Tea or coffee or crack-cocaine? 

I love to read about the lives of authors. I’m not talking biography – I’m talking about articles which mention how, in fact, they manage, day to day, as a writer. What they actually do to get words down on a page. Perhaps it’s because I’ve yet to hit the big time, and I’m looking for pointers and rituals to ensure that I do. Actually I think it’s because of the solitary nature of writing, and reading how another writer’s day unfolds gives me a sense of camaraderie. I also like to find out how, in particular, they engage in hammering fingers at the keyboard (I tend to hammer forehead on desk). At author readings questions from the audience sometimes include a few along the lines of: Do you use a pen or a computer? How many words do you write before clocking off? Again, as if there is a special, secret code that will unlock the route to a best-seller or even a poor-seller. Morning writer?  Tea or coffee or crack-cocaine? Dog or cat? Anything at all, just tell me how you do it so I can do it too.

Even though I have been ‘doing it’ for some years now, every time I sit down to the computer, it feels like I’m starting all over again. Actually, it seems to get harder, not easier. So I avoid writing and instead pore over The Guardian’s ‘My Writing Day‘ articles, looking for sustenance, tips, anything at all to keep me going. Actually this series is wonderful, and I read it as much to laugh as to feel not quite so alone.

For what it’s worth, I can’t read my handwriting so I don’t use a pen. I can barely hold one, it’s been so long. I’ve been editing my novel for years and a first-draft daily word-count doesn’t really factor into my day. When it does, one single spaced page would be the minimum I’d hope for – around 500 words. On Freefall retreats I’d generally write up to 3000 in a (long) morning. Tea, usually, green or black, but coffee on those retreats (hence the 3000). But Ronan clearly prefers crack-cocaine as you can see from the photograph. When I’m not on retreat, fuelled with caffeine and forced into a sheer terror of morning activity by a mid-day deadline, I write when I’ve put off writing for many hours I know I’ll kill myself if I don’t get something down, by which time it’s usually late afternoon. Very late. Far too late. Time to make supper, in fact, and promise to do better tomorrow. Cat, of course. A dog would be too easy to distract myself with.

About Sandra Jensen

I am a writer. I live with my partner, David Crean and my foundling cat, Rónán. I was born in South Africa and have British and Canadian citizenship. I have over 40 short story and flash fiction publications, including in: World Literature Today, The Irish Times, Descant, AGNI, The Fiddlehead and others. My work has received a number of awards including winning the 2012 bosque Fiction Competition and the 2011 J.G. Farrell award for best novel-in-progress. I have been awarded Professional Writer’s Grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Arts Council of Ireland and Arts Council England. The novel I have recently completed, Ten Virtuous Acts, is a literary adventure set in Sri Lanka during the civil war. I was a guest writer and panellist at the 12th and 13th International Conference on the Short Story (Little Rock, Arkansas and Austria); an invited participant at The Galle Literary Festival, Sri Lanka in 2011 and a six-time participant of the Sirenland Writer’s Conference in Positano, Italy. I attended The Banff Centre’s Wired Writing Studio in 2011/2012. I administer the In Memory of Vučko and AWABosnia websites, raising awareness and funds to stop animal suffering in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
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4 Responses to Tea or coffee or crack-cocaine? 

  1. Rob says:

    Your question, which I’ve decided to read as non-rhetorical, was aimed at authors who have produced stuff. I’ll let you in on how the other half lives, even though it won’t be the answer you were initially looking for. The spirit has moved me and so I am answering: I usually write when I should be producing something quite different from my keyboard. If I’m actually ‘writing’ then it’s likely that I’m procrastinating. It’s to the point that writing for me is almost a source of guilt. Because it could lead to a failure in the real world, which isn’t something I can really afford at the moment. Other people are counting on me and so what do I do? I go inside my own head, the way they told me I needed to if I was going to produce anything of value, and pull something out. I twist it about, I look at it under UV light and maybe in a wonky mirror too, just out of curiosity.
    My first instinct is to say that writing is a form of escape from reality, but sometimes I wonder if it isn’t an escape from the fake world I’ve created for myself. This life of the outside which is spent managing some people, bashing out figures and words, calling people for interviews and having what they claim afterwards are interesting, thoughtful discussions. Poor them, falling for such nonsense. Poor me, wasting my time as an enabler.
    Perhaps we need to spend more attention to what it is we procrastinate from. Is it usually a refusal to do what it is we “must” do? That thing which defines us in the eyes of others? Is procrastination a signal that we’re faking it, or that we’re not convinced? A sign from the universe that we were made for something else? Wouldn’t that be reassuring and fuzzy? Lying to oneself usually is.
    What works for me when I’m actually writing is that rushed feeling of doing something elicit. Not exactly dirty, but realizing that if someone knew what I was doing, those masters of the outside world would be disgusted. If it’s really good (the experience, not the writing), this state of elsewhereness can last for 30 minutes (if I’m on a serious deadline) or up to an hour (if the deadline is further away). It’s a state of heightened awareness. And god, it helps if there’s caffeine involved. It’s furtive. I feel guilty when it’s over, as if I should check my palms for signs of fur. When it’s good, it’s a torrent of thought and self-aggrandizement, it’s holier than thou, it’s ‘oh aren’t I clever’ and it’s smug happiness.
    And then it’s over, leaving me to hate myself for it as I turn back to my work in the outer world. A while later, with that same emotion in the ascendancy, I’ll look back at what I’ve written, looking for signs of quality, deciding whether to delete it entirely, whether it sucks, whether now is the time to decide if it sucks or if I am the person to decide if it sucks. That ritual completed, I turn back to the outside world and make some calls, get annoyed and tell someone to do something, feeling as competent in management as Homer Simpson. At later some point when the adrenaline is gone, I’ll read it, trying to pretend to be someone else to hear how it sounds. But look, I’ve written, what, two stories now? So it’s not getting me anywhere in practical terms. As they say: don’t quit your day job, dude.

    (If I were writing you a letter in person, I’d sign it. Since I’m not, I won’t. You’ll understand, but I realize that I don’t. Or rather, I wonder why I won’t. Don’t we all want to be discovered? I don’t mean by the masses here, I mean by those around us. I mean, isn’t most writing done by introverts who are trying to get one over on all the extroverts out there? So why won’t I sign this? For the sake of argument, let’s just call me Rob)

    • Great comment, Rob! I wonder if procrastination amongst writers takes on a different flavour if the writer has a ‘real’ job. Some people are very envious that I have, more or less, the whole day to write. I personally don’t know how people who have real jobs (or children) write anything at all, and yet, the hours I spend procrastinating could very well be put to some kind of gainful employment. Yes I save dogs in those hours. Ah, there it is. Some part of me considers saving dogs as more important, more valuable than writing. Than *my* writing, to be specific.

      You said: “Perhaps we need to spend more attention to what it is we procrastinate from.”

      I remember the days when I started out writing. It was more along the lines of ‘play’ – I had no real expectations of myself. It was fun, and I wrote a lot and found it relatively easy to focus. And then I began to get stories published. Each time this happens, part of me thinks I’ve pulled the wool over the editor’s eyes. They don’t *really* think what I have written is any good. So, I suppose for me procrastination is about not wanting to face what I believe to be a failure. Not wanting to face myself, for I do feel defined by my writing; I do feel my identity is invested in being ‘A Writer’.

      I’m quite successful in saving Bosnian dogs and cats and have done it for some years now, but I don’t consider myself a ‘rescuer’. (In fact, while I’m writing this I’m also darting back and forth to Facebook helping a paralysed pekingese get from Banja Luka to Timisoara). I don’t have any identity invested in this work. But to write means to face head on the possibility that I’m correct all along: I’m a fake, a failure, and everything I’ve done to date is smoke and mirrors.

    • debyemm says:

      Rob,

      I’m in the un-produced category myself still. But your thoughts are quite interesting to me.

      We used to remember a license plate DAP as “Debbie Always Procrastinates”. So, what is it I procrastinate from. Is it a refusal to do what it is I “must” do? There is “that” rebelliousness in me, I know. And maybe I’m not convinced that I better get on with it, that I am squandering time instead of getting what needs to be done, done.

      I smile at “that rushed feeling of doing something elicit”. Yes, I know that one too.

      My conflicted feeling is that I can’t write (which I tell myself is what I really want to do) until I get that outer world “must do” work done that I am procrastinating about getting done.

      And I wonder which it is that I am actually procrastinating.

  2. debyemm says:

    I smile to see Rónán again. Unfortunately, the ability to desire and intend and distract is all too familiar to me. Even so, I don’t give up settling in.

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