It’s a week since I returned from Australia and my amazing residency at Varuna. I had expected to blog each week about the experience, but I quickly found my stride and instead, the writing took over. Which, to be fair, was the point – but of course, I had to berate myself a little for being slack and not checking in on my blog. The famous inner critic was in full flow.
I’ve learned over time to accept this element of the creative brain – I think the inner critic is the part that makes us strive to improve, so it’s wholly necessary. The problem is, the inner critic is unreliable and you have to learn when to tune in. In this particular instance, I let it ramble on in the background about blogs (blah blah), taking no notice whatsoever of its words. I needed its guidance for my work only.
Last time I checked in, I was waiting for my structural edits and wondering where the rest of the residency would take me. Well, I received my edits and so the other three weeks of my time at Varuna consisted of writing for ten hours a day at my desk, and walking for between two and four hours in the Blue Mountains National Park. It was, after all, a mere ten minutes away and absolutely stunning. And ten hours is a long time to be sat with your characters and inner critic, trying to puzzle out the problems you’ve created.
As for the nights, it’s winter in Australia, and the darkness draws in at 5pm. So the evenings were spent reading and chatting with fellow writers, or doing a bit extra editing. But mainly reading as chatting, as I’m not great at night if I’ve been working all day and it usually has a negative impact on the following day if I push too far. But as a result, I edited my entire 80K word manuscript, except for the last three chapters; these I kept for my return as I needed to look at them with fresh eyes.
Writing is not just about trusting your instincts when it comes to plot, characters, and dialogue etc. It’s also about understanding your process and getting the best from yourself – which means balance and working smart. For instance, I was always a morning person, doing my best work at 6am, but recently, I’ve realised this has changed. Whether its practice, or living in the countryside where natural light and weather affect you more, or age, or the fact that I’ve been outside of an office job for seven years now and am finding my own rhythm, something has changed.
It may seem self indulgent to spend time thinking about this, but what’s the point of doing something you love, and working to your own schedule, if you’re going to make it stressful by turning your working day into a battle of your own creation? So while I was on the other side of the world, I decided to take a look at my process and figure out what’s happening. Here’s what I’ve learned:
- I can write at any time, not just morning, but only at night if I haven’t already been working all day
- Five hours is my preferred amount of time for productive writing (after all, I have to fit work in also)
- Eight hours writing is my usual limit (unless on deadline), otherwise it impacts negatively the next day
- My writing hours need to be broken up – I need to do other things in between to maintain focus (gardening, freelance, reading, dog walks, bodhran, chores)
- I can write as much as I like in a day, but I’m only happy with my achievements if I’ve also spent enough time outdoors
- If I do shorter bursts of writing, I can listen to music at the same time
- Socialising is a positive aspect that balances the solitary nature of writing
- A day off a week is a good thing
- Sometimes, none of the above works and I need to go with what’s right for that moment
If you looked at your writing routine, what would you find? And can you see where it could be improved (this could be in terms of carving out writing time, or for your sanity and well being)? I guess my main revelation was that my need to exercise and be outdoors is as strong as my need to write. I also need to spend more time with friends. This means looking at my day differently and adopting a new routine. It might not work, but I’m ready to try…
Yesterday, I finally pressed send on my edits. Since returning, I rewrote the final chapters of The Book of Revenge, removed the Epilogue (which may yet return) and reread several times to make sure I was happy. And guess what? It’s still as nerve-wracking as the first book. I don’t think that will ever change.
But now, it’s time to switch off and head to Listowel Writers’ Week where I’m doing a Time Travel event with the wonderful Alan Early, and then a writing workshop based on the five senses. It’s a great festival, so I’m excited! If you’re there, give me a shout on twitter @ERMurray. Otherwise, I’ll see you on the other side, new routine in place.
How about you? Is it time to try a new approach?