This is the room in which I work. This is where I’m writing what you’re reading right now, sitting in that chair, at that desk, working at the laptop you can see.
I keep the curtains closed when I’m writing because when I’m writing I want to write, not look out the window at the Magnolia tree coming into bloom on the church lawn.
I live in the grounds of a church, a pretty place — stone-walled parkland in the centre of a busy market town in the west of Ireland — I serve as a sort of steward for the place — the Steward of Abbeystrewry — so if I’m looking out the window I’m seeing lots of stuff that needs to be attended to — lime-mortared stone-walls to be repaired, hedges in need of trimming, sly cats that want to kill things just for cat-laughs, and scores of other things that call unto me from the lush surrounds.
Also the morning sun streams in that window — although this morning is overcast — such that, were the curtains not drawn to, I would not be able to see anything on the computer screen.
Another reason is that when I get up in the mornings — and most of what I do gets done early in the day — it is such a fragile time.
To get to the kitchen to make a shot of coffee for myself, I need to walk through this room. As I go by my desk I turn on the computer, which I let to purr and blip-blip its way to readiness while I pad about in the kitchen listening to the dawn chorus (Abbeystrewry — the abbey of the streams — is full of shrubs and trees and eaves for mothering birds and, even though it’s near the town-center, bird-song performances are full-throated and fabulous).
I like good coffee — Simon Lévelt’s mild Arabica these days — and do not begrudge the time it takes to make it the way I like it, which is one mug at a time, with a paper filter in a plastic funnel that sits on top of the mug, with both the mug and the milk heated a little.
Even before I eat anything I get to the computer (maybe a chocolate biscuit or two). I find that if I do not get down to it as early as possible, nothing at all will get done. If I check Facebook or WordPress or anything like that, I’m kippered — get caught reading things or responding to things and next thing you know the morning’s gone and it’s time for the church grounds to be opened up. Aside from the church itself (the temple), there is Abbeystrewry parish hall (a separate building), which is a busy little place — in effect the town’s community center — an infants’ playschool, country produce markets, music for babies, WeightWatchers, dance classes and so on all through the day and into the evenings (when — with bingo and badminton and the Flower Club of Skibbereen and so forth — things start to get a little more raucous).
If I’ve started in on something and have two or three hours done on it before 9 AM then there’s a very good chance I will get another couple of hours at it (in bits and pieces) during the day — it’ll have its own momentum by then. But if the morning gets wasted I never recover — it never feels right afterwards: it’s not just the waste of time — the fragile spell is broken.
Writing-wise, everything I do in the morning is about not doing stuff, not taking too long before I get to the computer, not checking emails, not taking (or making) phone calls, not thinking too much about what I’m doing, not letting too much of the outside world in — be that in the form of daylight, or a sense of what the weather’s doing, or broadcast or on-line news, or even any personal stuff — family, relationships, career — whatever, all of it can wait until after I’ve opened up the grounds, at least. I don’t even wash or shower — I put on my trousers and a sweatshirt (and a woolly hat if it’s very cold), power-up the computer, brew some coffee, and start tappety-tap-tapping on the keyboard within about 15 minutes of first opening my eyes to the dry bedroom air of a new day.
When everything’s running smoothly there’s no finer feeling I know of — and yet it’s almost impossible to describe — because you’re not really there — the whole point is to get yourself into that space where you’re unselfconscious. One minute it’s 5.40 or so and next thing you know its 8.50. Perhaps once in that time-period you’ll stop and put on some socks and eat a bowl of muesli, but very little else. At the end of it you may have 800 words, or a thousand words, maybe less, maybe more, but hopefully you’ll have moved whatever you’re working on forward a little bit. Making progress has its own dynamic. If you’ve written three or four pages worth and you’re happy with them, a shit-storm of misfortune would have to blow your way that day to stop you from doing a little more on it — at the very least, printing it off and doing a little pic-at-it editing.
Church Meadow House, Abbeystrewry, Bridge Street, Skibbereen, Co. Cork
Some writers stop right in the middle of something, or maybe towards the end part of it, just so that they can start putting words on the page first thing the following morning. (A bit like having a dodgy vehicle and always parking it on a slope, just in case there’s a problem.) On this point, the following is a quote from Ernest Hemingway:
“The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time . . . Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work. The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places”
(The Hemingway quote is from Arnold Samuelson’s With Hemingway, a year in Key West and Cuba.)
Update (8 July 2014): playing around with a newly acquired camera, I’ve made this little film which serves nicely as a supplement to the foregoing (it is, as I see it, more or less a film portrait of the same subject — although, as I say, this was not the intention in taking up the camera; as I’ve said, I am but learning to use the camera along with some of the associated editing packages, a ZOOM Q3 hd, and this is one of the first fruits). Py