When my kids were small it was much easier to have a fixed routine. We got up at a set time, walked to school, and I had the house to myself for long uninterrupted periods. Nowadays, with two young adult children living at home, and elderly parents a couple of hours away, things are much more amorphous. I try to set objectives at the beginning of each month, and tick them off as I go, prescribing routines for fixed periods of time. I find that being in a state of flow is the only way anything comes to fruition: A writing life rather than a writing day. This can be a difficult balance. I’m quite suggestible and easily distracted by things I find ‘interesting’. One way of dealing with this is to have a list of five priorities at any given time. These must include family, and mental and physical health, which includes exercise of some sort (Feldenkrais, yoga, walking, gardening, swimming). So, when an idea, proposition or suggestion arises I use this list to assess whether it can fit in with my long-term agenda. In theory, anyway.
Another, and important, practice is to write last thing at night when my mind has already entered a dream state. I’m at a late stage of drafting a middle-grade novel, much of which was composed in this way. Longer poems sometimes emerge fully formed; and a haiku practise is an excellent way of anchoring yourself. Writing as you fall asleep seems to free up the brain, and results in productive dreaming. I will then wake up during the night to write things down in short bursts (aspirational – see below), because if the phrase is lost, it is gone forever. The ideal for me is to wake up early having slept and dreamt deeply. In that sort of fugue state I can pick up a pen straight away and write up whatever has presented itself.
The desk is the last place to go when in creative flow, and is best for transcribing work written in longhand, or for editing. I’m about to embark on a redrafting of my novel, which is going to require iron discipline, computer with internet disconnected, and lots of large sheets of paper stuck up on the wall for maps and narrative arcs. I’m currently front-loading other commitments in order to devote myself completely to this.
My official work space is a zone of multiple distractions, so I attach a photograph of a wild place at the end of the garden to which I can retreat with my notebook. Ideal conditions for writing include plenty of silence. I find listening to anything while I’m thinking stressful and distracting. Physical activity is helpful – gardening, walking, swimming, any type of crafting that I’m moderately good at and can get lost in. As soon as the mind is empty, something will materialise – often fully formed. I’ve learned to have confidence in the process. My ‘writing day’ for the last 24 hours (interwoven with domestics, phone calls, emails, gardening, and trying to recover from ten days of conferences and festivals) has been something like this:
Yesterday afternoon: I managed to edit two haibun I’ve been working on for a couple of months and submit them to a journal which prefers hard-copy submissions, (walking to the post office = the physical activity quotient of the day) and to finish a couple of poems which I’ve been tinkering with for a while. I have unexpected visitors arriving this afternoon, which necessitates trying to clear a path through the various piles of books, papers, shoes, clothes and cat toys strewn around our house. As usual, forced myself to write in my sleep-state before dropping off. Often feel this is pointless but the results can be surprising.
6am tried to remember the poem that had drifted into my head after I turned the lights off last night. Failed. Cursed. Got up, showered and dressed; various domestics.
8am critiqued a couple of poems for friends I exchange work with.
9am – 11am Prepared for a bilingual reading that I’m doing with Gabriel Rosenstock next week. Formatted it, emailed him a copy for his appro, then printed it out. I’m going to stay with my parents for a few days, so it’s good to have done this well in advance. Now all I have to do is prepare my intros for the evening, as I am also ‘emcee’-ing.
11am. Started to promote the forthcoming reading by a posting on Twitter and a mass email.
12. Rewrote this article for the fourth time.
12.45. Collected daughter number 2 from the tram. Dropped into local shops to buy pears for a pear frangipane tart.
1.30. Quick lunch.
2-3pm Various online displacement activities.
3. Some email exchanges re an article I wrote recently.
My brain goes into a slump from 3.30pm to 10pm, so it’s time to make that tart. Guests due any minute.
Amanda Bell is a Dublin-based poet, writer, editor and reviewer. Her most recent book is the loneliness of the sasquatch, a transcreation from the Irish of Gabriel Rosenstock (Alba Publishing, 2018). Her poetry collection First the Feathers (Doire Press, 2017) was shortlisted for the Shine Strong Award for best first collection, and her poem ‘Points’ was shortlisted for Irish Poem of the Year 2017. Her haibun collection Undercurrents (Alba, 2016) came second in the Haiku Society of America’s Merit Book Award and was shortlisted for a Touchstone Distinguished Books Award. She has written an illustrated children’s book (The Lost Library Book, The Onslaught Press, 2017) and is working on a middle-grade econovel.