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From Owl To Lark

Writing routines


I began to write ‘seriously’ in my late twenties, when I was childfree and only had to fit writing around earning a living. A few years and two children later, broken nights and hectic mornings radically altered my domestic landscape and the shape of my days. My second daughter was born the day before a copy of my first published book of stories was delivered to the maternity ward. At that moment, I did wonder how I’d fit in writing, working and raising a family, and my then agent wondered the same thing. ‘Will you give up writing?’ she asked. ‘Of course not!’ I replied emphatically, as much to convince myself as her. Thirty years and a dozen books later, I’m still at it. Even with a very supportive writer partner – without whom my life would have been very different – the all-consuming nature of motherhood came as a shock: those generous pockets of writing time I’d managed to insert into each day were ripped out in one fell swoop.

Once the baby stage was over, along with the staggering sleep deprivation it entailed, I began to snatch a couple of daylight hours while the children were napping or out of the house with their father, but the only regular writing time I had was however long I could last after the children’s bedtime. This wasn’t all bad. Unexpectedly, the new-found urgency galvanised me into covering more ground at one sitting.

With this came the welcome realisation that inspiration – an inscrutable imp at the best of times – did not, after all, require the set of conditions I had assumed it did. It did not require a clean, tidy home without never-ending piles of laundry, stacks of dirty dishes or trails of trip-hazard toys at every turn. It didn’t even require an unbroken tract of time expanding towards a distant tomorrow — although perhaps it had come to need a figuratively ticking clock. All the same, daytime sessions were usually too brief for anything that required the prolonged concentration that fiction often does, so I’d use them to develop what I’d got down the previous night, or to lay the foundations for what I hoped to build on once the children were asleep.

I have lived in the same city-centre flat since our first daughter was six months old. My workspace looks out onto a short, dead-end street leading to a main road. There’s little traffic, especially at night, although, at all hours, ambulances and fire engines regularly draw up at the sheltered housing complex directly opposite. The arrival of firefighters is usually a false alarm, with burnt toast or some such as the culprit; sadly, this isn’t the case with the paramedics. Occasional late revellers rollick home along the main road, warring couples broadcast their domestic ding-dongs across the neighbourhood, cats hiss and yowl and other nocturnal creatures contribute sounds of pain or predation. But, mostly, the nights were ideal for writing: peaceful, with little to see but twin rows of parked cars, shadowy treetops and the bright globes of street lights.

Aside from practicalities, I was drawn to night writing because darkness is vast, depthless and so felt more liberating than the sharp contours and delineated perspectives of daylight. I could wander unhindered among hints, flickers and nuances of possibility. I could dwell in the shape-shifting realms of the inchoate rather than in the hard and fast world of fully manifested actuality. For a while, I even nurtured the appealing if absurd notion that the best ideas come just before falling asleep. I courted hypnagogia — the liminal state between wakefulness and sleep characterised by vivid, dreamlike images. I chased those Will o’ the Wisps until it became clear that I was setting myself up to fail.

With little to look at or be distracted by, darkness was conducive to the exploratory, unplanned and largely intuitive generation of a first draft. Of course, a first draft is only one of several essential stages in the process. As time went on, and the day job became more demanding – I taught creative writing at graduate level for twenty years – I often found myself torn between wanting to write and wanting – usually needing – to sleep.

Even when I had no obligations to meet the following morning, I never did an all-nighter. Writers I’ve heard speak of having done this gave me the distinct impression that they considered it to be an achievement in itself. Writing fiction certainly takes endurance but it also takes mental acuity and agility which I knew I couldn’t maintain for such a stretch. Despite the romantic notion of belonging to some sisterhood of scribes burning the midnight oil, when I pushed myself beyond my limit, much of what I wrote was consigned to the wastebasket.

After a while – quite a while – I learned to throw in the towel when my concentration began to wane, and I became engrossed in a spider abseiling from the ceiling, the hum of the fridge freezer or the tax demand pinned to my noticeboard. Though I don’t always succeed in following the advice of Hemingway, himself a ‘first light’ writer, this is still the most useful piece of advice I know, whatever the time of day: ‘You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.’

I’ve never written all night, nor have I risen at three a.m. except when I’ve had to catch a plane so I’m far from an extremist in my habits but, over the years, the decades, I’ve gone from being an owl to a lark. (A night owl, that is. There are some, like the short-eared owl, which are diurnal.) I can’t pinpoint when or why my habits changed but put it down to three main factors: changes in domestic rhythms as the children grew up and left home; the ever-increasing pressures of the day job which, until summer 2017, ate into most evenings and weekends, and the process of ageing which has made daylight more appealing than darkness.

I don’t make a point of setting my alarm for the crack of dawn but, especially in the spring and summer, I tend to wake with the birds. For me, there are few sounds more uplifting than the dawn chorus. With the advent of day comes a welcome sense of renewal, a fresh set of possibilities, and challenges, and it goes without saying that there have been as many useless mornings at the desk as once there were useless nights. Since I gave up teaching, I have more usable time but, unsurprisingly, less physical and mental energy; to make the most of what I have, it’s essential to get going early to get a jump on the day. If, after a bout of maddening insomnia I start work later than usual, the rest of the day feels like playing catchup.

Writing, for me, is not about more of the same, playing to my strengths, recycling tried and tired formulae. It’s about discovering something I didn’t know – about the world, human nature, myself – and this takes a degree of optimism and self-confidence which are decidedly easier to find early on, before self-doubt, my constant companion, creeps in, and all the great and small disturbances of life begin to form a disorderly queue at the study door.

That said, looking through the window this morning reminds me that, in Scotland at least, the vagaries of the weather are more likely to impinge by day than by night. Though this morning’s relentless simmer of woebegone grey definitely dampens the spirits, it does not, as blue skies and glorious sunshine almost certainly would, tempt me to abandon my writing desk and head for the great outdoors. But whatever it is doing outside, writing creates its own horizons, soundscapes and microclimates.

In forty years, my process has changed little but my habits have been flipped. At first, I’d generate new work by night then rework the following morning. Now, it’s new work in the morning and reworking at night — although these days I rarely last beyond the witching hour. Once upon a time I chose darkness; now I choose light.

Dilys Rose lives in Edinburgh and is a novelist, short-story writer and poet. She has published twelve books, most recently the novel Unspeakable. A fifth collection of short stories, Sea Fret, is due to appear in 2022.

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