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 edition, philosopher and author Damon Young shares a typical day and his thoughts on the precarious nature of writing for work, the benefits of discipline, and attending writers festivals as an introvert.
Damon Young is a philosopher and author with a wheelhouse spanning titles on How to Think About Exercise and The Art of Reading, to children’s books including My Mum is a Magician. Hopping between genres proves to enrich his work overall – ‘My literary life is much richer writing children’s books.’
But beneath this dynamic to-and-fro between genres is the administrative reality of being a writer.
‘The routine of the writer isn’t just writing, unfortunately. There’s writing and then releasing, which is part of the calendar.’
It’s this very movement between activities that sustains his work. ‘Having lots of different projects on the go keeps me mentally balanced,’ he admits.
Having lots of different projects on the go keeps me mentally balanced.
‘If I have spent a week writing philosophy, that can be exhausting and it’s actually nice to have a break and do interviews or administrative tasks that don’t ask as much mentally. At the same time, after doing a lot of press, performance or administrative stuff, it’s quite nice to withdraw into research or reading or working on arguments or analysis.’
While this dance between projects can help a writer sustain energy for their craft, from a time management perspective, such a juggle can seem mysterious. How does a writer, philosopher and children’s book author manage a plethora of conflicting deadlines?
‘The trick is knowing which time to be led by at any particular moment – your own writerly rhythms, or those of publishers and editors.’
Letting internal deadlines or motivations come to the fore when external deadlines appear more pressing is an art. Young suggests taking a closer look at what’s in your journals, what you’re reading, what music you’re listening to, and even what Netflix you’re watching.
‘Sometimes reflecting on your daily writing routines is a good way of figuring out what is moving you at any given time – we can also pick up cues from the conversations we’re having, and the material we’re attracted to.’
From daily life in Hobart with his wife Ruth Quibell and family, to thoughts on idleness and introversion, Damon Young shares his philosophies and encounters with the writing life.
A Day in the Life
My routine is regulated by the rhythm of the kids. My writing day begins at 9 o’clock after they are dropped at school.
There are various transition points in a working day and one of those is having a shower, brushing teeth, putting on clothes, and transforming into the public adult who will then do things in the world. It takes a lot of time, so there are some mornings when Ruth will take the kids to school and I’ll go straight to my desk and write.
But as a rule, I like the regularity of treating writing as just another work day – like everyone else I get up, have breakfast, shower and get dressed and go say hello to other human beings and pretend to be part of the commonwealth of niceties.
I like the regularity of treating writing as just another work day – like everyone else I get up…and pretend to be part of the commonwealth of niceties.
Most mornings I will either come straight home after dropping off the kids and sit at the computer typing, responding to emails, updating my website, or writing a blog – or I might go to a cafe for an hour, because I need to loosen my thoughts a little, explore a feeling or sharpen a perception, before coming home and building on what I have written.
Usually I write for a couple of hours and then have something to eat, chat with Ruth or go for a walk. Sometimes you just need to give your mind a little holiday, and for me exercise is a great way to do that.
I find setting myself disciplinary challenges, like going six months without dessert, quite clarifying. I can’t tell you that there is some causative link between not having dessert and writing well – there just isn’t – but maybe it’s this longing for order when there is a lot to do and things seem very complicated. It’s clarifying to be able to meet these simple, long term goals.
In the afternoon I print out what I have written and edit it, transcribe it, have something to eat again, chat to Ruth, and write for another two or three hours.
What I find myself doing is putting out masses of raw material and editing it, or worse still, deciding the whole project is crap and abandoning it. Later on I might use something I wrote and discarded, but at the time it’s just dead and I have no problem parting with it.
I might use something I wrote and discarded, but at the time…I have no problem parting with it.
Then I’ll pick the kids up and try to finalise anything I didn’t get done during the day. When the kids get home, I do a lot more administrative stuff – I can’t necessarily do the uninterrupted thinking or writing, but I can reply to emails and enquire after unpaid invoices.
Ruth and I have more flexibility and time together than people who work separate jobs or one partner works and one partner stays at home, but in terms of sustained time together that often happens when the kids go to bed.
If one of us is finishing a project, we may have to dedicate those last hours of the day to writing or research.
I don’t get my best work done at night, but I find it cycles around in the back of my head when I’m sleeping. Sometimes I’ll do a little work on a new chapter, scene or paragraph so my mind begins to work on it in my sleep. Then by the time I start the next day, I have more to say.
Sometimes it’s worthwhile for me to arrange things on my desk before bed to remind me where I’m at and what I’m working on the next day – it might be a print out of an essay I’m writing, or research materials that are relevant to the book or figurines that remind me of a scene in a novel. A lot of my job as a writer is setting up prompts around me to work my way into the mood I need to be – it seems completely superfluous and silly, but I respond well to that.
I always read in bed at night before eventually falling asleep.
Inside the Writing Process
On reading and note-taking habits…
I usually read two things at once and they are usually quite different – say fiction and nonfiction.
I read for various reasons – for research, for mood, for pleasure. Pleasure itself is various – sometimes it’s intellectual, sometimes it’s the pleasure of the language, sometimes it’s pure wish-fulfilment.
Often if I’m researching I spend an entire week reading and writing notes. I always handwrite notes as it helps me transform the writers’ ideas into my own language. I have a notebook dedicated to each project that I’m working on, which helps me compartmentalise what I’m doing.
On the push and pull of the gregarious introvert…
I feel most overwhelmed by writing when I’m dealing with the public side of it – festivals, radio and press interviews. For a writer, that stuff is good as it means people take your work seriously, and hopefully they’re buying it, but it’s exhausting.
I don’t think anyone gets into writing to perform on stage – most writers I know are immeasurably drained by the task, whether it’s a panel or a talk.
I don’t think anyone gets into writing to perform on stage – most writers I know are immeasurably drained by [it].
I really enjoy company, I’m quite gregarious and love meeting new people, so writers festivals are great in that way. But I sometimes have to be really brutal and not socialise and just sit by myself because I know I will feel better afterwards. It’s a classic introvert response – I feel replenished by solitude and quiet time.
Sometimes after a big festival I will take a week to recover. I’ll still be working, but I will be a shell for a while.
On the precarious nature of writing for work…
Even at its best, writing is always precarious. To have the same success in almost any other field would give you a stable income and some degree of control, but in writing, even people who are doing quite well are doing badly next to other professions.
I think a lot of aspiring writers think, ‘Oh, it will be different for me.’ I think especially for young, male, white, middle class writers, there is a sense of entitlement there – they think, ‘Well that’s other people, but I’ll be the one who makes a living out of this.’
So it’s really important for anyone who aspires to being a writer to be accustomed to the fact that either they’ll need a day job – in which case they won’t be able to give their work the time they want to – or they’ll never have as much money as their friends who went into, say teaching, let alone some of the higher paid professions.
I think it’s important not to romanticise that relative poverty, because the important thing is to do good work and not be a shit – support fellow writers, give them opportunities when you can, be generous to readers, and be a generous reader yourself. That is what matters.
The important thing is to do good work and not be a shit – support fellow writers, give them opportunities when you can, be generous to readers, and be a generous reader yourself.
On the fine balance between giving your all, but not taking it all personally…
Writing a piece or speaking to an audience is very personal and it can seem like your existence is at stake. Maybe vocationally it is, but for the readers or crowd, sometimes it’s just half an hour’s distraction or curiosity. They’re not investing nearly as much in it as you are. The anxiety or striving you put in can sometimes be debilitating, and they won’t even notice.
The answer isn’t to invest less, but to remember the stakes for the audience are sometimes not as high as they are for you. So I’m always trying to remember to lower my own emotional tone and not be so feverishly concerned with offering audiences an experience of a lifetime – if anything, trying to do that isn’t going to offer that grand experience, anyway.
On our mortality as the biggest 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 – so my answer would then be I don’t really know why I write so much.