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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 author Sinéad Stubbins, whose new book In My Defence, I Have No Defence is out now from Affirm Press.

Sinead Stubbins' desk. An Apple laptop open to a Google Docs page on a timber desk with a black vinyl top. In the right back corner of the desk there is a pile of books and a bottle of moisturiser. Blue-tacked on the wall are various photographs and photos of flowers, women and pieces of text.

Sinéad’s desk. Image: Supplied

What does your workspace look like? 

My workspace changes depending on the task and if my boyfriend is home very loudly playing his belly like a bongo drum, a favourite pastime of his. If I am writing, I usually set myself up on the couch in the living room and drink massive amounts of French press coffee while staring out the window and trying to remember how to be funny. I love having a window to peer out of and my current apartment has a very lovely (and leafy) courtyard to look at. If the belly bongo player is home, I usually set myself up in the bedroom and listen to movie soundtracks very loudly. I like to sit on the floor because in all respects, I am a baby.

If I’m doing hardcore, serious edits (or one of my day jobs) I work at my desk in the spare room. This room is a bit chaotic (it’s where we chuck things like a plastic Christmas tree, the vacuum cleaner, the clothes horse, one broken tent, one non-broken tent, etc. ) so I don’t love working in there. But I know working at a desk is better for my back and it’s a good place to spend a long time doing boring work I don’t necessarily want to do. I think I gravitate towards the prettier and more organised rooms in the house when I need to be creative. Could I solve this by just making the spare room a bit nicer? I have no interest in finding out.

My work desk is covered in post-its where I have scribbled things like ‘show yourself compassion!’

My work desk is fairly chaotic. It’s covered in post-its where I have scribbled things like ‘show yourself compassion!’ and other catastrophically anxious things, to try to remind myself how to function like a healthy adult. I did find one the other day that just said ‘story?’ which is sweet.

When I was writing my book I was working full-time and could only write on the weekends. Luckily, my boyfriend worked Saturdays, so when he would come home at 6pm I would just call it a day. It was a pretty good system, because I began to look forward to that pocket of quiet where I would work at the coffee table, light some incense and eat cut up fruit and handfuls of popcorn like a small prince.

A blue fabric couch next to a monstera plant on a table, in front of an open window. Out the window is a large hedge and the facade of an art-deco style apartment building.

Are you an analog or digital writer?

A bit of both. I write all my stories on my laptop, but if I’m feeling a bit confused, I usually write down story structures in my notebook. Luckily, when you’re a writer, people will give you notebooks for every holiday or birthday until you die. I find them very handy, except when someone gifts me a notebook that’s too fancy and I feel guilty writing ideas like ‘I wonder if Jesus Christ ever told his disciples to fuck off?’ When I was trying to figure out the order of essays for my book, I wrote each essay title on pieces of cardboard and arranged them on my bedroom floor. This system worked fantastically until I opened the window.

Luckily, when you’re a writer, people will give you notebooks for every holiday or birthday until you die.

I also use my notebook to untangle problems in my head, particularly if I’m worried about something I’m writing. It’s how I untangle most things, not just issues with my work. I use a physical diary too and write a to-do list everyday (if I’m feeling a bit anxious, I even write things like ‘Send this specific email’ or ‘Reply to this text’ just so I can tick stuff off). If I don’t write something down, I will almost certainly forget to do it.

I do tend to write funny sentences or stories I’ve heard in my Notes app, but this only seems to work 50 per cent of the time. Sometimes I find the particular note and think, ‘Yes! I will build a whole piece out of this astute observation! Well done, old sport!’ and other times I find the note and think, ‘What does ‘dog and kettle broke’ mean?’ Most of the time I just forget the note I have written myself as soon as I close the app.

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

I use Google Docs so I can work anywhere on any machine. I think I only started doing this because I didn’t have Microsoft Word on my computer, but now it’s the only system I know. It’s sort of like in The Little Mermaid when Ariel is like, ‘Hello Prince Eric, first and only human man I have ever seen, I love you forever now’. That’s what happened with Google Docs and I.

I much prefer writing in the morning and I can’t really do it when there’s someone else in the same room.

Because I wrote a collection of essays, it was easy to keep track of them as singular pieces that were thematically linked, but I think this would be trickier if I was writing fiction. I’m tinkering with an idea for a novel now, so we’ll see if my G-Doc relationship continues to be fruitful as I grow and change.

Describe your writing practice?

I much prefer writing in the morning and I can’t really do it when there’s someone else in the same room. The only exception to this was when I used to write TV recaps, which often had me writing quite late into the night. I would stay in the living room, stick my headphones in and listen to un-interesting music, usually while my boyfriend was watching un-interesting TV shows or playing video games. I’m a pretty solitary person usually, but I get a bit lonely writing at night. I had this thing when I was a kid where I’d get nervous thinking I was the only one in the entire world who was still awake (I wasn’t smart enough to figure out time differences) and I think it has something to do with that.

I’ve always written outside of my day jobs, which is more challenging when my day job is also writing and editing, so I’ve had to get good at fitting in writing whenever I can. If an editor has commissioned me to write a story, I’m pretty good at getting stuck into it whenever I have time. I’ve never missed a deadline, as I am an insufferable people pleaser. For my own work, when I am only accountable to myself, it’s a little harder to keep myself on task.

When I was writing In My Defence, I would think about the next essay I was going to write all week at my advertising job and then by the weekend, I was ready to go and saw it almost like a treat. I would go back the next Saturday and re-read the essay and see if it still worked. There was always a plan for how to spend my writing day, but if I suddenly got a new idea I would usually give in and focus on that instead.

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

It has changed depending on what I’m working on. Writing the book was one of the few times I was working for myself, not for a particular publication or event. (I also wrote the book before I had a book deal, so there wasn’t any real certainty it would go anywhere.) It felt totally different in that I really struggled to find that same urgency and sustained motivation. I wrote when I felt particularly inspired, and made sure that I wrote every Saturday (even if that meant re-working an existing piece), but I did not feel inspired all of the time.

I doubt myself a lot, so I used to think the best way for me to write was to work very quickly, look at the piece only briefly and then shoot it off to my editor. It felt like if I sat with a piece for too long, I would think ‘Oh well, this is obviously rubbish!’ and wouldn’t be able to bring myself to send it. I do realise this is very wussy, but I think it can be reassuring when writers talk about shitty self doubt stuff. But I have gotten a bit better at that and realised that I generally don’t show myself a lot of empathy (also see: catastrophic post-its) and I can trust my editors to not publish something illegible.

I have always viewed writer’s block as a type of luxury…I’ve always had to make money off my writing and have treated it as a job like any other.

How do you encourage inspiration to strike? 

When I was writing the book, my best ideas usually came when I was walking around aimlessly listening to music or sitting on public transport. Sometimes when I felt a bit embarrassed about what I was writing and like it wasn’t important enough to be published, I would listen to podcast interviews with some of my favourite funny creators to try to remember why I was writing the book in the first place.

In terms of writers’ block though, I think I have always viewed it as a type of luxury. I’ve always had to make money off my writing and have treated it as a job like any other, so couldn’t really afford to fling my hands in the air, chuck my typewriter out a window and declare that I was taking to the sea to find my muse. (That does sound great, though.) If I am really struggling because I am tired or distracted, I try reading a book for 20 minutes or just force myself to get up at 5am the next morning and finish the job. I don’t mind doing this so much, because I feel like I’ve gotten away with something.

In My Defence, I Have No Defence is available now from your local independent bookseller.