A Day in the Life of a Writer

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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.

Carrie Bradshaw 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.

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Al fresco writing, prolonging the pre-brain-dead-phase a little longer.

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…

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A Day in the Life: Food Historian, Dr Annie Gray

Annie GrayIn this Day in the Life we hear from food historian and star of Victorian Bakers, Dr Annie Gray.

No two days are the same for me. I spend a few days each month at home, prepping lectures, researching, writing articles, or writing up reports, but I can rarely predict the exact pattern of any week before I get there. That said, I’m writing a book in 2016, so I’ll have to get used to long periods of staring at a computer screen, interspersed with tea-making and fridge-raiding. This, therefore isn’t a typical day, but it is a day and there will be several like it in any given month. More than any other type of day, anyway.

I’m obsessed with food. That goes both for the history of food and its place in the modern world. Let’s face it, history is just the present after we’ve skipped on a few years anyway. Everything I do is concerned with food, history, and public communication. It’s rare that my talks or media work are aimed at an academic audience anymore, and as a result, I have to always be aware that a lot of the people who will be listening to me won’t have the foggiest idea of the social scene in 1830, or who George III was. With media work, especially, most viewers or listeners primarily want to be entertained. They may be looking to learn something as well, but if what they see or hear is tedious, they will just switch off and go and do something else. (The same is true of live interpretation, but more brutal, as people just walk away). So when I’m researching or writing, I am always looking for a hook, a ‘wow’ moment which will make people engage. Once they are listening and interested, then we can explore the wider issues – but otherwise it’s blank faces all round.

I get up around 8am. To paraphrase Garfield, I hate mornings and they hate me. I try and go for a half-hearted jog most mornings, or I might do an hour of gardening. Anything to get me out of the house and in the fresh air. I love my garden, I’m enthusiastic rather than skilful, and I take the view that once I’ve planted and watered a few times, it’s up to the plants themselves to show that they want to live. Mainly I grow historic things – produce I can’t buy easily, but which is useful for historic cooking. I’ve got a barberry, a couple of apple varieties, clary sage, comfrey, salsify and a massive patch of Jerusalem artichokes which, for obvious reasons, we’re not allowed to eat on a school night. If it’s blackberry season, I might cycle instead, with my bike panniers full of plastic containers ready to pick pints and pints of blackberries, so I can later make jam, or indeed, just gorge on them.

Once I’ve had copious amounts of coffee, food, and a hot shower, I can just about deal with the day. I usually do admin for an hour before I get going – the nitty gritty of freelance work, such as chasing invoices, replying to emails and checking Twitter. I occasionally blog, if I have anything interesting or pertinent to say, and I get asked for recipes quite a lot if I’ve done something particularly fine on the tv, so I might scribble a paragraph or two and post them online.

By 10.30am I am usually into the day proper. Depending on what exactly I’m up to, I might spend some time racing up and down stairs to get books, which are all over the house. If I’m writing a lecture, I’ll plan it all out and then start scanning or photographing books for PowerPoint pictures, or if I’m researching for The Kitchen Cabinet (the Radio 4 show I am part of, and which I utterly adore doing), I’ll divide up my piles of books by topic and start methodically looking for cool facts and interesting slants which will fit with the nature of the programme. I usually cook a dish for TKC, and I’ll liaise with the producer to make sure whatever I decide on will work with whatever the other panellists are planning. We don’t have a script, but we are briefed on the main topics we will be covering – usually something seasonal, something regional, and something else. I’ve got a reputation for bringing fairly outlandish things, and the odd time I manage something which everyone finds delicious is usually greeted with cheers.

Kitchen Cabinet

I break for lunch at about 1pm. Or, indeed, 12pm if I’m struggling to get going. Or 4pm if I’m on a roll. I might nip off the shops if I have to cook something that afternoon, or I might do some more gardening if I haven’t done any that morning. If it’s welting it down and all I want to do is huddle, then I’ll watch something mindless on catch up. The are always a few episodes of CSI hanging about, or I might see what’s on Amazon Prime. I’m not a big TV watcher – I prefer to get lost in a good book, but if I’ve been reading all day, it’s nice to do something different. I always have a cooked lunch, eggs or a hash or reheated leftovers. I lived in France as a teenager, and I think that two square meals a day (breakfasts in France are, to be fair, a bit poor, but then they eat lunch very early) and no snacking, is a good thing to aim at. (Though, see above for fridge-raiding – all the best resolutions crumble under the weight of a good Stilton).

After lunch I’ll get on with whatever the afternoon holds. I might cook that Kitchen Cabinet dish, or I might continue to do desk-based research. If I’m lecturing that evening or the next day, I might have to get costume ready, or even demo kit if I am doing a demonstration. Equally if I have a talk and tasting coming up, I’ll have to prep all of that. I have a separate store and workroom for my historic cooking gear – I try and keep work and home delineated so that I can attempt to have a life when I’m not working.

Victorian Bakers

My partner usually gets home around 7pm, and I’ll often pick him up from the station. It signals the end of the working day for me, and we’ll cook dinner together while putting the world to rights. We plan all of our meals, and have both a modern and a historic cookbook every month, from which most of our evening meals are chosen. It means I get to experiment with my kind of food, and we also use our ever-increasing collection of modern cookery books as well. So dinner could be anything from a pressure cooked sausage stew, to a partridge and ham pudding, or a simple (but artful) eggs and spinach recipe from the 18th century.

After dinner we’ll either read or watch something on TV. We’re currently working our way through the Montalbano box set, and we also have French TV, which usually has some hard hitting documentary on food scandals on, or perhaps the French version of The Great British Bake Off, or Top Chef, both of which are (unintentionally) hilarious, but go on for three hours. At some point we’ll lose the will to live and go to bed. Or, of course, I could be somewhere in a B&B halfway across Britain, drinking whisky after an evening’s hard work. As I said, I don’t really have typical days.

 

You can read more about Annie Gray here, or catch up with Victorian Bakers (BBC2).

@DrAnnieGray

AnnieGray.co.uk