I write and work from home, in the small spare bedroom now turned into a makeshift office. There was a period when I’d dive straight from bed to my desk – a very brief period.
When my sons were very young and I first started writing poetry, it was on scraps of paper between nappy-changing and feeding. When they went to school, the school-day still wasn’t quite long enough to fit in everything so I’d dive from school-run to desk with only coffee-breaks until school pick-up time. Then they got old enough to sort themselves. For a few months, I’d dive from bed to desk, still pressurised to get as much as I could from any time I had, particularly while doing my masters in creative writing at MMU.
The trouble with doing anything at full pace in all the spare time available is that it’s exhausting! These days, personal writing still has to slot around family, life, paid work and the not inconsiderable demands of running a small press, V. Press. But I’ve become less frantic about this. I rarely get a writing day as such, at least, not a whole day just for my own work. Instead, I patchwork inspiration, time and writing together as best I can.
I’m usually at my desk most of the day, complete with coffee, diet cola or herbal teas. I dodge between V. Press admin, my own admin and submissions, a little new writing of my own, editing V. Press manuscripts, social media, blogposts, marketing and a whole range of other small but needed jobs that actually add up to a lot of time and energy.
I mostly have the flexibility of setting my own targets and deadlines, so I have no typical day as such. Instead, I’m constantly prioritising and re-prioritising what needs doing next, both according to deadlines and to balance my different energy levels to the right tasks to ensure I use my time and energy most effectively. It probably isn’t going to come as a surprise that, yes, I’m a compulsive list maker!
As it happens, I also have lots of shelving in my office, but, in bizarre contrast to this seeming need for order, my walls and these shelves are creatively chaotic! This typifies my writing process too. Inspiration tends to come in bursts, sometimes from nowhere, sometimes through stimulation. My most immediate sources of inspiration include reading other poetry, art and nature. But I find commissions and competition or journal themes are also productive. I thrive on the focus and framework these bring. By contrast though, once I have a starting point, I need procrastination space in order to flesh it out.
On a single poem or flash level, I jot down individual lines and ideas as they come, then allow them to develop in my head before trying to form these into an actual poem or flash. This may be redrafted by hand many times before I type it up and start editing on computer. Then space away from a piece and buddy feedback from trusted poet friends are great editing tools.
The chaotic and compulsive elements of my make-up are very manageable on the single poem or flash level. It’s when I get a bigger idea or inspiration for a longer piece of writing – be it creative non-fiction, blogpost, essay, feature or longer fiction – that the fun starts.
When I’m inspired, I’m inspired to the level of blocking out almost everything else while I’m working on that idea. Creativity grips me and won’t let go until I have it all down. In these periods I may write for hours on end and even through the night. I’m focused, in the zone and driven. Energy isn’t a problem because the inspiration is fuelling me and I’m alive, excited and energised by the pure creativity!
The downside of this is that once I finish, I’m usually mentally and physically exhausted. Touch wood, I recover quickly if I can take some lazy hours in compensation and then get a good night’s sleep. I’m lucky, of course, to mostly have enough control over my day and deadlines to allow this. One thing I’ve realised over the past eighteen months though, with V. Press busier than ever, is that I have to be able to do this writing in order to keep doing things like all the admin, accounting and marketing involved with V. Press. It’s the pure creativity that gives me energy for everything else.
Because full-on inspiration can be demanding on the time and energy front, I’m careful to avoid over-inspiration when I know there isn’t space for it. I also recently made a decision to try as far as possible to keep V. Press and paid work to normal working hours and week days, with the evenings and weekends for my own writing and life.
Has this worked? Yes and no. Sometimes V. Press creeps into the evenings or weekends. Other days I’ll have no pressing V. Press jobs but a personal deadline to meet, so I’ll switch things around. Like most things in my life, it works enough – for the moment at least.
Speaking of the moment, one aspect of routine that I like to stick to whatever else is going on is meditation before I start the day. The other is an hour’s daily exercise, mostly swimming or cycling. I find these help me to focus and keep a wider perspective on anything stressful. Exercise also gives me some essential procrastination time. While my body’s busy trying to keep going, my mind will be developing a new writing idea or editing existing lines that have been troubling me. My subconscious frequently solves things more quickly and easily once my conscious thoughts are directed elsewhere. Moreover, the pace of cycling, swimming, running or walking is good for smoothing out rhythm.
Often, once the day’s underway, I lose track of the clock unless I have appointments or meetings. My work tends to create its own flow, but it’s rare that I put down my pen or close my laptop without a satisfying tiredness. This isn’t to say that every piece of writing gels – far from it! It’s more that I won’t stop until I’ve at least something that feels like it’s been worthwhile.
Sarah James (also published as S.A. Leavesley) is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer. Author of seven poetry titles, two novellas and a touring poetry-play, she runs V. Press, poetry and flash fiction imprint. Her latest books include Always Another Twist (Mantle Lane Press, novella), as well as How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press, poetry pamphlet) and plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press, poetry collection) both shortlisted in International Rubery Book Awards. The High Window Resident Artist 2019, she is curator and photographer for LitWorld2. Website: http://sarah-james.co.uk