Friday, August 13, 2021

My writing day / Julie Myerson / ‘I am a solipsistic maniac who can think of nothing but the book’

Julie Myerson … ‘I need to be able to lose myself when I am writing.’ Illustration: Alan Vest


Julie Myerson: ‘I am a solipsistic maniac who can think of nothing but the book’

The author and columnist on her powers of concentration, the importance of Pilates and the trials of co-existing with an inquisitive tabby cat

Julie Myerson

Saturday 30 December 2017

Iwrote my first novel at evenings and weekends, with an office job, two babies and another one on the way. I also had debilitating back pain and often had to lie down on the floor between paragraphs. I now wonder how I did it (a husband untroubled by childcare is the honest answer). These days it’s all very different but it still feels like the biggest luxury, to be allowed to think, write and work exactly when and how I want to. The only non-negotiable is twice weekly Pilates: if I didn’t stretch my body seriously and regularly, I don’t think I’d be able to sit and write.

Otherwise, my requirements are straightforward: a desk, a good chair, a screen and a door that shuts. I do need quiet (right now the bell ringers are rehearsing at the church next door and it’s not ideal). I also need it to be daytime – I’ve never been able to write a coherent word after about 6.45pm.

What I don’t really need is for a tabby to sit on my desk and stare at me or pat the cursor with her fat furry paw, but I seem to have that anyway. But I do need calm, or the appearance of it. I have never found chaos creative. I need to be able to lose myself when I am writing, and I can’t do that if I’m even slightly anxious about what might happen next.

I wake up, have coffee, do my meditation and the Guardian quick crossword (often simultaneously, which is not good), put on a wash, wipe the kitchen counters, send my children some annoying texts and answer emails. Which sounds boring but it’s vital – I can’t sink into my writing until I feel there’s nothing else pending, no one and nothing else to worry about.

Once I start, my concentration is absolute. Nothing distracts me. All my working life I’ve had to set alarms to prise me from my writing trance and remind me that kids need picking up or appointments need to be kept. But if this makes it sound as if I work very hard, I don’t. In fact the first months of writing a novel always feel like a con. I’ll tell people I’m writing something – and I probably am, or trying to, or thinking about trying to – but the so-called writing is as likely to be happening in my head, on the bus, on the backs of shop receipts, in the bath, even while talking to someone who (wrongly) presumes they have my full attention.

Once I’ve started thinking about a novel, it’s as if I’m hyper-sensitised. I am curious, open, alert to anything and everything. I daren’t pass up a single random detail or idea, just in case it turns out to be relevant. But at this stage of writing, I’m still laughably unproductive. I’ll tread water for pages and pages, sometimes spending weeks on a couple of (very bad) pages or even paragraphs, only to delete, delete, delete.

I’d love to be one of those writers who can do a whole draft and then rewrite it better, but I can’t. The only way I can find the story is by writing. And unless the last page I wrote startles and excites me – unless it feels, actually, as if someone who’s not me has written it – then I can’t move on in any way at all.

And even when I do move on, it’s still unlikely I’ll have any idea of where the novel’s going. I follow my instincts, almost always in the dark. If I knew what the book was, I doubt I would write it. The need to write comes from not knowing. It’s like solving a problem. I only write in order to discover what I have to say.

The second stage, though, is ferocious. Now I am mad, distracted, terrible to live with, a solipsistic maniac who can think of nothing but the book. I used to be slightly appalled at how a novel would suck up all my energy – physical, emotional, everything – but I’m used to it now. During this period my family and friends are saint-like, as I duck out of meetings, forget to answer emails, ruthlessly cancel on people. I will write for hours at a time at this stage, staying at my computer sometimes until I am in physical pain. But still I can’t speak about what I’m doing or show it to anyone until I am satisfied, or at least no longer embarrassed by it.

I’m finishing a novel right now and am still at that final, brutal stage. It doesn’t help that it’s Christmas. My poor family. The tree is up and people will be getting presents, but only just.

In brief

Hours: seven or eight a day right now, then I fall apart
Words: I’m a deleter. A good day ends with less, rather than more
Cups of coffee: three; espressos with almond milk, but no more or I’m unmanageable
Instagram posts: I’m a Colourpop fiend. When I’m sick of words, I make pictures!


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