Just Use What You Have
Here’s the final piece in our inside look at a Headland writer’s space, part of our Issue 12 series; three authors share where they wrote their piece in the current issue. We recently posted Carly Thomas’ piece about her “very own room just for writing in.” Last week we shared some thoughts from Isabelle McNeur, author of ‘Holes’, about her “three main writing spaces”. This weekend we’re giving Nat Baker, author of ‘Animal Life’ the last word.
Nat is 36 years old, a mother and public servant. She completed her MCW at the University of Auckland in 2007. She has published short stories and essays in HER, Bravado and Art+Money.
Where I Write
I try to write whenever I can because, like most people, I have limited ‘free’ time. This means I end up writing when I’m commuting – on the bus, and in airports and hotels when I’m travelling for work. I have numerous notebooks full of scribbled-down ideas, images or sentences (for this reason, notebooks are one of my favourite gifts to receive). However, my best writing (or my least ‘bad’ writing) happens for me when I’m at home, after dark, when my daughter is asleep (or at least not ‘calling out’… I am often interrupted when writing).
Having a designated space helps me focus, and get in the headspace of writing, but at the same time I’m very aware it’s not always possible for that to be my desk. I’ve had to learn how to be flexible and write in less-than-ideal circumstances – it’s just how it is. If I waited for a completely uninterrupted day, or my own writing room/personal library, then I would never get anything down.
I wrote ‘Animal Life’ in the corner of our living room, tucked in beside our dining table, with children’s art supplies stacked up behind me. I try to keep my writing space ‘sacred’, but this isn’t always possible. Before I sit down to write, I clear away anything non-writing related (or at least hide it from view). My computer is one that my husband no longer uses, which was bought second-hand on TradeMe ten years ago; the big screen is wonderful for reading back over my work even if the hardware is a little dodgy (I’ve learnt the hard way that I must ALWAYS back up my writing). I find that standing up and reading out loud is a great way to get a sense of where the story is going, and also great when editing. I love to use ‘Focus’ mode in Word, both when I am writing and when I am reading my work aloud.
I have a couple of things that are special and inspiring close to hand: books I am currently reading and love; printed out emails from a writer friend in the US; and an artwork by another friend that I bought at an exhibition a couple of years ago.
Every fortnight I have a Friday off work. After dropping my daughter at daycare, packing away the groceries and doing some housework (I try not to overdo that – the place is clean enough), I sit down with a cup of tea and some cookies from the supermarket (I often end up eating the lot). I like to write in near silence, with just the sounds of birds and traffic outside, although sometimes when I struggle to ‘get into it’ I will play a song or two out loud and just start putting down words, so I can get past the horror of that first blank page and having no idea where to begin.
I feel lucky to have the writing space I have now – it’s a massive improvement on my former writing space, when I was writing in our garden shed. The shed was quiet, but it was absolutely freezing on winter nights and was crawling with bugs and full of weird smells.
If I was to give writer friends advice about choosing a spot to write in and ‘getting down to writing’ I would say: don’t wait until you have the perfect amount of free/uninterrupted time or the perfect space/desk/computer/pen/notebook… just use what you have, but do try and make it a special place for you. There are oodles of drool-worthy writing spaces on Pinterest but none of them look like they’ve ever been used (at least to me).
I would also suggest trying to write every day – even if it’s only for half an hour, just a sentence. If you can’t write, then try and stay connected to writing in a more abstract way: subscribe to newsletters about writing (I have enjoyed: The New York Book Editors e-newsletter and am currently enjoying BookFox); listen to podcasts (Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert, and The New York Public Library podcasts are always special); and don’t forget the radio (I love Radio New Zealand’s Short Story Club). Of course, reading is always the most obvious way to stay connected with writing, but I find that these other options keep me in the mode of reflecting on my own work whilst giving me some new ideas about writing and how I might take my work forward.
Lastly, I would strongly recommend that you write with the intention of suspending judgement over the quality of your writing as much as you can, at least for the first draft. I find this almost impossible at times, and I have made a rule for myself that if I can agree that my writing is not completely sh*t then I will keep going until the story is finished and re-assess later. Suspending judgment is essential if you’re going to get anywhere (and not just spend what limited time you have writing and deleting your work over and over).
A friend sent me the following quote which I keep close to hand:
It can be found on Brainpickings, which contains all sorts of wonderful content for writers.
Read Nat’s story and ten other gems in Issue 12!
Want to join our Headland family? Submit your work to us for Issue 13! You’ve got until 1 June to share your work (wherever you’ve written it) with us. Get writing, and submitting.