I was having a coffee with a new writer friend the other day. Not having known each other for very long, I knew at some point he would ask me how I went about ‘doing it’, the writing he knew I was serious about, alongside the pressures of having a full-time job. (For the record, in my experience this kind of chat between writers is rare. Usually a writer will merely ask: ‘Are you writing?’ and leave it there.) I found myself saying that my ‘process’, for want of a better word, has always been to write in what Julia Cameron calls the cracks between other things. When I began teaching I wrote in the evenings and weekends. When my children were little, I wrote when they were asleep or at their nursery. The closest I have ever come to having a routine is when I was seriously ill over ten years ago. I would walk my youngest to the school gates, shuffle back in time for Frasier, and write for as long as I could before conking out with tiredness. Everything else, I told him, is on the hoof.
A week or two after that coffee, I can see that the truth is a little more complex. I would like to say that the pattern of writing that I described holds true for poems, not prose. Yet, when I am writing an academic paper, I need to chip away at it regularly in order to get anything done, in between the cracks of my other activities like teaching, reading, marking, making tutor visits and so on. But, unless I am on study leave, a rare event, I could not claim that I write like this every single day. Even now, seeing those words in front of me on my screen gives me pause to stop and question their veracity: there is never a day when I am not writing something, however inconsequential, from notes in a notebook, to copying out quotes or favourite passages in my day book, to sitting at my laptop and more formally trying to compose some sentences I might be happy with. Even when I was ill, the writing I did each day was in a journal. The poems I longed to write about my experience did not begin arriving until my treatment was over.
I do happen to have a project on the go at the moment. Because it is not like anything I have written before, I am trying to come at it sideways, as though trying to surprise myself, not to mention the actual work. The only way I can think of achieving this is not to think about achieving it at all. As I think the explorer Ranulph Fiennes once said, he never thinks about the summit, only the challenge of the next step. In practice this means opening up my laptop once my family have gone to work, and trying to bash out a paragraph (I do not set a word limit) that might not look ugly the next morning. Today’s paragraph was not great, but it did contain a line, and an image, that I have not thought about for twenty years or so. Had I not sat down to write my rubbish paragraph, I would not have noticed it. Now it is tomorrow’s material. Miraculously, the next step has appeared, in the crack between other things.