Show Your Working is a new monthly column exploring how some of our favourite writers get things done. In our first column, we take a peek at the desk of Robbie Arnott, whose debut novel Flames (Text Publishing) is nominated for the 2019 Miles Franklin Award, and who was announced as one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists for 2019.
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What does your workspace look like?
I live in a two-bedroom weatherboard house in West Hobart, which is where I do most of my writing. Usually it’s at my desk, which is wedged into the second bedroom, or at the kitchen table. I’m not one of those people who needs a specific environment to be able to write, but somewhere quiet with access to a kettle certainly helps.
My workspace hasn’t really changed in the years I’ve been writing. I’ve never really thought of it as a workspace, either. I have a job, which is work, and I have a desk and a table or the couch at home, where I write, which is something else entirely. Neatness is nice, but not important – tidying or organising is one of my main forms of procrastination, so if I’m doing it, it just means I’m not writing.
The only time I’ve ever written anywhere other than home was a period when Island magazine was letting me in to their office after hours. I’d finish work, go to the Island office, get out my laptop and notes, write with manic intensity for three hours, then go inhale a pint and a bowl of chips at the nearest pub. It was probably the most productive I’ve ever been.
I’m not one of those people who needs a specific environment to be able to write, but somewhere quiet with access to a kettle certainly helps.
Are you an analog or digital writer?
I write out notes and ideas and scraps of dialogue by hand, but I do almost all of my actual writing on a laptop. I’m constantly fussing over what I’ve just written, so it helps to be able to edit things on the fly. Whenever I write longhand I scribble all over my work to the point that I can’t read it anymore.
I have no idea how I stay organised. I guess I don’t. I’m just constantly writing notes and emailing things to myself, and somehow it works out.
What sort of software and hardware do you use to get your work done?
I use Microsoft Word, because it’s on my computer, and everyone seems to be able to access it. I’ve used Pages before, but it wasn’t compatible with an editor’s program or something, so I abandoned it. I don’t really care about the pros and cons of word processing programs, or what sort of pen or notepad or diary I use. It all seems a bit irrelevant. Whenever I hear other writers banging on about their favourite biro or whatever I start thinking about something else.
Describe your writing practice?
For the first few days of each week I get up at six and write for an hour and a half, then go to work. I usually finish around six, walk home, have dinner, and write for another hour or so until I can’t think anymore. That routine all goes to shit by the end of the week, though. Thursdays and Fridays I always plan on getting some writing done, but barely do any. I have a solid crack on either Saturday or Sunday, then start all over again.
Most of my ideas happen when I’m walking to work and back, or when I’m bushwalking on the weekends. I try to turn these thoughts into notes and plans before I start writing again, but I often forget or don’t have time, so I just hack my way through the writing as it happens.
Whenever I hear other writers banging on about their favourite biro or whatever I start thinking about something else.
Has your writing practice changed over the years? If so, how?
I don’t know. Maybe? I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing at least something. It’s not a force-of-will or determination thing; I just wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have a writing project to think about and work on. So I don’t know if the practice has changed much, if it all. It’s just always what I’ve done in the cracks of my days.
How do you encourage inspiration to strike?
Whenever I don’t know how to solve a problem I’ve written myself into, or if I can’t think of something interesting to write about, I go for a walk without my phone. That usually fixes it.
The best advice I think I’ve ever heard came from Michelle de Kretser. She wasn’t speaking to me personally – it was something she said on a panel I was watching. She was talking about how plot is important, and character is important, but ‘literature lives in the sentences’. Nothing has ever resonated with me so much. Hearing that made me feel like I had a license to obsess over language.
Listen to Robbie Arnott discussing Flames on the KYD podcast here.