Show Your Working is a monthly column exploring how some of our favourite writers get things done. This month, we take a peek into the writing routine of author Emily Clements, whose memoir The Lotus Eaters, a sharply written dissection of the patterns of blame and shame women can form around their bodies and relationships, is out now from Hardie Grant Books.
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What does your workspace look like?
I’ve always liked writing in the city. Different spaces have different energy. I’ve written stories in the QV food court, with my laptop charger hanging precariously from a powerpoint above my head, and cafe-hopped until there’s nothing left open but Starbucks. At uni I would lurk outside the 24-hour postgrad computer lab, waiting for someone with a key card to open the door so I could slip in after them. For the past couple of weeks though, as most of us have, I’ve had to adjust to working from home. We have an obnoxious L-shaped desk that takes up almost half the room and has never really been justified—until now, with two monitors for my day job as well as the laptop for writing.
Even though there are technically fewer distractions at home, I find it harder to settle into a rhythm. There’s something in the presence of other people, preferably ones I don’t know, that derails my thoughts from well-worn tracks of self-doubt. The bristling awareness of my body in space, the way my brain has been conditioned as a woman in the world, means that for me, a perceived appearance of productivity (projected by me, on me, from some external point) eventuates in actual productivity. I am seen as writing, therefore I must be writing.
I’ve always liked writing in the city…There’s something in the presence of other people, preferably ones I don’t know.
Are you an analog or digital writer?
Both. I write on a laptop because typing is the only way to keep up with the speed of my thoughts. I take notes by hand for the same reason. That gap between what I observe in real time and what I am able to record on the page is bridged by my own spin, which is what makes the note-taking different to just recording on my phone in the first place. I’ve depended on my diaries since high school, and the idea of using something like Google Calendar makes me queasy. Your only hope of getting a grip on time is to cordon it off into days of the week and cut a decisive line across them when they are done. There’s nothing like a physical diary to provide that kind of closure. That being said, I haven’t used my diary since lockdown started. I’ve lost track of time, and it’s not a good feeling.
What sort of software and hardware do you use to get your work done?
Just Microsoft Word. It’s unwieldy and a nightmare to try and patch things together—you start with one document that branches into three documents that need a folder and then a subfolder or five that you end up wasting time trawling through, trying to find that one paragraph you set aside weeks ago and have finally found a home for. I’ve tried Scrivener, I know there are more intuitive programs out there, but my brain is rusted in its ways. I wrote The Lotus Eaters on a pirated version of Word that, when I tried to change a tab setting, adjusted only every other paragraph—some indented at 1.3, some at 1.5, some with double tabs that started at random. Terrified the whole sloppy mess would send my publisher running for the hills, I went through 300 pages and manually pulled the little tab arrow across for each and every wayward paragraph to make sure all the indents were lined up. It took hours. I cried. And yet, I will never use anything else.
Describe your writing practice?
I can go months without writing, feel myself getting wavy round the edges, and then without warning find myself neck-deep in creative juices, writing six hours a day, feverishly, to the detriment of all other aspects of my life. Editing is a bit steadier. Even then, it’s all too easy to go back and tinker with what you’ve already got on the page, telling yourself that moving things around and admiring them is also writing. I try not to edit as I go because if I give myself an ‘editing day’, it’s usually to put off writing something that I know is going to be hard to write, that I know will at first come out stodgy and long-winded, that I won’t be proud of until I work it and rework it. The difficulty of the process fills me with dread—dread that this is proof I’m not a writer, I’m an intruder on the art. Predictably, these passages are always the most memorable.
Has your writing practice changed over the years? If so, how?
In high school, I got into the habit of writing when my family had gone to sleep—I wouldn’t have to stake out my claim to the computer and there was less danger of a sibling looking over my shoulder. Sometimes I’d write my way into dawn, grey-faced, and wouldn’t stop until absolutely everything I needed to say had been said. I wrote from a sense of urgent angst that is hard to replicate as a well-adjusted adult. I still write at night, even though I now have the luxury of my own laptop. Instead of junk food, I’m usually surrounded by empty mugs, sodden tea bags and the occasional apple core. What has changed most is that source of creativity. Where once I could quite easily skim from a brimming well of rage and pain, now I have to dig deeper, look further. Ultimately, this is a good thing—but I do miss the old fire sometimes.
Where once I could quite easily skim from a brimming well of rage and pain, now I have to dig deeper, look further. Ultimately, this is a good thing—but I do miss the old fire sometimes.
How do you encourage inspiration to strike?
I like the phrasing of this, like baring your wrist to an adder. I’ve been grappling a fair bit with inspiration since The Lotus Eaters came out. I’ve found myself with a lot of time and little inclination to do anything with it. When I push myself to write, my limbs turn to lead even as my heart is drained of all its weight. To be honest, even this column has been difficult. I don’t know how much of the problem is me and how much is the pandemic. To this end, I’ve received quite a bit of advice. My brother, a uni tutor, sent me a Noam Chomsky interview and told me to email him a 250-word summary on the subject of motivation. Mum told me just to start somewhere—when I call, she always asks how ‘the research’ is going. My partner gently reminds me that I will feel better once I have a project. What I find most helpful is the validation inherent in these suggestions—that writing is, in fact, what I should be doing. In spite of everything. Because of it.
The Lotus Eaters is available from your local independent bookstore.