you’re like me aged 12 you probably picture dusty garrets, inglenook fireplaces and a quilt-covered heroine nibbling meditatively on a quill pen while writing The Next Great Work of History. Basically a cross between Jo March, Sir Walter Ralegh at the Tower of London and Carrie Bradshaw during those episodes in Paris.
The reality is rather more prosaic. Essentially my day boils down to ‘get up, eat, try to write, eat, try to write some more, eat, try to sleep’ with varying degrees of success at all of these tasks. Except eating. I always accomplish that one. And while I do occasionally have to bundle myself up in a slanket (the modern woman’s patchwork quilt) it’s usually because I’m too much of a skinflint to put the heating on, since writing is not all that lucrative a profession.
That’s also the reason I so consistently look like a survivor of a dystopian future – knitwear piled on thermals piled on boots, topped off with an enormous scarf. Well, that and the fact that when you spend your entire day inside your own head, the exterior of your body starts to diminish in importance.
So, a day in the life begins: having had my breakfast (ESSENTIAL TO THE PROCESS) I sit at my desk, in my ergochair – seriously, if you spend hours in a stress position like I do, you must get one of these, they will save your spine – and start to write. Ha, ha. Only kidding. I actually just stare at what I wrote the day before with mounting desperation, horror and frustration. Having realised that I am, at best, an idiot and, at worst, illiterate I then try to form up the reams of notes I have collated over the past several months into a structured, interesting chapter of a book.
The process here is pretty much the same whether I’m writing non-fiction (So Great a Prince, a history of the first year of Henry VIII’s reign) or historical fiction (The Arrow of Sherwood, a C12th origin story of Robin Hood). The only difference really is the degree to which I extrapolate and interpret – and the absence or presence of imaginary characters. Non-fiction rather frowns on made up people, for obvious reasons.
After a few hours of this, when I am clearly incapable of forming sentences and have sat starting at a blank page for twenty minutes, it is time for lunch (ESSENTIAL TO THE PROCESS). Since I usually write at home, lunch is had slumped in front of the telly with a laptray of soup (I told you it wasn’t glamorous).
Then back to the grindstone – for a little while. After four years of writing, I have come to know the patterns of my working brain pretty well and unfortunately one of them is that shortly after lunch I will have a good two hours of complete and utter stupidity. Genuinely, I can barely stay awake, never mind write. During this ‘brain-dead time’ I try my hardest to do something that is good for my otherwise-ignored body, like move it on a walk or put it in the gym or take it to meet some other bodies with brains attached – sorry, I mean, friends. Because as guilty as I may feel at this protracted break there is resolutely no point trying to plough through the brain-dead time. It just leaves me tired and achey. (Breaks? ESSENTIAL TO THE PROCESS).
Once my brain activity is slightly restored I assume the stress position once more, stare at my laptop and write for another two or three hours, finishing for supper (you guessed it, ESSENTIAL TO THE PROCESS) at about 7 or 8. Once I’m done in the evening, that’s it for me. I close the door on my writing and do something else for the night. Treating writing like a job rather than a hobby you should feel constantly guilty for not indulging is as important as any other habit I’ve learnt. If it’s a job you know that you have to do it every day, but you also know you have to have an occasional holiday and take the evening off. I don’t usually set myself a word count for the day. I prefer to have a specific narrative end point I want to reach: ‘I can’t finish until I’ve written this section about bears’ or whatever. (Yes, there is a section about bears in my history book.)
The evening is often spent alone, since after 12 hours of solitude I am not great company. Writing all day does weird things to both your eyesight and your brain. Despite having occasionally written some fairly decent sentences during the day – with words and commas and everything! – by evening I find myself incapable of human speech. It’s like my tongue has forgotten how to form words. My fingers, meanwhile, twitch. All in all it doesn’t make for a very active social life. ‘Shall we invite Old Squinteyes McTwitch out for a pint?’ ‘You know she’ll just sit in silence and occasionally utter malformed sentences.’ ‘Let’s ask anyway.’ Unfortunately, having forgotten how to speak, I am unable to accept the invitation.
In any case, in the last phases of writing-up, socialising with modern, living human beings starts to seem like a mad distraction from the 500-year-past existence in which you’re living, 16 hours a day. Even when you’re not writing or reading, you’re thinking about the world of your work. It’s like having a really weird new boyfriend. It becomes an obsession.
And what no one ever tells you about having your writing published – which is, after all, the ideal end result of all this effort – is that it means it’s finished. Over. Norwegian blue. When people say ‘kill your darlings’ this is why. Because whether you kill them in rewrites or your editor does in proofs or your deadline forces their destruction, those darlings are going to get it. Once the writing’s no longer your private scribbles but a printed, public book the work is – in a very real way – dead. You can’t change the structure. You can’t add in that conversation between your imaginary characters. You can’t correct the stupid mistake you made on p.197 and have only just noticed. The book, baby, is finito. And that is a very weird, curiously sad state of affairs. When I wrote the last chapter of So Great a Prince, looking beyond the year of 1509 (where I’d been living for 18 months) to four decades of turbulence and change in the country I had so lovingly recreated I genuinely felt like crying. All these figures who had been so real in my imagination – who were real, and exist in paper form for anyone to read about – were dispensed with in a few sentences. Bye bye, Alice Middleton. Farewell, Thomasine Percyvale and your blue-saddled horse. Hasta la vista, William Compton. Writing the end of that book was a form of mini-bereavement.
So that’s a day in the life of a writer for you. Frustration, excitement, obsession, boredom, unduly belated grief. And then, if you’re lucky, you get up and do the whole thing again, swaddled in knitwear and biscuit crumbs.
Roll on, Book Three…