Show Your Working is a regular column exploring how some of our favourite writers get things done. This month, we take a peek into the writing routine of writer (and 2018 KYD New Critic winner) Kylie Maslen, whose debut essay collection Show Me Where It Hurts: Living With Invisible Illness is out now from Text Publishing.
What does your workspace look like?
I work from a cheap desk I got from Kmart when I moved back to Adelaide in 2017. I like that it’s big enough to be able to work on my laptop while being surrounded by books and paper, because my working style can be a little chaotic. Over the years I’ve written from bed, the kitchen table, cafes, parks, and a studio. But where my health is currently (I live with chronic pelvic pain due to endometriosis, bipolar 2, and other invisible illnesses) it makes the most sense for me to work from home, and I’ve built a routine that works really well for me.
Are you an analog or digital writer?
I work best when I have wall space around me rather than windows. It sounds grim but it’s because I’m constantly sticking up schedules and plans (as well as encouraging notes from friends). I need to be able to clearly see deadlines, upcoming grant rounds and events so that I can plan out my time accordingly and make sure I’m not overloading myself because my energy is limited. I have blank calendar print outs above my desk that I then hand write on, and my physical diary is always open to the current week on my desk. That’s where I use a rough bullet journaling method to break down what I need to do for the week and then what needs to be done each day. Although I would love to block out time in iCal or set goals for myself like daily word counts, my schedule needs to be flexible because at any moment I could be thrown off track by my chronic pain or my mental illnesses. Being able to quickly scribble with a pencil rather than assessing and moving things around using a productivity app like Trello is key to me being able to keep up with what I’ve got on my plate at any one time.
My schedule needs to be flexible because at any moment I could be thrown off track by my chronic pain or my mental illnesses.
What sort of software and hardware do you use to get your work done?
In planning and researching again I’m very analog. I get really tired easily when reading from a screen and I have trouble focusing, so I tend to print things out so I can highlight and scribble on them as I read. I find this helps me pick up threads later on and I absorb the material a lot better too. I’m always reading books with a pencil near me so I can underline and write in the margins. This would have been a sacrilegious practice to me ten years ago but as is common with chronic illness, sometimes you get tired of expectations—even your own—and adapt. When I would come to write a chapter for Show Me Where It Hurts I would go through these materials again and isolate gaps where I needed to do more reading. This system also helped me plan what I wanted to say in each essay.
In terms of drafting, because—like so many writers—I hate Word with a quiet fury, I usually do my early drafts in Pages, which is a much cleaner program. I do all my editing in hard copy, printing double-spaced and marking up in pencil. I rely a lot on doing structural edits on paper too, and I think almost every chapter of the book was made by printing out the vignettes and sections I’d written, cutting them out, moving their order around on my bed, stapling things together, scribbling all over them, and then bringing those back to my desk. Once I’m ready to send work to an editor—whether it’s a feature, review or for the book—that’s when I’ll export it to Word and then succumb to Microsoft’s busyness.
Describe your writing practice?
My writing days are very routine by necessity, punctuated by cups of tea, Pomodoro alarms and my pelvis. I’m usually at my desk around 9:15–9:30 having had breakfast and my first cup of tea. The second cup is the most crucial of the day and I do not pretend to be able to do any writing until that has been consumed. I can’t drink coffee anymore and need to be conscious of my caffeine intake as a trigger for my hypomania and anxiety, so I cherish every single cup of earl grey as a precious gift that fuels my days. I drink that second cup while I clear my emails and do small admin tasks. People With Disabilities Australia sends out a daily newsletter and I’ve been reading that quite closely recently as it’s helping to inform my second book, which I’m currently in the research and development phase of.
I think almost every chapter was made by printing out the vignettes and sections I’d written, cutting them out, moving their order around on my bed and scribbling all over them.
By 10am I’ve made the third cup of tea and I’m ready to start 3-4 hours of Pomodoro timers (a system where you work for 25 minutes uninterrupted, then break for 5 minutes). I use those breaks to stretch, warm my heatpack, quickly check my phone or just stand by the balcony door and dead-eye stare out at the world. By 1 or 2pm I’m usually in a good place to be able to stop for lunch, where I’ll watch a few innings of baseball, a quarter of basketball or something on YouTube to relax my brain. I rarely write again in the afternoons. Sometimes I’ll edit—especially if I’ve written a feature in the morning—and sometimes I’ll do some low-energy tasks.
During the writing of Show Me Where It Hurts I often got disgruntled with myself at not being able to push through and work in the afternoons when deadlines were screaming at me internally. But these hours were often spent watching TV or films that were referenced in the book so it was still really valuable time. Afternoons are also where I try to schedule all of the various appointments with my medical team so sometimes my schedule is dictated in that way. In an ideal world by 4pm I’m either on my way to the beach to swim and read in the sun, having a hot magnesium bath whilst listening to a podcast in winter, or going for a gentle walk—all the things that help soothe my brain and my body. I’ll sometimes read ‘after hours’, particularly on weekends while the footy is on in the background, but I try to stick to the same work hours that I have when I’m at my other job (currently two days a week).
I don’t really have the luxury of having writers’ block. Because there are so many days where I can’t write at all, I don’t worry about flow in the drafting stage, I just think about getting words on the page.
How do you encourage inspiration to strike?
Similarly to writing peers who have children, I don’t really have the luxury of having writers’ block. Because there are so many days where I can’t write at all, or I’m so distracted or fogged by pain the words that I have managed to get down need a lot of work, when I’m at my desk I’m working. I think the disjointed way I write long-form stuff also helps. I don’t worry about flow in the drafting stage, I just think about getting words on the page.
I’m a big note taker too. If I think of something useful I’ll scribble it on a scrap piece of paper, or in my notebook, or sometimes in the notes app on my phone (though many things have gone forgotten in that deep well). My concentration and short term memory often play victim to my mental illness and chronic pain, so if I don’t write it down it’s not coming back. These scraps often make it easy to have somewhere to pick up the next day.
Show Me Where It Hurts is available now at your local independent bookseller.
Looking to kickstart your own writing practice? Check out our range of online Writers’ Workshops, with a great range of courses designed for writers across all genres and skill levels.