We have a spare bedroom that I use as a writing room. It used to be my daughter’s room, but we swapped, so I painted the walls grey with some leftover paint, mainly to hide the disastrous job I did removing her wallpaper, and now it’s a bit like living inside an elephant. The Christmas fairy lights have stayed up. My wife saved the poster from my book launch last August, which is now on the wall. I can’t play the guitar, no more than a few chords anyway, but I like having it next to me. There’s a bookshelf with old notebooks, a printer, all the short story collections I own (they used to live with the novels downstairs, but we ran out of space, so this was my quick, cheap solution), books about writing, and books I’m using for researching current projects.
Not in the picture is a cluster of three frames on the wall — a photo of me with my parents at Grosmont railway station, a self-portrait I made when I was four that my sister found and framed as a birthday present (‘This is me’), and my Creative Writing Masters certificate. It’s a little shrine of sorts.
I write every day in my notebook, often in a coffee shop on the way to work — how I’m feeling, what I dreamt the night before, what’s bothering me, how projects are going, that sort of thing. I’ll usually share something on Twitter too, which I treat as part of my creative writing practice.
There’s no routine for writing fiction. It’s led by the project I’m working on. I’ve just finished a short story, and for that I spent a couple of weeks letting ideas take shape in my head, another couple of weeks writing in short bursts, and a final fortnight editing it to completion. When I am writing drafts, I write whenever I can make a spare hour — before work, lunch hours, or evenings. I find these periods exhilarating at first, but they quickly get very tiring, and I can’t stop until I’m happy with it. Right now, I don’t want to write another word.
I can’t listen to music and write. I need quiet, or the background babble of a coffee shop. Music is too interesting.
Anything can distract me from writing if I’m not in the intense phase of a writing project. Over the years I’ve beaten myself up so many times for procrastinating, but looking back, a lot of that was trying to write something before I had a good idea. I wasn’t patient. Writing every day, or a certain number of words per day, doesn’t work for me. When I try, I just feel crappy, and what I write seems crappy. I haven’t found that showing up every day and writing creates good ideas.
My ideas come when I’m not writing but doing other things — watching films, having conversations, being with my family, just everyday life. Ideas pop into my head, and they’re usually not very good, but sometimes a couple won’t go away, and I’ll do something with them.
The most enjoyable thing is editing a draft of a scene and seeing something good that I hadn’t intended. A connection appears and the story opens up a bit more. That’s a wonderful feeling. Finishing something that I know is as good as it can be is great too. The relief and letting go. That is a much rarer thing because I haven’t written many stories that get to me to that place.
Writing is least enjoyable when I’m exhausted because I’ve pushed myself too hard. I have a full-time job as a software developer, and a family with two kids, so it’s really important to me that I look after myself and stay healthy. I find it hard to step back when a writing project is in an exciting phase. Self-care is a project that’s always in the background.
Finishing my debut novel, The Complex, made me very proud, and then finding out it had been picked up by Salt changed everything for me. It made me believe in myself and the quality of my work.
My next novel has a title, some locations, and characters. I haven’t written anything yet. It’s still swirling in my mind. I’m not sensing the need to start writing — but I do have some books I want to read related to it. The big projects are still pretty mysterious to me. A short story might take a couple of months, and I fancy writing another one, but The Complex took three years. I don’t know if the next novel I write will go the same way. Christ, I hope not. That one hurt.
In work and school, we focus on collaboration and working in teams, but there is something healthy and magical about working on something alone. Writing is how I explore personal issues creatively. I’ve learned over time that for me it is an essential activity. I’ve had writer’s block for long periods, several years at a time, and it was debilitating. Writer’s block can make you feel like utter shit.
The value of what we write isn’t always obvious. Writing makes no financial sense. I’ve wondered many times if it is the best use of my life. But I can’t argue with how I feel when I don’t have a writing project on the go, even just as an idea that is percolating. Most days, writing is a slow trudge through daily experience.
Slowing down and noticing how I’m feeling underneath the rush of daily life has become necessary if I want to stay healthy. It’s a manic world and there are plenty of ways to avoid your emotions, including reading and writing, if done in a rush. Creative writing isn’t just stories and poems, it can be writing about your day in your notebook, for nobody’s eyes but your own. This is most of my writing. And it’s a whole-body activity. Writing feels better when I exercise, eat lots of vegetables, get enough sleep, and stretch my aching body. I’m not getting any younger.
Michael Walters’ acclaimed debut novel, The Complex, is published by Salt and available now. Find out more here or tweet Michael @michaelwaltersx