I wake, for the first time, at about 3am. Something is bothering me. Often it’s a cat. 3 am is prime dining time for felines, and we have two. Occasionally they bring in their own locally-sourced meals instead at this time, in which case I or my husband quickly initiate our mouse recue protocol. After this I am usually unable to get back to sleep for quite some time. Otherwise what’s bothering me at 3am is my own anxiety. Either way, more often than not I get up, make some tea and sit up in bed with the laptop for a couple of hours.
I don’t always write in these hours (often I read instead), but when I do, the writing – or the act of writing – has a strained, urgent quality about it. I have achieved next to nothing in my life thus far, I reason, so this must really count for something. There’s no sound but for my fingers tapping MacBook keyboard. I begin to think this is it; I must be a real writer now. Sometime after 5 am I’ll fall back asleep.
The rest of the day can easily pass in a bit of a blur. I am a university tutor but recently have shifted to almost entirely online tutoring and supervision. This means there is always a forum to be moderated, an email to be answered, material to read or prepare, and often assignments to be marked and returned. The work is genuinely rewarding; I am lucky to have it. But oh how quickly it seeps, readily, fluidly, into every crevice of the working day.
I try more often, now, to set aside regular time for my own writing – time that’s not in the liminal zone of should-be-sleeping late night or early hours. When I do make the effort to go to a cafe, I am generally quite productive. Productive, too, are the occasional one-day ‘urban writing retreats’ I go to in London, where there is space and silence, as well as coffee and snacks on demand. But from years of not having quite enough confidence in myself, I find it hard to prioritize writing time. As I get older, I find myself thinking more often: what, really, have I got to lose? And conversely, what will be lost if I don’t square off proper writing time; strictly, daily, compulsively?
I have quite a few writing projects on the go. These include some fiction projects. Over the past few years I’ve had more of a hankering to produce longer texts, and occasionally the joy of stories taking over and almost writing themselves has been a real revelation. Otherwise it’s the patient process of following a poetic hunch, sketching out individual poems, sequences and collection length projects by drafting, reading, allowing moments of serendipity to combine with more painstaking work. I mainly write straight to laptop but do journal longhand too and I have a small emergency notebook for any stray inspiration occurring in transit, meetings, waiting rooms, etc.
When I’m at home I write in three main places – the comfy chair in the bedroom, the sofa (equally comfy) in the living room, and sometimes on the bed (surprisingly, less comfy, but more reassuring, somehow). Lesser-used places include the kitchen table, sometimes with a glass of wine, while the dinner is in progress. We have a study too in which I used to write my English Lit lectures, but the room is almost entirely filled up with books and papers now – I hope this isn’t a psychosomatic indication of something. I also make frequent trips to Norwich to visit my elderly mother. When I’m there I’ve developed a technique of mentally blocking out loud evening TV in order to carry on with a draft of something.
My chapbook My Converted Father is new from the wonderful Broken Sleep Books. This sequence started off as something playful and slightly nostalgic a year ago, when the phrase ‘my converted father’ stuck in my head from another (entirely unrelated) poem I’d written. I liked the idea of my late father converted into an after-life state which may or may not be purely in my imagination, able to speak to me and comment on our shared memories. I suppose in a way I have converted him into poetry! The pieces started off as occasional prose poems jotted down here and there, and then they gradually asked to be lineated, so I set aside a rare day of concentrated editing on the whole sequence to make them so. Last year I also completed a full-length m/s of poetry about a completely different topic (a nineteenth-century saint, since you ask), which I’m hoping will be published in due course – I’ve had an unofficial positive response but won’t say any more just now. I wrote most of those poems either on the train back to London from Peterborough where I’d been teaching, or last thing at night, sitting in bed with a mug of tea, and a sleeping cat at my feet. There’s something to be said for those liminal states after all.
Originally from Norwich, Sarah Law lives in London where she is a tutor for the Open University and elsewhere. She has published five collections of poetry: two with Stride, two with Shearsman, and her collection Ink's Wish, first published by Gatehouse Press, was shortlisted for the 2014 East Anglian Book Awards. Her chapbook My Converted Father was published in July 2018 by Broken Sleep Books. She edits the online journal Amethyst Review. She runs, loves cats, and writes fiction on the quiet. Follow her on twitter @drsarahlaw