Saturday 12 January 2013

Preparing to Write, by H.M. Castor

Portrait of Jean Miélot by Jean Le Tavernier 
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Just a small thought for the day, today. I have recently discovered the genius of Jane Gardam (oh, where on earth have I been?) and over Christmas I read her marvellous novel set during the Second World War, A Long Way from Verona. Its protagonist is thirteen-year-old Jessica Vye, a would-be writer, who lives with her parents and younger brother in a small house that affords precious little privacy to anyone (lying in bed, for example, she can hear every word being said about her in the kitchen below). It's a fantastic novel in so many ways, but what I would like to pick out now is a passage in which Jessica tells us how her father - a clergyman, who writes articles for The New Statesman in his spare time - works himself up, in his study, to write:

You should see him preparing to write his articles. He tidies his desk, brushes the fireside, winds the clock, shakes the clock, opens the back of the clock and takes all its insides out. Then he throws all the bits away. Then he gathers them all up again and stands looking at them for half an hour. Then he arranges them in rows, scratches his head, picks his teeth, sits down and takes his shoes off and smells them. Then he puts his head in his hands for an hour or two and then he shouts, 'Oh shut up all of you out there,' and starts typing. When we tell him about it he is surly. 'It's nervous,' he says, 'I'm only thinking.'

(A Long Way from Verona, by Jane Gardam, pp.186-7)

This is simply the most wonderful description I have ever read of the very particular, very peculiar state one can get into when working oneself up to write. To others it may look like procrastination - in fact it is anything but. (For a delightful strip cartoon by Stephen Collins about what is procrastination, on the other hand, click here.) There is something about the intense concentration, and yet at the same time the distractedness (was Jessica's father even aware that he was smelling his shoes?), that Gardam has captured exactly. And with her characteristic humour and warmth, too.

It may be inevitable that we are not quite conscious of what we do in such a state, pre-writing, and I'm still wondering, as I type this, what it is that I do (though I can guarantee it's nothing that looks as graceful as this: click here). But I know many of you reading this will be far more self-aware, so I would like to ask: have you noticed what you do when getting yourself mentally prepared - for writing, for performing, or for anything else you undertake?

H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII, for teenagers and adults - is published by Templar in the UK, by Penguin in Australia, and will be published in the US by Simon & Schuster later this year.

H.M. Castor's website is here.


Andromeda Spaceways said...

Myself, I get a cup of tea made. Then I go online and check my email. Then I put on a CD with appropriate music. If none of that works, I do some research. Finally, I write. :-)

Andromeda Spaceways said...

Whoops, Sue Bursztynski here. I was signed in the wrong email address!

adele said...

Usually, I faff around on email and Twitter till hard guilt sets in...then I start. I just close down those distactions, open a document and there you go. BUT how wonderful that you've discovered the wonderful, wonderful Jane Gardam. Do read Bilgewater, and indeed all her teen books but also her adult books are fine! Just go through the whole lot, short stories included! Lovely post.

H.M. Castor said...

Yes, Adele, I've read 'Bilgewater' this Christmas too - what a joy! And 'Crusoe's Daughter' (recommended to me by a friend, which is what set me off on the Gardam trail in the first place) and 'Queen of the Tambourine' too. I'm having a Gardam season. Loving every page!

H.M. Castor said...

And thank you, Sue. I have little clips of film that I watch - relevant to the mood or emotion of the work in hand - to jolt me out of school-run mode and into writing mode. I also have a thermos of strong coffee!

Katherine Langrish said...

Oh, so glad to find more Gardam fans! And anyone who loves the North, try her children's book The Hollow Land - it's an utter, utter dleight.

Joan Lennon said...

One thing I don't do, in common with the monk at the top there, is tidy my desk. I wish I did!

H.M. Castor said...

Ah, snap, Joan! That book he's got on the floor, that open cupboard, that scroll dangling off the desk... all (in their modern forms) so familiar to me.
And Kath, thank you - I shall indeed look out for The Hollow Land.

Judith Arnopp said...

Sometimes I even find myself doing housework to avoid writing!

Susan Price said...

I suppose I a doing housework in order to avoid starting the fourth? - fifth? rewrite of Sterkarm 3. Things are desperate!
Thing is, I feel I have to go somewhere else to face it. Have tried to think of quiet pub/cafe but can't afford the kind of bills I'd have to run up in coffee/snacks. So decided to try moving to my 'office'. Which meant tidying it so I could get in the door.
I've reached the window! Books and CDs shelved, letters filed, rubbish thrown out.
But I also tweet and Facebook to stave off work - and play solitaire and mahjong... And then I work half the night writing what I could have written during the day.

Mark Burgess said...

I love that picture. The drapery of the monk's habit reminds me of a description by my professor at art school. He said it was like the skin on a cup of coffee. Coffee is the essential for me, otherwise I don't have any routines. But I tend to work in intense bursts with spells of looking out of the window.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Exactly what I'm doing now! :-) At least my floor and bathroom are clean and I also got a load of wash out of the way. But my only writing today? A blog post!