Tea and Coaxing: a Savage Journey into the Heart of my Writing Process
We were somewhere around bath time on the edge of a long day when the tiredness began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “I feel a bit lightheaded. I wish your father would get home…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around me and the living room was full of what looked like small dragons, all swooping and screeching and diving around the furniture, and going about a hundred miles an hour with their eyes closed. And a voice was screaming, “I said we’re spaceships! Not dragons!” Then it was quiet again.
My husband had reached the front door and was thinking of pouring a beer for himself, to facilitate the relaxation process. “What is everyone yelling about?” he muttered, staring up the hallway with his eyes half-closed in an expression of bland resignation. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn for bedtime.” I scooped up my laptop and headed for the study. No point mentioning the dragon/spaceships, I thought. The poor bastard will deal with them soon enough.
2. An exchange of four tags across the internet
Earlier that week, I’d been sorting my email when I’d come across a tag for a blog tour. “It’s Christy, from Kids R Simple,” I told Æ, “and it’s my second tag.” The first had been from Jenny at And Three To Go, and I’d been meaning to get around to it ever since, but between the mad dash to Thailand by bus and train and a month of furtively popping M’n’Ms in the kitchen to buoy the school holiday spirits, a few things had fallen onto the back burner, and were now simmering languidly, releasing slow bursts of steam as they congealed into something that may or may not turn out to be readable.
Æ stared at his laptop for another moment, before suddenly coming to life. “Christy. She’s from Singapore, right? Two young kids.”
“Right! And she blogs about being a…”
“Full-time working mum.” He rubbed his chin and took a sip of his beer. “And Jenny lives in Phuket with her family, and we might have got to visit her except…”
“They recently got side-tracked to London on a work assignment. I met them all a few months back.”
A loud wail started up in the bedroom. “Probably tigers again,” said Æ. “I’ll deal with it.” And he stumbled into the darkness and immediately tripped over a toy box. I heard muted cursing. Then I saw him limp out to the kitchen to inspect his toe in the light, fill a pink water bottle, and tramp back through the living room. The wail continued intermittently in the background.
I took a long pull on my decaf. Then, “Why not?” I thought, and promptly decided I’d write the post, tagging Emily-Jane of The Years Of Stolen Sleep, and Aussa Lorens of Hacker Ninja Hooker Spy. If I could bottle one ounce of their writing skills, I’d drink it all in a shot. But tonight, I’d have to make do with a small glass of red, and two hours carved out of what should have been my sleep time.
3. The question of King Richard III… stories for my children… and a call to Grandma on Skype
The only way to keep alert on five hours of interrupted slumber is to do up a lot of caffeine – not all at once, but steadily, just enough to maintain the focus at ninety questions a minute past lunch time. I found myself dissecting King Richard The Third with my six-year-old as I set the paints out. “But if this was a known hazard of battle,” he was asking, “why didn’t he bring along a backup horse? He wouldn’t have needed to offer anybody his kingdom.”
“You have to remember a lot of these Shakespeare productions are abridged,” I answered blithely. “In the original version, it was a much more complicated scene which involved the loss of no fewer than five backup horses, the sixth having succumbed to the equine version of plague at at earlier point in the show. I’m an animal doctor you know,” I put in for good measure. “They teach us these things.” I took a sip of tea, but spat it straight out again: T had crept up and painted the rim of my cup.
“Well, if I ever ride into battle with a sword, I’m going to bring seven backup horses. And mum? What does ‘hazard’ mean?”
For the next couple of hours, I desperately tried to grab small fragments of headspace through the gaps I’d created in my workload by outsourcing most of my housekeeping, and letting the kids play a few too many educational apps “because it’s the holidays”. By four I was skyping my mother to discuss her views on the stories I’d written for P, based on Camilla’s suggestion. “Is it subtle? I want to be subtle,” I insisted. It was extremely important, I felt, for my intentions to be made absolutely clear. “I mean it’s not too subtle?”
“Ooh, what have you got there?” she cooed back, looking past me at a Decepticon which had appeared in the frame of my video. But instead of an answer she got a sudden shot of the fan, followed by a bouncing view of our ceiling. I shouted, “Stop it! Get down from there! You’re going to break something!” and a hissing noise started up in the background, followed by a scream. “You’re doing it on purpose! Muu-uuuummm!” And I could sense the ugly vibrations emanating out of the room and across the airwaves, halfway round the world though this little pocket-sized portal I carried.
“Tea. I need tea,” I murmured, swimming back into view of the camera.
My mother just laughed. It was a weird, crazy laugh – half mirth, half gloating vengeance. But I couldn’t accuse her of that without bringing a host of savage allegations against me, and of course I’d never be able to take the stand in my own defense. “Your Honour,” she’d say. “I’d like to point out that this is the child who once goaded her sisters into a slow-eating Easter egg competition, offered to ‘loan’ them her eggs when their will to resist their own grew weak, and then, after she’d finished hers and as the others were about to polish off theirs, called in all her ‘loans’ and ate them, with relish, in the front kitchen, as the younger ones raged empty-handedly.”
There was no other way to cope with it. I propped the iPad on the coffee table so Grandma could watch as T crooned The Blood Mobile, and left the room to scrabble desperately in the pantry for my loose-leaf vanilla chai. “Ah,” I said, as I felt its warmth surge into my body. Then, “Turn up the music!” I shouted. “I feel like doing the alligator!”
4. “One should always be drunk … With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please. The child […] is always ‘drunk'” —Charles Baudelaire
Every now and then you run up on one of those days when everything’s in vain… a stone bummer from start to finish; if you know what’s good for you, on days like these you sort of hunker down in a safe corner and watch. Maybe read a bit. Lay back on a cheap second-hand couch, screened off from traffic, and shrewdly click open five or eight blog posts… try to get into a book, eat a nut-butter sandwich, and finally, toward evening, slurp up half a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, then corner your husband for a chat.
“Why am I writing all this?” I asked Æ.
“Because Sunday travel sections bore you?” I recalled a few articles, or rather I tried to recall them, but gave up when I remembered I’d never made it through to the middle, let alone the end. It’s a marketable formula – I’ll admit that; my page views will never compare. Yet I trawl without end through the internet for obscure writers who capture what those articles lack, then I write in the hope that one day my work has that thing, and somebody out there reads it, too. If it happens, I suppose I’ll spend every day hence sitting over the piece, paranoid and delirious, trying to pin down exactly what’s different about it; what makes it work; makes it throb… veering manically between the elation of having nailed it and the anxious doubt of ever being able to do it again.
“I don’t know how to describe my writing process,” I say. “I’m not sure I have one. Mostly I sit in front of the computer drinking tea and/or wine, getting interrupted, and coming back to delete every word I’ve typed until some randomness pulls it into shape. A blog comment, say, or some post. A chance exchange on the street. An unfortunate turn of events; something shouted at me in anger; a long-lost memory from when I was eight; or a single, perfect sentence, which belongs about two-thirds of the way down. Even then it rarely falls together unless I spend long hours editing my way down this metaphorical interstate, hopping from metaphorical rest stop to metaphorical rest stop, putting scant dribbles of metaphorical petrol in the metaphorical tank; trying to ignore a growing sense of monotony as I stock up on very much non-metaphorical iced coffees and kit kats to keep me going across the vast distance between first draft and final.”
I turned in my seat to face him, slopping milk onto the coffee table. Was Æ gritting his teeth?
“Yep,” he said, drily. “I should probably start calling you Hunter S.” And I stopped, held up my finger abruptly, and left the room. “Not coming to bed then?” How could I? By the time I reached my computer my heart was full of joy. I felt like the blogging reincarnation of Horatio Alger… a writer with muse, just irrational enough to be totally confident.
Thanks (and apologies) go to my unwitting co-author Hunter S Thompson, whose work is sampled repeatedly in the above post.
Somewhere up there are my answers to the four questions: Why do you write what you do? What are you working on right now? How does your work differ from others in its genre? How does your writing process work?
I’m tagging two awesome people (as your blogger, I advise you to strap in):
The first is Emily-Jane of The Years Of Stolen Sleep, who (apart from being a professional journalist and Huffington Post contributor) is just a lot more awesome than anyone should be when they’re blogging from under the bed with their smart phone, having convinced their toddler to play a nice game of hide and seek. Read Emily-Jane’s response: How To Work From Home When You Have Babies Who Won’t Leave You The Hell Alone.