I am currently selling my flat, so forgive me if I break off to grind bread, bake coffee and scatter rose petals down my stairwell. Friends gleefully tell me that moving house is a major source of stress and I do, in a way, agree with them. I certainly found it stressful the last time I moved. Then again, I was trying to get rid of a damp-riddled hovel adrift from its own foundations the last time I moved. It took a while. Despite all that property's faults – and they were not only manifold, but crucifyingly expensive to rectify – I did live there very regularly and was used to it. I missed it when I left.
Although I love my current home – and it's in excellent nick and a bargain and so forth – I have to say that the only part of it that I will actually miss is where I am right now – my study. This was my very first ever personal study: red walls, no visible and therefore distracting books, quiet sunshine, no business-suggesting desk, no threatening desktop computer… just a comfy chair, a slim laptop (with lead screening for lap safety) and peace and a fireplace for when things turn chilly. I really will miss this.
To be fair, most of my books have been written in hotels, other people's spare rooms, borrowed houses, on trains and on the run, but even so… Since the summer of 1996 I have known I would always eventually come back to my study, that at some point my book would meet my study and they could sit down together gently and be introduced.
And I'm sure that all of you out there have either managed to build some kind of writing nest for yourselves, or are battling gamely to make the best of a kitchen table, or a bed-sit corner. Whatever your circumstances, it is worthwhile taking a moment to make sure you're as comfortable as you could be. Even if you can only make very minor alterations to your environment: finding a cushion for your chair, making the place smell of Marmite, because that's what a happy room smells like for you, changing a lampshade so the light doesn't tempt you to hang yourself every time you end a sentence. Even a proper study can always be improved, here and there, and low-level care of the author by the author may set patterns that mean next time around you're a millimetre less likely to agree to that laughably low fee, or sleep in that clearly infectious B&B, or rework your whole piece according to someone else's convoluted prejudices.
I mention all this because writers, in my experience, can be so intent upon writing that they can easily ignore the discomforts, dangers, or wasp-covered children around them. This can lead to ill-health, divorces and children who run off to join the circus and be covered in wasps on a more professional basis. I have just received an email from the excellent prose artist Richard Bausch – a man I last saw while he dozed in a Galway hospital bed like a wasp-free child. He had suffered a head injury: a serious concussion which would lead to his being temporarily barred from flying home to the US. I mean, he really wasn't well. He sent me a line today announcing the end of work on his new novel and mentioned in passing that he wrote a portion of it on his dinner table, while in the hospital. He ditched his food and turned on his laptop. He couldn't not. Even with a shaken brain and the best black eye I'd ever seen, he couldn't ignore his need to write.
If you know the feeling, then you may – like me – have to take conscious steps to ensure your comfort and well-being while you work.
Last week – perhaps this is an omen that I should leave swiftly – my special typing chair snapped its cable. I had no idea that it needed a cable to be operational, but clearly it did. No cable: no reclining: no movement at all, in fact. Having upstaged me in every photograph ever taken of my study, the beast has now locked at a tilt which I find mildly excruciating after 20 minutes and I do tend to write for longer than 20 minutes. I await a new cable, while trying to feel this is my chair's way of easing me into serious writing again after last year's infirmities, by ensuring short bursts of typing and then strolling and a beverage. Repeat as necessary. On the good days, this makes me feel relaxed and well-hydrated. On the bad days, I can't be bothered strolling, put up with a growing spine ache and resent the amount of decaf-coffee-replacing-dust I am getting through. But at least I'm not in hospital.
Meanwhile, I have shovelled through some of 2011's backlog and am considering the tiny stack of stories which will hopefully have grown into a new anthology by the end of 2012.
When I started writing – like many, many others – I chose the short story, because it seemed to require minimal commitment and to be small enough to handle, even for me. Nobody told me that short stories, even then, were incredibly difficult to place. No one mentioned that most editors would rather be eaten by rabid tapirs than have to publish a collection of the things. And, above all, it wasn't made clear to me that short stories are perhaps the most demanding form a writer can encounter: all the density, lyricism and precision of a poem, but character and plot, too: all the depth and insight of a novel, but short. I proceeded in blissful – or only mildly anxious – ignorance and tried to produce pieces that would make sense to anyone other than me. I overcame the shock of first writing a protagonist who was a different age from me, a different gender, or apparently undergoing experiences very different to my own. I troubled myself with all the usual doubts – Who the hell will read this anyway? Hasn't this all been said somewhere else before? Why am I bothering? Who am I kidding that I can write? What if I run out of ideas? – and so forth. I tried to igore me, recovered after each rejection and plodded on. I didn't do this because I was determined, or had an idea that in the end things would work out, somehow. Nothing like that. I simply gained more satisfaction from writing than anything else I did. Writing made me happier than an – albeit very shoddy – boyfriend, an utterly pointless job and an apparently purposeless life. And short stories were my way into that. They had delighted me as a reader – all those fine, deep joyful blows to the head – and they had, eventually, led to my being published and having the life of a writer, the only one I have ever proved fit for.
I mention all this, because that tiny stack of short stories and the other modest stack of ideas and notes and possible titles behind it is, of course, quite frightening, just now. I am starting again. Again. And, having made uncoffee number 28, strolled a bit and then clambered back into my chair, I have to make myself comfortable inside as well as out. I have to remember – This is where it all come from, this is where I tiptoed off and started to meet it all – in the short story. So probably, I'll be OK. Maybe. We'll be OK. One word at a time. Onwards.
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