Illustration by Alan Vest
MY WRITING DAY
Hisham Matar: ‘If I wake up at an early hour and write 500 words each day I will, in time, have a book’
The winner of the 2017 Folio prize on how he learnt to stop either congratulating or beating himself up at the end of each working day
Thu 25 May 2017
Thu 25 May 2017
here are two voices: the first says write; the second hardly speaks, but I know what he wants. And if I let him, nothing would get done. He hovers at the edges. He is nowhere as strong as he once was.
The myth is you do the ordinary every day and the extraordinary will happen; if I wake up at an early hour and write 500 words each day I will, in time, have a book. Not all myths are untrue, of course, yet some of my best writing happens on the bus or while walking, and I must stand to one side, writing quickly, trying to catch the line of words that had just passed through my head like a butterfly. Some are phantoms; others are valuable sketches that can become the basis for entire paragraphs. I have learnt to take them seriously.
I read somewhere that Chopin used to get his best ideas improvising at the piano and would then have to spend the rest of the day trying to recreate the freedom to pin it down. There are accounts of him pacing and muttering to himself in frustration on George Sand’s lawn. That work, of trying to recapture not only the movement and form of the butterfly but also its effortless naturalness, its authenticity and substance, requires patience and fidelity to the original observation. This precisely – the study and passion it cultivates – is one of the things I value most about writing. It is satisfying on the occasions when I succeed, of course, but the pleasure is also in trying.
Normally I get up at six and exercise for 30 minutes by the windows overlooking the tracks. At this hour, and especially in summer when it gets bright early, the windows of a train passing flicker brightly through the trees. And you can just about glimpse the dark figures of the commuters heading to work I shower and shave listening to BBC Radio 3, as news spoils everything. From here on the point is to leave as soon as possible. The day depends on it. Otherwise the weight of various duties – email, post, a particular errand, the need to make yet another long distance call – increases. I leave without breakfast and walk to the studio.
I have always called it that because neither “office” nor “study” seems right. Here I have my books, papers and two desks. I write on the large one and transcribe on the other and sometimes, and for no particular reason, I switch them around. They are in an L-shape facing the window that covers nearly the entire wall. The view is of the neighbours’ gardens and beyond them, the back of a terrace of houses. I am usually sitting down at the desk by eight. I reread what I have from the beginning or, if that is too long, the last 30 pages or so, then I start.
I pause at 11, slice a piece of cheese or eat a date and make another cup of coffee. I then work till one, when I stop for lunch. Sometimes I listen to music or The World at One. I then read on the daybed and usually fall asleep for about 20 minutes. I take a short walk, make another cup of coffee, answer some emails and continue working. As night falls the large window turns into a mirror, reflecting the interior. It becomes necessary then to draw the blinds. I leave at six or seven in the evening. What I have accomplished is 500 words, rewritten several times over. The action evokes a comb passing through tangled hair. Sometimes this leaves me with fewer words, and sometimes it extends them till, to my astonishment, I come away with a thousand. Other days, it all falls apart and I leave in the negative.
I used to spend the evenings, depending on how the day went, either congratulating or beating myself up. It took me a long time to understand that both are just as narcissistic and just as useless, not only because the work is not responsible for my mood, but also because both conclusions steal the wind from my sails and leave me exhausted either from self-loathing or jubilation. Now I close the door and return to my life a little tired but also with that modest contentment and gratitude of those who enjoy their work. This must be boring to read, as there is really no drama. The deeper I am in this routine, the better things are. My appetite for music, film, books, paintings and the people I care about increases. I have never understood why. The other night my wife and I watched the film Una Giornata Particolare and, the following evening, saw it again.
Hours on internet: two
Every time I finish a chapter I have a glass of 1973 armagnac that a friend brought me
• Hisham Matar’s The Return, which won the 2017 Rathbones Folio prize, is published by Viking.