Making and Breaking (On Habits)


What would Colette do?

Write at the same time and place every day. Make it a habit. (Stephen King)


I like to do it in the mornings. I make a strong cup of coffee and get back into my bed, sit there with my laptop as the sun climbs outside my window. Sometimes I don’t move for two hours: it’s the finest part of my day, the period (I read somewhere) before the ego has a chance to intervene. I have done my best work between those sleep-warm sheets.


My friend has the perfect room for it. It’s on the top floor of her house, beneath the eaves. Surrounded by books, with a mustard yellow easy chair in the corner, she does it at a small antique desk, a pinboard stuck with inspirational images on the wall before her. The optimum condition, she tells me, is when the house is empty, the only sound the birds in the nearby trees and the faint ticking of the pipes.


We have writing habits. All the best writers do. Phillip Pullman handwrites precisely three pages every day. At the end of each session, he turns the page over and composes one new line, so he isn’t confronted with a blank sheet when he returns. Haruki Murakami rises at 4am each morning to begin and runs 10 km after he is done. Stephen King holds that to be a great writer you must abandon your television and read a lot instead. Virginia Woolf needed a room of her own.


The implication is that writing demands special conditions: like a religious ritual, it can only be enacted when the correct protocol has been observed. If it helps you write, so much the better. But the danger, for me, is when the circumstances fail. One day I might have to use my morning to go to the doctor or have a meeting, and then it’s noon and the conditions are wrong, and I tell myself that if I write anything now it won’t be a patch on what I would have done earlier, so I might as well leave it until tomorrow. My book remains untouched.


But lately I’ve been trying to break my habits. Now, I write in noisy cafes and jot things down on my iphone notes on a crowded tube train. I steal ten minutes in the midst of an afternoon of admin, or scribble in my notebook while my boyfriend is driving. It may just be a sentence or two, but with time, they accumulate, turn into something bigger than the sum of their parts. Writing, it turns out, isn’t all that sacred after all. It’s just putting one word after another, and you can do that pretty much anywhere.


To admit the possibility of writing in almost any circumstance is to admit the possibility that almost anyone can be a writer. Sometimes it seems to me that the rules for being a great writer are set up not to help writers, but to exclude them. Having the time to write every day is a privilege if you have to work two jobs to pay the bills, or to try and fit it in around doing the school run or caring for a sick relative. So is a place dedicated to writing. So is silence.


Perhaps we need fewer stories of the uncompromising discipline of writers, and more about writers behaving like normal human beings. Enjoying their writing sometimes but hating the process and sacking it off at others. Creeping up on it sideways in uneven fits and spurts, grabbed from all the other cluttered business of being alive. The reality for me is that there are times when I don’t write for days, because I have other important things to do, and sometimes I put down my copy of Woolf and watch Love Island, just because I feel like it. It doesn’t make me any less of a writer - as long as, one way or another, something ends up on a page.


The beauty of writing is that it can belong to almost anyone. All it takes is putting pen to paper. How you get that done is up to you.

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