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 workspace of Ellena Savage, whose debut essay collection Blueberries (Text Publishing) will be released in March.
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What does your workspace look like?
I moved a couple of years ago to Athens, Greece, where I live with my husband Dom – also a writer – in a ground-floor, two-bedroom apartment. We both work from home. I do most of my writing from my bed, which sounds like something I shouldn’t admit to. I put my laptop on a pile of pillows, and scatter the books I’m using for work around on the bedding. Dom works in the other room, which we have set up to be a sort of study/trash room (it’s where I keep the elliptical I’ve used seven times). I like to work as soon as I wake up, and so it’s always just been easiest to crawl out of bed to make a pot of coffee and go back to the warmth and start there, so I might catch a little bit of the clarity of thought that seems only to be present in early mornings. In periods when I’m busy with admin-heavy work – I have edited magazines in the past, I teach writing in and out of universities, I organise events, and I write for money, which is not always fascinating or creative – I often end up doing emails or meetings or applications all morning and struggle to get into ‘my’ writing, and it tends to suffer. It’s one thing to say I will protect my mornings, it’s another to actually do it. When I’m disciplined, though, and not too overburdened by paid or volunteer work, I can push the admin into the afternoon, when I have a bit less energy and creativity.
I’ve never been able to write with focus in the presence of other people – writing meet-ups sound like the tenth circle of hell to me – and while I use libraries to read and research, I don’t write in them. The idea of working in an uncomfortable, loud, echoey bar or cafe with constant interruptions is for me a living nightmare. I don’t listen to music when I work, I don’t like phone calls or chats or knocks on the front door. I drink a lot of French press coffee with soy milk in it. Dom and I keep leftovers in the fridge and freezer for meals, so we won’t have to spend time preparing food, or buy expensive takeaway to eat during work hours. I use an internet blocker so I don’t distract myself with social media or news.
Writing is a chamber activity, and so is reading, so why not do it in your literal chamber?
If I’m up too early and don’t want to wake Dom up, I work on the sofa or on the bench in the kitchen. I sort of move through the house with my tools. When I lived in share houses, I often consigned myself to my bedroom completely to avoid the temptation of cups of tea and chats with housemates, so having a place where I can wander through the rooms and remain focused during work hours is an amazing luxury. But really, all I need is a room that has a door and people who understand what working from home means.
I learned a Greek cinematic term recently that I quite like: δράμα δωματίου (dráma domatíou), literally ‘room drama’, or ‘chamber drama’, like chamber music. It’s just a term used to describe dramas that take place in a single room or a closed setting, like Lighthouse, or Rope, or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But I like seeing the chamber deployed as a transferrable artistic mood or temperament. I respond strongly to the idea that the closed, domestic space offers a specific kind of intensity and intimacy. Writing is a chamber activity, and so is reading, so why not do it in your literal chamber?
Are you an analog or digital writer?
I’ve kept an analog daily planner since I was in junior school, with a to-do list and a column of little boxes next to each item I can tick off. I list everything, including, like, ‘supermarket: eggs, dishwashing liquid,’ because it helps me feel like I’m accomplishing things, even on slow days where I’ve only really wrestled with one page of work. I’ve used the same planner every year for as long as I can remember: the Moleskine A5 daily planner. I write in it in colourful felt-tip Stabilo pens. I draw bright clouds and love-hearts around important events and pressing deadlines. I also have a work calendar online, which is not for my creative writing but for my paid work, which involves a lot of deadlines and staying on top of things, as well as several colour-coded Excel spreadsheets tracking money, work, and the books I read. This all sounds incredibly anal, and I have no explanation or excuse for the pens. I don’t admire anality or preciousness in others, and would prefer to be more relaxed about my work.
I usually do my random thought-transcription in Word docs and either work on these until they’re something, a little essay or letter, or I put them away for potential future use. If I’m struggling with a longer project, I’ll move temporarily to long-hand, which changes the pace entirely. Typing quickly means I can almost keep up with my thoughts when I write on my laptop – at least in the frenzied drafting stage – so writing long-hand can help break up patterns that aren’t working. I don’t have time to write out full sentences in long-hand, so I end up with broken chains of words in my notebooks, and this can clear up and idea or help move it somewhere I was not expecting. I’m violently protective of my notebooks, because these days they just contain garbled nonsense, and I’m worried about what that might reveal.
What sort of software and hardware do you use to get your work done?
I’m totally incapable of change. I just use Microsoft Word as I always have, and I try to keep my files in some sort of order, though they’re a bit out of control at the moment. I’ve tried Scrivener, I’ve tried Evernote, I’ve tried Stickies and Google Docs, but it’s too late for me. Learning new systems just adds to my workload, and I don’t see the point in complicating what already feels slightly chaotic but mostly fine.
I use other author’s books quite a bit in my writing, and I have a system where I add stickies to passages I like as I read them, not only for academic research but also if I like the sound or texture or emotion of a phrase. I transcribe the quotations later into a Word doc, which can feel almost like reading the book for a second time. When I was doing my PhD, I was reading too many books to keep up this practice properly, but I’ve recently returned to it and I find it useful and relaxing.
I personally struggle against the idea that my work should strive to impress people who would otherwise belittle me.
I moved to Europe for many reasons, among them so I wouldn’t have to work as many hours, professionally, to stay afloat, and so I could free up a bit more time to read and think and write without commercial considerations. Living here, I need a lot less money to support myself than an average person living in Australia (I still come back to Australia for various day-jobs for several months a year). So in some ways, I have a good setup. A home to fling my stuff about in and, for most of the year, a low cost of living. But I tend to think the material set-up is only as good to the artist as her psychic and social-historical set-up. I struggle against my conditioning as an Australian person to value certain narratives around financial success and artistic viability – we are trained to think that artwork is only created from financial prosperity, which is clearly a bourgeois narrative about art. I personally struggle against the idea that my work should strive to impress people who would otherwise belittle me. So my ideal set-up would be inside a world where the value of creativity was not assessed against the metrics of excellence, institutional legibility, or professional viability. It would be one where artists felt much freer to critique their societies, and did not feel compelled, out of the threat of poverty or social disgrace, to ‘professionalise’. I guess this setup would involve a cultural revolution! Or a lot of brave people breaking with taboos. Not to put ideas in anyone’s head.
How do you encourage inspiration to strike?
Like every writer I’ve ever met, I walk a lot. Downtown Athens is not a great for walking: it’s very dense, the pavements are narrow and patchy, the traffic is noisy, and there’s a lot of street life (I am a fast a determined walker and as much as I’d like to barge past every dawdler, it’s rude). But there is a walking street, Aiolou, that runs from Omonia towards Akropoli that I walk along most days to free up my thoughts. Akropoli has a lot of open space to walk around, too. I get a lot out of the mundanity of ancient artefacts in Athens. Having daily access to ruins is a good exercise in perspective. It’s sad and pathetic to me that settler colonies like Australia are too insecure to recognise how enriching it is to be in the presence of ancient lives and cultures. I also walk up and down the hills, Lycabettus and Strefi, with Dom – we’ve gotten into the habit of listening to our separate audiobooks while doing it, which is cute.
While writing is difficult, it’s not physically harder than building a house or teaching a child to read or cooking for 200 people every night.
How do you deal with writers’ block?
I consider writing my job, so I don’t have much time for block. Having creative side-projects on the go can help, because you can use the funnest project to avoid the hardest one. Breaking the work into small, manageable morsels can help. Imposing regular deadlines on yourself can help. This is not to say I don’t get blocked, or creatively drained – I often do, and it feels like shit – but rather that while writing is difficult, it’s not physically harder than building a house or teaching a child to read or cooking for 200 people every night. To get anything done you have to show up and work incrementally and be okay with not being perfect. And you have to knock off work, too, sometimes, and do other things. The best fuel for writing is reading and having a life outside work.
Blueberries is released on 3 March, and can be pre-ordered through Readings.
Launch events for the book:
Sydney, 7 March: To be launched by Dr Astrid Lorange, with readings by Eda Gunaydin, Andrew Pippos, and Jonno Revanche; 4–7 pm, Frontyard Projects, Marrickville.
Melbourne, 14 March: To be launched by Dr Maria Tumarkin, with readings by Nicky Minus, Leah Jing, and Bronte Coates; 4–6 pm, Fitzroy Art Collective, Fitzroy.
Free, all are welcome: RSVP to [email protected]
Melbourne, 31 March: In conversation with writer and performance poet Georgia Kartas; 7–8.30 pm, Brunswick Bound, Brunswick. Buy Tickets.