One day a week. That’s all I have for my own writing. And when I say ‘day’ I don’t mean a whole day, I mean a school day, between about 9:30 and 3:00pm.
Also minus the school holidays. And minus time spent hanging out the washing, catching up on my day job, making cups of tea and procrastinating by playing Tetris. I’m now very good at Tetris.
My routine, on my writing day, is to take the dog for a walk after I’ve dropped the kids at school. Apart from the many therapeutic benefits of the forest, I use the time to decide exactly what it is that I plan to work on that day. I’ve learnt the hard way that if I don’t decide before I sit down at my desk, then I invariably fritter my time away hanging out the washing, catching up on my day job, making cups of tea and procrastinating by playing Tetris. Did I mention that I’m very good at Tetris?
You’d think it would be easy to decide, each day, what to work on next. Maybe it is, if you have the privilege of working on the same thing for multiple days in a row. But when it’s been a week, or more, since I last looked at the manuscript, I find it valuable to be very clear about the task at hand. It’s not at all simply a matter of writing about ‘what happened next’. If only!
Maybe, for example, I want to write about the Macarthurs’ sheep, and the family’s wool-growing enterprise. Perhaps today I’ll describe how the sheep were washed in the river before they were shorn. So as I walk in the forest I’ll think about which texts I need to look at.
Charles Massy’s The Australian Merino is a brilliant history of the breed. Miss D& Miss N: an extraordinary partnership contains diary excerpts from a woman farmer in Victoria, called Anne Drysdale. She farmed about thirty years after Elizabeth but her diary contains vivid descriptions of washing the sheep. In 1870 John Ryrie Graham wrote A Treatise on the Australian Merino – he might have some interesting comments too. I’ll have a think about which of Elizabeth Macarthur’s many letters might contain relevant references. Or which of her nephew Hannibal’s. Or which of John Macarthur’s letters contain complaints about how dirty the wool is when it arrives in London. And what Elizabeth, working in his absence to keep the family farming enterprises afloat, might have made of those complaints (sadly, almost none of her letters to her husband now exist.) And, crucially, I’ll think about how I might integrate the resultant chunk of information about sheep into the existing prose, so it all flows logically and perhaps even interestingly.
By the time I’ve worked all that out, the dog and I have completed our forest circuit and we drive home. Well, usually I drive and the dog positions herself by the open car window in such a way as to look all windswept and interesting. Like the women in shampoo ads. Upon reaching home she greets the cat with a lick and retires in happy exhaustion to her mat, while I hang out the washing, make a cup of tea and get started.
My desk is an old Edwardian dining table (only barely large enough to seat four, I reckon) and is mostly covered in papers, books and mess. It is located at one end of our open plan living/dining/rumpus area (also covered in papers, books and mess). The wood-burning fireplace which heats the house is nearby although not in sight, but I can hear the metal firebox ticking away, and the logs gently crumbling. I write on a desktop PC and my ergonomic chair is bright yellow. The desk faces a windowless wall but to my immediate right I have a large window with views across our front paddock to next door’s dam, with glorious mature trees around and behind it. When our ponies are in that front paddock, they often lie down for a nap just where I can see them from my desk.*
I was about a third of the way through the manuscript before I discovered that some writers set themselves word limits. They push themselves to write at least 500 or 1000 or 1500 words per day. At that point I was lucky if I made it to 500. All that reference checking and footnoting slows me down. But I never really found that sort of deadline useful – each writing day I simply write as much as I can write that day. And if that’s less than 500 words, then so be it. I did find, however, that I sped up towards the end of the manuscript, sometimes even hitting the 1000 word jackpot.
I rework and revise as I go, and at the end of each chapter I revise again, looking to create a fluid and compelling prose flow. I should note, though, that even determining where the end of each chapter falls is no simple task. I make the decision based on a combination of things: the events of Elizabeth’s life (especially where ‘what happens next’ is somewhat up in the air, encouraging a sort of cliff-hanger effect); any sort of natural pause in the prose; and, more prosaically, how many pages long that particular chapter already is.
I’m never so immersed in my writing as to miss lunch but school pick-up time often rolls around all too quickly. Now that my kids are older I can sometimes manage to write while they are at home, especially if they are both glued to their beloved screens, but usually that’s it for me until next week. Even as I write this, it doesn’t seem like enough time and yet, somehow, I’ve managed to (slowly) write a book. It’s a very good feeling.
*Fun Fact: if you’re travelling through the countryside at about morning tea time, you’ll often see horses lying down for a nap. Particularly on sunny days following cold nights. Sleeping, not dead. You’re welcome.