Confession: I’m a method writer. I know this probably sounds incredibly wanky, but it’s a truth that, three books into my career, I want to acknowledge. Like De Niro getting his cabbie license for Taxi Driver, or Halle Berry going two weeks without bathing for her role as a junkie in Jungle Fever, my desire to inhabit my characters occasionally intrudes on my real-life tastes, habits, self-perception, and personality. More often than not, I relish these intrusions. They make me feel alive. Empathetic. Energetic. Capable of anything – including breezing through 9–5 workdays on an empty stomach, writing on my breaks, walking home 8 kilometres, doing 1,000 repetitions on the rowing machine, cracking open a bottle of red and writing until dinnertime, and again after it.
That was my method for getting inside the head of my latest protagonist, Paulina Novak: a North Shore bachelorette in the throes of a late-twenties crisis who moves to a tiny seaside community, only to be brutally murdered. It seemed to be working well – until one afternoon, two months into the routine, I had a five-minute seizure and fell into a coma for eight days.
My novel Beautiful Revolutionary took two and a half years to write. It required a lot of research, some of which I travelled for. More importantly, it required putting myself into the mindsets of characters who were young in the 60s and 70s, who get swept up in a revolutionary movement that turns violent. The focal point of my identification was Evelyn Lynden: an intelligent, politically engaged newlywed who becomes the right-hand woman to a cult leader.
Anyone who saw me with any regularity while I was working on Beautiful Revolutionary probably noticed how I began dressing. Flares, peasant skirts, folk blouses, black turtlenecks, love beads, T-shirts with slogans about peace, love, and getting high. More privately, I smoked more weed, took psychedelics for the first time. I seldom wore bras or listened to music made after 1978.
When your favourite quality about yourself is your creative output, not writing much for over twelve months can feel like losing yourself.
There were other things, more Evelyn-specific. I cared more – and felt more apocalyptic about – world events. I had a sense of purpose, almost spiritual. I smiled at strangers less. If I wore my hair up, I preferred it in a neat twist or bun. The things I admired about my own face were different; eyebrows and jawline. I wanted a sharper nose, sleeker hair.
Then the novel was over, and so was my attachment to all this. I didn’t know what music I liked, so I listened to podcasts. I didn’t know what to wear, so I wore the same clothes, with less zest. I felt more envy and generalised anxiety. And yet – I ate better, slept more soundly than I had in years.
When your favourite quality about yourself is your creative output, not writing much for over twelve months can feel like losing yourself. When it’s the same year you’re supposed to be promoting a book, and the responses to your book are scattershot, the loss is greater still. Every negative review, every festival I wasn’t invited to, every end-of-year list I didn’t make, every nemesis I did, hurt a little more – though in the past I’ve usually just taken these things as they come.
That was my 2018. In early 2019, it was like a switch flipped; I no longer gave a shit. Part of this was the power of a new year; I’d resolved not to give a shit. There were other factors, though. I’d just come back from a tropical holiday, which had its intended effect: it had relaxed me. I’d also begun treatment for Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. The treatment was just the humble oral contraceptive pill, Yaz – but it hit me like speed.
Suddenly, I was writing again, more vividly and prolifically than ever. I knew where my novel was going, identified new details faster than I could pin them down. Nights were full-body swarmings, where I’d wake after a few hours’ sleep, hot-skinned, heart jumping around like a frog. When I closed my eyes, the dark behind my eyelids reeled, like I was coming down from acid. In the mornings, I got out of bed, sustained by an afterglow of discovery. I looked forward to writing on the commute to my day job at a call centre.
Nights were full-body swarmings, where I’d wake after a few hours’ sleep, hot-skinned, heart jumping around like a frog.
I felt a sense of recognition when I first read about author Michelle McNamara, who mistook her husband for an intruder in the middle of the night and swung a lamp at his head while investigating the Golden State Killer. In 2016, McNamara died in her sleep. Her death was attributed in part to the pharmaceuticals she was using to manage the insomnia and anxiety brought on by her research. Her true crime book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer was a posthumous bestseller.
It is no secret that authors have a tendency to immerse themselves in fictional worlds, often to the neglect of the world around them. It is also no secret that authors take inspiration from real-life events and experiences. Stephanie Danler worked for years at Union Square cafe while penning Sweetbitter, her novel about an ingenue waitress in New York City. Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita while road-tripping through the US. Daphne du Maurier channelled her anxieties about her husband’s ex-fiancée for her Gothic novel Rebecca.
Method writing isn’t all that different; it’s just a little more deliberate. It involves choices and restrictions about the media we consume, the clothes we wear, the spaces we inhabit. Victor Hugo supposedly locked away all his formal attire and wore nothing but a grey knitted shawl while working on The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Marlon James, writing A Brief History of Seven Killings, listened to Bob Marley’s Exodus on repeat. Self-proclaimed method writer Thomas W Hodgkinson wrote most of his novel Memoirs of a Stalker from the confines of a dark closet.
From the beginning, Paulina was different from Evelyn. Louder. Funnier. A better flirt. A bigger drinker. Paulina spoke with an accent more ocker than my own; I imitated it on the phones at work, talking to strangers. She dressed basic, in little sports bras and leggings and singlets; wore her hair in a ponytail, with a fringe. I considered getting a fringe – though I knew I looked better without one. I considered plucking my eyebrows back to their early 2000s thinness. Paulina deeply wanted a lower back tattoo; I began coveting tattoos, too.
Yet there was a trinity of rituals that made me feel particularly close to Paulina: hunger, exercise, and drinking. After walking home from work, I’d head straight for the rowing machine, turn on something up-tempo from my Paulina playlist – ‘Crowds’ by Bauhaus, ‘Animal Nitrate’ by Suede, ‘Psycho Killer’ by Talking Heads – and work up a sweat. Then I’d shower and open a bottle of cheap red; drink half on an empty stomach.
They used to check my ID almost every time I went to the bottle shop. They stopped doing that. One time, my favourite checkout chick winked at me. My feeling? Like I’d accessed something intended for the Paulinas of the world.
The week I had my seizure felt headed for doom before it began. Round-the-clock tramworks were due to take place in our neighbourhood. Forecasts predicted high temperatures all week. Our pantry ran out of salt. We cooked without it, promising ourselves we’d replace it the next day, then the next.
It is no secret that authors tend to immerse themselves in fictional worlds, often to the neglect of the world around them. Method writing is just a little more deliberate.
It’s likely that, if I’d removed just one element from the trinity that week – the hunger, the cardio, the alcohol – I would have been fine. But I kept them all up, guzzling litres of water to balance out the alcohol. I kept taking Yaz, as blind to the significance of one of its side-effects being ‘decreased sodium retention’ as I was to our salt-less pantry. Who thinks about these things? Not method writers high on their own methods, that’s for sure.
My insomnia was especially bad that week. On Friday morning, I called in sick – something I don’t do often. Yet I didn’t behave like a sick person; didn’t lie on the couch watching Netflix. Instead, I went to my local cafe to squeeze a few hours’ productivity from my exhausted body.
I like my local precisely because they’re negligent; a place a cash-strapped writer can go, order a single drink, and swill free jugs of water the rest of the time. That 38-degree day, I ordered cold brew, rather than a more calorie-rich iced coffee. I drank at least three litres of water; probably closer to five. However much I drank, it was enough to make the sodium levels in my blood plummet below the healthy level of 140 milliequivalents per litre and down to 115 – severe hyponatremia, by definition.
The queasiness set in around 3:30pm, rushing home from the cafe. I vomited in the sink, texted my husband to come home from work immediately, with Gatorade. To his eternal credit, he did. I kept vomiting. We sat on the couch googling symptoms, but the brightness of my phone hurt my head. My body seized up just before 5pm.
After that is an eight-day blank, filled with dreams of mucus and forced tooth-cleanings. I woke the following Saturday night with a breathing tube in my throat, hallucinating hot-pink gerberas and golden retriever puppies as a handsome nurse explained what I’d done to myself.
My methods felt worth the risk, as long as I was productive – I didn’t realise at the time just how unsustainable they were.
When I originally pitched this article about ‘method writing’, I planned to explore the ups and downs: how, at its best, method writing is a dynamic process that brings us closer to our characters; at its worst, a mania that impairs judgment. I had anecdotes: the casual job I got fired from, after forgetting too many shifts; the bird’s-eye chillies I burned, turning our kitchen into a cloud of pepper-spray. I had doubts about the sustainability of my methods, but also confidence – that they were worth the risk, as long as I was productive.
I didn’t realise at the time just how unsustainable my methods were.
Even so, I haven’t given up method writing, and don’t intend to. Even while bed-bound, it was Paulina’s music I asked the nurses to play for me, Paulina’s clothes I craved instead of hospital gowns. It was Paulina’s tattoo I thought of, when I saw the lumbar puncture bruise on my lower back. It was the thought of living other lives that sustained me, as I found myself stuck in Intensive Care at the age of 29.
But Paulina wasn’t the one my husband hurried home from work for, or the one my family flew from Perth to watch over. I understand that I am important in my own right, not simply as a host body; that there is value in the woman who sleeps, and eats, and doesn’t make full use of every hour in her day. I want her to persist, too.