Show Your Working is a monthly column exploring how some of our favourite writers get things done. This month, we take a peek at the desk of Chris Fleming, Associate Professor in Humanities at Western Sydney University and author of On Drugs, out now from Giramondo.
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What does your workspace look like?
My workspace is a mare’s nest of guitars, books, posters, and (dangerously unstable) furniture. I’ve tried minimalism over the years and I think it makes me nervous. I don’t have a maximalist ethos, though – perhaps more a magpie ethos: I just can’t stop piling things up. I don’t tend to use lists; I use objects instead. It’s like a physical list I can’t ignore. I think I need a certain amount of visual noise to work, and when the office get too jammed, I just move to another table in another part of the house. I tend to write best in those places I usually write in – and yes, that’s circular: I’m a creature of habit. I used to write facing a window which looked onto the street, but what was happening on the street was often far more interesting than what I was supposed to be concerned with, so that didn’t really work out. I remember one time watching a pigeon for about half an hour; it wasn’t good for productivity.
Are you an analog or digital writer?
I almost always take initial notes via hand – in a collection of notebooks, each one dedicated to a particular project – and one notebook dedicated to no project in particular. I prefer to use grid paper. For some reason I tend to write talks or lectures out by hand, but when it comes to books and other published pieces, work is always done on a word processor. I also use, where necessary, envelopes, margins of local papers, thick napkins, and the Notes app on Mac and iPhone. Well over half of the stuff I write gets lost or never gets looked at again. That’s probably a good thing.
Writing for me is always this particular state of transitioning, moving from writing what I know into articulating what I don’t.
What sort of software and hardware do you use to get your work done?
I wish I could be original here, but I just use the latest version of Microsoft Word on a 15” Macbook Pro. (But in answering this question I’m now wondering whether I should try out some other software.) In any case, it’s fine as far as I’m concerned – or rather, it’s the least of my worries. My remaining pet peeve is that I’m perpetually dissatisfied with my font. There’s some font out there that is perfect for me, but I haven’t found it yet. I also rave into my phone, using the Voice Memo function, especially when I’m driving. Sometimes I listen back to these and sometimes I don’t. For instance, on my way driving to the Blue Mountains Writers Festival, I recorded a voice memo to myself that went for about fifty minutes; when I looked at the time I thought ‘I’m never going to listen to that.’ And I haven’t.
Describe your writing practice?
I tend to be neither an early bird nor a night owl these days – I’m a mid-morning to middle-of-the-day writer, which used to be the worst time for me. Go figure. Early and late in the drafting process I can write and edit on trains and buses. I’ve always been looking for a ‘routine,’ but I’ve never found one. I just try to write when I can. As for planning where my writing is going, it’s admittedly one of the worst aspects of my practice, I think: organisation. It’s a really difficult thing for me to do – to do well, anyway. If I try to nail down a structure before I begin a whole lot of issues arise, including the fact that I’m not really learning anything as I go; I’m operating according to a formula. Writing for me is always this particular state of transitioning, moving from writing what I know into articulating what I don’t. In some ways I can’t get too ahead of myself because it’s the writing itself which helps me find where I’m going. Having said that, stopping sometimes and asking ‘Where the hell are you going?’ is also imperative. Trying to strike some balance between these two things is where it’s at for me.
Has your writing practice changed over the years? If so, how?
I used to write as soon as I got up. I’d get out of bed and start writing before I was properly conscious, while coffee heated up on the stove. These days if I attempt to do this my writing is likely to come across as written by someone who speaks human as a second language. My brain just doesn’t work like that anymore. I now get up and the first thing I do is play games on my phone, usually Plants v Zombies 2 for about half an hour. That wakes me up. I think I used to feel like I needed to be in a particular psychological state to write. But relying on that is like relying on a Sydney train. It just may never show up – and then what do I do? I also used to write while I was high. I haven’t done that for a very long time.
I used to feel like I needed to be in a particular psychological state to write. But relying on that is like relying on a Sydney train – It just may never show up.
How do you encourage inspiration to strike?
I don’t know whether I can, not directly at least. I just have to recognise it when it arrives and take advantage of it. For me, inspiration can be – perhaps usually is – a by-product of work. I might utterly lack inspiration until I’ve been trying to wrangle sentences for an hour, and then if I’m lucky it comes. If I’m lost for ‘where to go next’ in my writing, I read, or alternatively, I just lie down. There’s something about being horizontal that frees up my thinking that verticality doesn’t. It’s not failsafe, but it’s usually better than nothing. Baths are good.
Chris is appearing at Concerning, a new non-fiction reading night from Faber Writing Academy, in Sydney on 22 October. In this unique new series, a writer will debut a new nonfiction essay with three exciting writers providing responses, in the style of letters to the editor. Details here.