KYD Writers’ Workshop and Extraordinary Routines bring you a monthly column delving into the routines, writing habits, rituals, challenges and triumphs of a diversity of Australian writers. In this final edition, Madeleine Dore reflects on the lessons learned from a year of interviewing writers.
Meryl Streep once said her drive for acting stems from a curiosity about other people: ‘I’m interested in what it would be like to be you.’
It’s human curiosity to wonder how another person actually experiences their life beyond what we can simply imagine or empathise.
A few years ago I began interviewing people I admire about the specifics of their lives – how much sleep they needed, when they worked and for how long, how often they saw friends or managed a family, and what struggles they had to navigate to do creative work.
It was the same question – what would it be like to be you? – but for a long time I added an internal whisper: how can I be better, like you?
That very whisper was tied to the belief that there must be some secret to a person’s success, some habit or routine or recipe that made someone more capable, more prepared, more deserving of the work and the accolades that came with it.
Shortly after I began having these conversations, though, it became evident that there is no secret to being extraordinary. Rather, it’s the highly personal and relative ways individuals navigate the ordinary parts of their day that contain lessons on how creative work can be prioritised amongst countless distractions.
As Jen Cloher put it: ‘Everyone has the same fears, everyone has the same doubts, everyone has shit days, everyone feels like a fool, a phony. Everyone has a really great morning where they write something fantastic and then look at it later and think it is just rubbish. Everyone puts stuff out and worries that no one’s going to like it. We’re all the same. There’s no one out there just sitting down gallantly every morning and writing for eight hours and just clocking off. That person doesn’t exist.’
It’s not routines, habits or rituals that make a writer extraordinary – it’s simply doing the work.
For the past year I’ve turned the lens on my own craft. Bringing that same question – what would it be like to be you? – to local writers in this monthly column, it became even more evident that it’s not routines, habits or rituals that make a writer extraordinary – it’s simply doing the work. I heard writers discuss the importance of doing away with finding the perfect time or space to write and just writing – be it from bed, from a crowded desk or from an iPhone during a daily commute. Writers spoke about doing away with the notion that writers write all day, instead learning to place thinking on a pedestal. It gave me comfort to hear from writers who struggle without deadlines, or are late to rise, or feel socially anxious at writer’s events.
This year-long experiment of delving into the writing life revealed that there is no one way to live, or work, as a writer. Still, I found looking behind the scenes at how a dozen writers approach their day-to-day provided great comfort and inspiration, and I hope the collection of interviews can help provide the same in your own writing and daily life – and mostly, encourage you to be you.
Lessons from a year of interviewing writers
Be willing to face the uncomfortableness of writing and going into the unknown
‘We can talk about routine and all the things that we do to write, but really at the end of the day, all it comes down to is: are you willing to sit down and go through the pain of realising that you don’t know what you’re doing and that actually you’ll never know what you’re doing, and that writing is a huge unknown quantity?
‘It’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable sitting down and facing the fact that you don’t know. Writing is about going into the unknown. You don’t know what you’re going to write. You don’t know what’s going to come to you on a given day. You can try and focus in on things and have all of these sorts of tools and ideas, but at the end of the day it’s about discipline.’
– Jen Cloher
It’s uncomfortable sitting down and facing the fact that you don’t know. Writing is about going into the unknown.
People aren’t doing as much as you think
‘I think that’s the really interesting thing about social media – this common misconception that you’re always everywhere, and you’re always available. People feel your presence, but really 95 per cent of the time I’m at home … I think for a lot of writers, to get books out, we have to lock ourselves away at work.’
Saying no to others can be self-preservation
‘There’s that pressure that saying no to something is going to destroy your career, but really, saying no is going to preserve yourself. I put less of that pressure on myself now and trust myself with my work enough to know that I can get more work if I need to. People are not going to be like, “Who are you? We forgot about you because you didn’t write an article every week for a year,” if you take a break and recharge.’
Procrastination is part of the process
‘I’m a massive procrastinator, but also someone who will think about a piece – whether it’s a poem or an essay or a short story – so much that by the time I go to write it down on the page I’ve already done a lot of the editing process while I’ve been doing the shopping or cleaning out the studio.
‘I think a large part of working out how to do this full-time is realising that there is no point in having dead writing time. If I haven’t thought enough about something in my head and I haven’t conceptualised it enough, what I put on the page is not likely to be brilliant. It’s taken me a long time to see there is a strong point in going for a long walk, getting some fresh air, and actually deciding, okay, for this half an hour that I’m going for a walk I can think about how I can write this story.’
– Maxine Beneba Clarke
Everyone experiences middle-of-the-night-existential-envy
‘I don’t feel envious of other people’s success because I have had a beautiful life. It would be ungracious of me to feel those things, but I suppose like any human being, I wake up at three o’clock in the morning sometimes and I think, why is he or she getting all this attention? Why do I open up the Monthly or the Saturday Paper or the New York Review of Books and find XYZ is interviewed, when XYZ can’t write to save his or her life? Why is he or she world famous, and no one is paying attention to me? Of course I do, of course I wake up and think those things, who doesn’t?
‘But as one writer said to me; even for world famous writers, it is not enough. It is never enough. It doesn’t matter how much attention you are getting, it’s never enough. We all want more attention at three o’clock in the morning.’
Most days feel more like a blur than a mastered routine
‘I feel as if I live inside a blur sometimes. I must spend time answering emails and commissioning and on the phone to people and rewriting copy. I must spend some time reading other news sources. I must spend time making decisions about the paper’s branding and the paper’s position and what we’re pursuing on a commercial or reader side and what we’re pursuing editorially. I often turn around and wonder what it is I’ve actually done, but the paper ends up being there at the end of the week, so presumably, I’m doing something.’
I often turn around and wonder what it is I’ve actually done, but the paper ends up being there at the end of the week, so presumably, I’m doing something.
Don’t fight your personality tendencies
‘The biggest gift of my life was understanding that I was an introvert. For years I wouldn’t understand why I was so exhausted after doing something that was my passion. After a Women of Letters event, I would be so hard on myself about socially isolating myself or feel I was being rude for needing to be alone afterwards.
I eventually understood how emotionally exhausting it is for me being around big groups of people or people I don’t know. I realised I need time on my own as a self-nurturing thing. It’s really, really important and I am ferocious about maintaining that too.’
Find your prime time
‘I know I think best first thing in the morning, so I’m frustrated with myself if I mess around because the best thing for me is to start immediately. I’m not someone who can go and take a break for a few hours and come back in the afternoon, as I know I won’t be at my best.
‘I think the challenge is to find out when your brain does its best work. Not just during the day, but even during the week. I have a friend, for example, who looks after her elderly mother-in-law on a Wednesday, and she’s completely drained on a Thursday. There’s no point in her trying to put creative stuff on that Thursday.
‘So don’t try and force yourself to do it when it’s not coming. Work out the times in your schedule when you’re most creative and you’re most alert. For me, it is first thing in the morning. For a lot of people I know, it is the last thing at night.’
Trust that the creativity will come and give it space
‘Working on lots of different things at once is the best way for my brain to operate. The worst writer’s block I’ve ever had was years ago when I only had one job – I was so stuck.
I’ve learned that if the creativity is not coming to you for a project, then do something else and trust that it will get done another time. During all the Mondays that I worked from home for the festival, not all of them were fruitful in the creative sense. But I was confident that I needed time away from the back-to-back meetings to sit on with the grid and go, “What is this? What do I want to say? What do I want it to be?” You cannot find the thoughts if you’re booked at 10am, 12pm, 2pm and 4pm in meetings.’
– Marieke Hardy
Don’t put yourself on the backburner
‘There is this guy, George, who comes to my gym, who is 6’5” – he’s a really imposing looking guy, but he’s an angel. I mentioned to George I had been trying to get back into my own creative work and so he bailed me up by the cable rack one morning and gave me this little motivational speech and told me how he gets up at 4.30am to fit in everything he wants to do in a day. In the end he said, mega sincere, “Mate, when you put your project on the backburner, you’re putting yourself on the backburner”.’
Success doesn’t exclude sadness
‘I feel really proud of what I’ve accomplished, but I feel a little bit lonelier too. There may have been some friendship fallouts because of what I’ve been working on – not through anything I’ve done personally, but perhaps because of the way people have perceived my work, so it is difficult to navigate that.
There is enough pie for everyone, enough time and space for everyone, we can’t all write or do activism work in the same way.
‘Tall poppy syndrome is real – I’m sure I probably reacted similarly in the past, but now whenever someone tells me about their success or their great news, I’m so excited for them and I hope people would be like that for me. There is enough pie for everyone, enough time and space for everyone, we can’t all write or do activism work in the same way.’
Completing a goal doesn’t equal feeling successful
‘I was talking about what success means and all of that with my brother a couple of years ago. He was telling me about how after he submitted his PhD he just felt totally lost and was like, “Well, what do I do with my life now?” because he was so focused on the end goal.
‘He was telling me he learned it wasn’t about the goal necessarily. You should have goals in mind, but at the end of the day, the process is the most important thing. It’s a real privilege to be doing what we do. You should be focusing on how you get the project done and that’s what should be fulfilling, as opposed to the end product.’
Mortality can be a great motivator
‘Honestly, the reason I write so much is a constant anxiety and horror of death – this sense that I am constantly running away from doom. It feels like I am harried by existence and need to write. That’s how I feel, but someone else could say when you’re harassed you’re paralysed and don’t write.’
Anything good takes a long time
‘You don’t get cheat sheets in life – everything takes as long as a book. Everything takes years to figure out, years to master. I like playing the long game with my art and with myself, and sometimes you have to go off grid and off the clock and let things develop slowly.’