My favourite Elvis Costello album is Armed Forces and my favourite Elvis Costello song is Accidents will happen. It begins: I just don’t know where to begin. And it ends: I know, I know. If I am lucky, every writing day is like this. I feel like I don’t know where to begin, I begin anyway, I figure something out.
People sometimes ask me how I write books when I work full time, have a family, etc. My answer is it takes forever (I am fifty years old. I have written two books.) and, I write on Sundays. I write on vacation, too, and when I’m ill – I got an incredible amount of work done once when I had pneumonia – but mostly, it is Sundays.
Sunday begins with our two dogs, Mary and Munro, waking me up between 5:30 and 6am. (They are Chihuahuas. Their bladders are tiny. It is amazing to me that they don’t just pee on the floor in the middle of the night. But they don’t! They just get up at 5:30.) I get up, feed them, take them out into the backyard, and then we all go back to bed to sleep or read for a while. (I read, they sleep). Because it is Sunday after all.
(Munro and Mary, the dogs)
When I can’t stay in bed anymore, I get up. I go downstairs and drink coffee and eat breakfast in my pyjamas, then shower, get dressed, make a thermos of tea and head to my “office”. My office is in our son’s bedroom. After he left home to go to university, my husband built a desk and shelves at one end of the room. I keep books there that help me write or that are otherwise reassuring. Reference books, art books, books about rock and roll, books by friends. And just really astonishingly good books. Books that seem impossible to write. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Zombie by Oates, Herzog by Saul Bellow, Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, etc. Books to dream on.
You can see there are also gadgets. A mini Christmas tree that changes colour, a rubik’s cube. Things to fiddle with or stare at while thinking.
(The desk: writing HQ)
I also have a cork board that I tack things to that seem to have something to do with what I am writing. Images, lists, timelines. Also, there are pictures of people I admire that I cut out of magazines. Sometimes I like a picture so much it feels like bad luck to throw it out. Saul Bellow mid-sentence, a young James Merrill looking exactly like Matthew Broderick. Helen MacDonald sitting in her apartment with a giant hawk on her wrist looking like she hasn’t slept in a week. Wallace Stevens looking like the undercover poetic super-hero he was. Shipwrecks. Machines. That’s what it is like in the office.
(The corkboard. I don’t know what it means. It just helps.)
This is where I am supposed to sit and write. And I do. But I also roam around the house. I like to write at the kitchen table or on the couch in the living room. The couch is the best because dogs are there and also because you can flop down on your back in frustration when you get stuck. It can be magic. You flop down on your back, totally lost, and after a few minutes of staring at the ceiling, something comes to you, a place to start, and you pop back up and write a bit more.
Other ways of unsticking myself that I use include pacing around, taking a bath, folding laundry, staring out the window. They all usually work.
Another important factor in keeping to my Sunday schedule is this: every Sunday my husband goes down to the basement and paints all day. He is committed. This helps me. If he were around to talk to, to waste time with, I would never write a word on Sundays. But he goes down into the basement and makes oil paintings like the one below and listens to music so loud that I can often hear it two floors up. Regularly, I go down two flights of stairs, scare the life out of him just by appearing in the basement, and gently ask him to turn it down. Then back up two flights of stairs. Exercise!
(the kind of thing Peter Shmelzer makes in our basement on Sundays)
That’s it. Each Sunday, I do this sort of thing (typing, sitting at the desk, flopping down on the couch, stomping up and down the stairs, bathing, folding, pacing, staring) until 4 or 5pm. Then we go to the pub.
Missy Marston’s first novel, The Love Monster, was the winner of the 2013 Ottawa Book Award, a finalist for the CBC Bookie Awards and for the Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers' Choice. Her second novel, about daredevils and heartache, will be published by ECW Press in 2019. She lives in Ottawa.