Sunday, 11 January 2009
Staying Motivated, Staying Sane
When I tell people I work from home and then – reluctantly, because I know what’s coming next, add that actually I’m a writer - the response is always the same. How do you get motivated when you haven’t got anyone standing over you and telling you what to do?
(By the way, what’s coming next is inevitably a) Are you famous? b) How much money do you make? and c) I’ve often thought about writing a novel myself, you know. To which the only reply is one as pithy as Beryl Bainbridge’s to the brain surgeon who remarked on his own literary ambitions once he’d laid down his scalpel for the last time. Really? she said. Actually, I’m thinking of becoming a brain surgeon when I retire. )
Will my interrogators really only do their jobs if someone’s standing over them? Hard to imagine. Unless they’re employed to hew coal for twelve hours a day by an unscrupulous flint-face miser whose only concern is the comfort and prosperity of himself and his horse-faced wife and daughters. Or forced to dig up turnips, gut fish or wash scummy dishes in a restaurant till well into the night.
No, I don’t think they will, since those thus employed are generally migrant workers and rarely in a position to ask personal questions at dinner parties over the Chablis and smoked salmon blinis.
Instead, they’ll work in warm centrally heated offices. There’ll be people there they can chat to. There’ll be coffee breaks, lunch breaks, toilet breaks and water coolers where they can stand around and gossip about their line managers. They may even be line managers.
Occasionally they’ll remember a deadline and scurry off to meet it – taking a detour via Facebook, browsing Principles’ latest additions on their website and dashing off a text home to say it’s his turn to pick the kids up tonight.
There’ll be meetings too. Whole swathes of time spent happily staring out of the window, or doodling in your notebook while wondering whatever happened to The Mindbenders. Then there are holidays – often paid! – where you don’t have to give work a second thought for two whole weeks at a time. How cool must that be!
When first I traded work outside the home for work inside I told myself –because it seemed to be the accepted wisdom - that I had to get into a routine. A routine would ground me, give shape to my day. Make me sit down at my laptop and knock out one thousand words before lunch.
It didn’t work. Not for me. For months I felt restless. Lonely. Trapped at the mercy of my muse, which stubbornly refused to show its face. Lynda la Plante wakes at six and writes till twelve in her jim-jams, I wailed. Martin Amis goes to his office at nine and stays there all morning, before dashing off to play tennis in the afternoon. Joanna Trollope talks about taming the domestic beast before putting in several hours till teatime. If they can all do it, I cried, then, why oh why can’t I? (As Judy Garland put it)
It took me months of muddling through this period of anxiety-filled adaptation from one way of life to another, before I realised the answer. They are all lying through their (in Martin Amis’s case, expensively capped) teeth!
Writers are just the same as other employees. They procrastinate as much as anyone else. But whereas they may not have water coolers to stand around or anyone to gossip with, they have kettles, and Phil and Fern and Loose Women. They have blog stats to check, WriteWords posts to read and reply to and goodness knows how many other sites they need to pop along to just in case they’ve missed something.
Maybe they check their email more than most. But that’s business isn’t it, since editors don’t use phones these days and you’ll never know if you’ve sold a story unless you take a little peek at your inbox every once in a while (for which phrase substitute every three minutes.)
Since I made this discovery – that writers dissemble about their output just as much as everyone else does - I’ve really settled into my way of life. I write when I choose. Because, you see, I choose to write. Eventually. It may not be between nine and midday on a weekday. Some days I don’t write at all. I clean the house, do the ironing, cycle into town and have lunch with a friend.
But the bottom line is this. I want to write. I long to write. I have to write. Because a writer is always a writer, even when s/he isn’t writing. Forget the nine till five. Some of my best ideas come to me in the middle of the night, when I can lie awake for hours, plotting, mulling through the alternatives to the what-if questions posed by my characters, scripting (hopefully) witty dialogue in my head.
I’ve learned to be less anxious that I’ve only written two hundred words today. The words will come. But they cannot be forced. Wait a bit and tomorrow they’ll be better words. Hopefully more of them too.
I’ve said enough. I should get on with it – I have a serial to write. But first, let me just check if the price of that black shoulder bag from Jigsaw has come down.