More like this

Show Your Working is a regular column exploring how some of our favourite writers get things done. In this instalment, we take a peek into the writing routine of author, editor and creative writing lecturer Madelaine Lucas, whose debut novel Thirst For Salt is out this month from Allen & Unwin.

A study with a bed, desk, and guitars hanging on the wall. There is a black dog sitting on a pillow on the hardwood floors.

Image: Supplied.

What does your workspace look like?

I work from home in the Brooklyn railroad apartment I share with my husband and our dog, Pancho. The rooms lead directly into each other, like the carriages in a train, and my ‘office’ is one of two awkward middle rooms. I have my desk facing the bedroom so I can leave the double-doors open and let in the light from the windows. This means I have to make the bed every morning because I find it hard to focus if there’s mess in my direct visual field. That said, I could be better at keeping my desk tidy.

I’ll do a deep clean at the start or end of a project, but it inevitably gets overtaken by the books I’m referencing, or marked-up drafts. I also like to keep a few talismans and sentimental objects in my workspace, for comfort and beauty. On my desk, for example, is a ceramic dish with a blue butterfly on it that my mother gave to me, and a glass paperweight that was a gift from my friend and mentor Rebecca Godfrey, who died last year.

I like to keep a few talismans and sentimental objects in my workspace, for comfort and beauty.

When I’m writing, I like to feel like everything I might need is within an arm’s reach, which is partly why I don’t work well outside the home. I have the place to myself most days while my husband is at work, and before we adopted our dog this could get lonely—especially during the pandemic, when I wasn’t teaching in-person and I couldn’t easily socialise. Now Pancho keeps me company. He sleeps by my feet on a bed under my desk and is good at giving me a friendly nudge when it’s time to stop for the day and go for a walk.

Are you an analog or digital writer?

I move between the Notes app on my phone, a word document and a physical notebook when I’m writing. Since I always have my phone on me, lines and ideas are usually logged there first. Then I’ll migrate them to a word document, but I make sure to keep paper and pens on my desk for sketching out ideas or getting down a sentence quickly in the middle of doing something else.

When it comes to revising my work, I always print a hard-copy and mark it up by hand. I’ll then retype into a new word document from the beginning, making other little adjustments as I go. I’m a big believer in ‘recycling’ text that gets cut, and it helps me be more decisive when editing my work if I know there’s a tangible paper trail I can follow back to the beginning if I need to. I’m not very digitally fluent, so I still have a paper diary for appointments and to-do lists, and I find that the act of physically writing them down also helps me to remember them. Plus, there’s the sense of accomplishment that comes from crossing things off a list.

My favourite diaries and notebooks are by Appointed—they’re spacious and beautiful, without feeling too intimidating, and they come in a variety of aesthetically pleasing colours like mint and lavender so I can have several on the go for different projects without getting them mixed up.

What sort of software and hardware do you use to get your work done?

Microsoft Word is my old faithful. I hate Google docs—I find the ‘editing’ function unusable, and it’s easy to overwrite an original draft without meaning to.

I hate Google docs—I find the ‘editing’ function unusable.

I have the good fortune of being married to someone who is better with technology than I am, and in a true act of love my husband organised my Dropbox folders and made sure all my documents saved there automatically, so I have a back-up and don’t have to worry about losing my work if something happens to my computer.

Describe your writing practice?

In graduate school, one of my professors said that the best thing you could do for your writing is to figure out the time when you’re most productive and then build the rest of your routine around that as much as possible. This advice really stayed with me, and I am grateful that I had so many years as a student where I could experiment with different ways of working.

A wooden desk topped with lots of books.

Image: Supplied.

I am not naturally a morning person, but I came to the unfortunate realisation a few years ago that this is when I am most creative. Being only half-awake when I come to the desk allows me to be less inhibited and self-critical. When I was working on my novel, I learned how important it was to protect those morning hours and get to work without delay before I had a chance to start second-guessing myself. Showering, housework, exercise, socialising, freelance projects—all of this could happen after 12pm. That consistency—spending time with the novel everyday—was far more useful than trying to write in marathon stretches, even if I felt frustrated and impatient at times at how slow my progress seemed.

How do you navigate your various kinds of work?

I feel lucky that my work as an editor and a teacher allows me to spend my days thinking about writing and continuing to learn from the practices of other writers. However, it sometimes feels like a lot of different hats to wear in a week! When I’m invested in something—whether it’s a student’s story, or my own, or a book I’m reviewing—I find it hard to switch gears and think about something else. During the semester, I try to handle this by dedicating different days to my different work: Monday for my own writing or freelance projects, Tuesday and Wednesday for workshop prep, Thursdays for teaching and meeting with students, Fridays for editorial meetings with the staff of NOON annual and whatever needs to get finished before the end of the week.

The best thing you could do for your writing is to figure out the time when you’re most productive.


Image: Supplied.

Of course, it’s not always possible to keep such a neat divide when deadlines are looming, but at least I have a basic structure to go back to. I think there’s an idea that people who are self-employed can take time off whenever they want, but I’ve found the opposite is true. When you work from home and set your own schedule, there aren’t clear boundaries between work and the rest of life unless you make them for yourself. Even though I don’t have conventional job, I realised how important it is to have dedicated time off to spend with the people I love and to just be in the world. Giving myself weekends turned out to be the easiest way to do that.

Has your writing practice changed over the years? If so, how?

When I was younger, I romanticised the link between creativity and chaos. My father is a rock musician and my mother is a painter, and I grew up associating art-making with the mess and noise of their mediums. However, I’ve realised that for me to make my best work, I need stability, quiet and structure. I recognise the value of routine, and security, now. Building a sustainable creative practice that is compatible with a happy, functioning home life is the goal for me.

How do you encourage inspiration to strike?

Whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction, the inspiration for my work comes from within my everyday life and interactions. So, for me, it’s less about seeking out inspiration and more about cultivating a practice of awareness. Reading the work of other writers I admire, and putting my mind in conversation with their voices, insights, and language, reminds me to pay attention to the world in this way.

If I’m really stuck on a piece, I’ve found the only thing to do is something—anything!—else. Take a shower, take a walk, take a nap, make a cup of tea, go to Pilates. I’m still learning this, though. I have obsessive tendencies and can get fixated on small problems, and sometimes it’s hard to force myself to walk away. If I’m in a place where reading makes me feel worse about my own lack of progress (the darkest place), then my favourite cure is to go to an art gallery.

Engaging with other art forms always helps because it allows you to see the world from a different perspective and get out of your own head, but I’ve found visual art is especially liberating because it’s not a language-based medium. Travel is another cure, because being somewhere new immediately triggers that heightened sense of awareness, but we can’t always escape so easily!

What’s next for you?

My debut novel Thirst For Salt was published by Allen and Unwin in April, and I’m looking forward to traveling back home for events in May, including appearances at Bendigo Writers’ Festival and Brisbane Writers’ Festival—two places I’ve never had the chance to visit before.

I’ll also be launching the novel in Melbourne at Readings with Paul Dalla Rosa, and in Sydney at The Royal Oak with Loene Carmen and Roaring Stories (the bookshop I worked in as a teenager!).