ESCAPE ROOM: MALCOLM DEVLIN

Once upon a time, longer ago than I’d care to admit, I attended a writing course at a local college. I was fresh out of university at the time and I was settling in to my first honest-to-god actual job at an online bookshop.

“You’ll never have to buy another book,” I was told during the interview. As you can imagine, I tested this hypothesis thoroughly until the first dot com bubble burst.

 Back then, I lived in a shared house with my own room. I even had my own computer, a big unwieldy thing that wheezed when it accessed the internet. It had a heavy CRT monitor that took twenty minutes to warm up and hummed like a microwave once it had.

The first assignment in the writing class was one of those whimsical ones designed to break the ice and warm people up. We were told to write a poem about an animal we identified with. Then we had to read it to the class.

You’ll probably be quite relieved to hear that I don’t remember everything I wrote. What I do remember is that I chose a sloth as the animal, and that the poem included the following couplet:

I would write down what’s in my head,
Were my computer closer to my bed.

These days, I have a laptop, but I still don’t write in bed. The bedroom is Helen’s writing space, not mine.

Being in a relationship with another writer is remarkable and privileged thing. I suspect, during the years we’ve spent together, I’ve learned more about putting pen to paper than any number of college courses could have taught me. Half our conversations seem to be workshopping one thing or another. It goes both ways and it’s weird and lovely and fizzes with a sort of mad, infuriating invention.

Sometimes I wake up in the morning and Helen’s just lying there waiting for me to stir.

“Listen,” she says before I can rub the sleep out of my eyes. “How about if–“

And she’s off. An idea has struck her, a broken bit of a dream that woke her up and suddenly that irritating bit of the story she had been working on makes some kind of sense. She’s not after my opinion, exactly, she’s just saying it out loud, cementing it into something real, testing to see if it flies.

Sometimes I wake and she’s already up. Bedside light on, she’s reading a book about brutalist Communist architecture or Siegfried and Roy or paging through an article about a very specific kind of sentient sludge that might prosper on Mars.

Sometimes she’s already on her laptop.

“Hey,” she says, when I wake up. “Are you going to the cafe today?”

I started writing in cafes when I had a day job. Since I was laid off, I’m now freelance, which on good days means I’m absurdly, stressfully busy and on bad days feels like a word invented by people who don’t want to admit they’re unemployed.

Before that, I worked for various small publishing companies, aid organisations and one online bookshop — office jobs, the sort of which I always swore I’d never settle for, invariably located in awkward parts of town.

I realised early on that the only way I would get time to write anything for myself was to actively put aside time to do so. So, I set my alarm forward an hour and stopped off in a cafe on the way to work each morning.

This way, five days a week, I had one hour a day to write. It worked. I got used to getting up early, used to leaving when the morning was still fresh and brisk, used to getting into work a little bit late and a little bit spent.

In the cafes, I set myself rules. Whatever I write is allowed to be rubbish. If I don’t write anything, that’s okay too. On some days, I can rattle through a thousand words; on others, I can only manage twenty. Sometimes I’ll just revise something I’ve written the day before and on many occasions I’ll just stare at a blank page and that’s fine because I know I’ll be back the next day, same time, same place, and maybe I’ll do better then.

I don’t know if it was because I became invested in this routine — because it started working for me — that I now have difficulties writing at home and I envy those who can.

The house has too many other distractions. There are other things I should be doing and the things I absolutely shouldn’t be doing seem too easy to waylay me. Being freelance means that technically I have the time to write from home — it’s where I do all of my design work after all, and given that the price of all those posh Americanos start to stack up, economically it would be a sound idea. But when I try writing in the house, I feel I should be doing my design work instead, something that will help pay the rent.

Interlude: There was a time, a few years ago, when I did try and write from home. I ignored the cafes and got up early to work in the kitchen instead. For a time, I thought it was going to work. It felt like a stubborn attempt to realign the routine that I realised I had locked myself in to, the same way that I had taught myself to get up early in the first place.

A few months before this experiment, Helen had moved into the shared house I was living in. After a while, she would hear me get up in the morning and she would come down to get a coffee. We’d end up chatting instead and I would get no writing done at all.

One morning, she came down and asked me if I wanted to go on a date. She just came out with it as she was topping up her coffee cup.

You’ll probably be quite relieved to hear that I don’t remember everything I said in reply. What I do remember is that it included the following couplet:

kjhafdkj kjalsdk jf;alskjf a
klajsdhfl kajsdh; kjfas!!!!!!!!!!!

Those who know how I usually ration my use of exclamation marks can probably appreciate how that might sound out loud.

My problem with working in cafes is that I’ve always thought that people who write in cafes are wankers. This is obviously grossly unfair, but it’s a prejudice that, once fostered, needed time and effort to disabuse.

I am now one of those wankers and I’m mostly at peace with it.

I know there are some who will go to the same cafe day in day out, set up their little offices and block an entire table for the mornings with a peculiar sort of pride, but for the longest time, I found the whole thing acutely embarrassing and rather precious. Maybe this is why so many of my stories end up being about the horrors of social awkwardness in public places. They all stem from everyday cafe punters seeing me in the corner, back against the wall so no-one can see I’m trying to write dialogue rather than a business email, crouched and reddening behind my glasses.

I used to have a rule that as soon as the cafe staff knew what I was going to order before I said it out loud; as soon as I became a regular, I had to move to another cafe and never go back there again under any circumstances. In the last town we lived in, I got through eleven cafes that way, so in some ways it’s a good thing we ended up moving or I’d have probably run out.

This complex has mostly passed.

I’ve now resigned myself to returning to the same couple of cafes each morning. I plug in my headphones and put on something wordless and noisy, not to block out the sound of the cafe so much as to augment it. Today, I’m listening to Treetop Drive by Deathprod and Garden of Delete by Oneohtrix Point Never. They’re an unholy racket to a lot of people, I suspect, a weirdly melodic white noise that makes the cafe around me sound as though its glitching.

Even though my time is mostly my own these days, I still find I can only manage an hour or so in the cafe each morning before I feel like I should be somewhere else, doing something else. The pressure to get some work done that will actually pay has a tendency to cloud over everything else and I pack up my things and surrender the table to someone else.

I go for a short walk, try and straighten out whatever it was I was working on, trying to rationalise how and what it was for, and hoping to figure out a hook that will help me get started the following day.

Then, I go home.

On some days, during the holidays or on her writing days, Helen is exactly where she was when I left in the morning. She’s in her office, her computer on her lap, the cup of coffee I brought her that morning now cold on the bedside counter.

She looks up and smiles when I come in.

“Listen,” she says, her eyes bright. “How about if–“

Malcolm Devlin is the author of the critically acclaimed and award nominated short story collection, “You Will Grow Into Them” and many other things. You can track him down here.

ESCAPE ROOM: HELEN MARSHALL

My boyfriend (the brilliant Malcolm Devlin*) describes my writing space as “paradise”—particularly when I kick him out of it in the morning so I can write. Which is to say, I write mostly in bed, mostly in pyjamas, surrounded by piles of book. Despite what he says, I suspect this practice is neither paradise for my book nor good for my soul but it seems to be working at the moment. Because I’ve moved around quite a bit over the last ten years, it’s been ages since I had something like a formal office. I do have one where I work at Anglia Ruskin University, but because I share it with two other colleagues, it’s more of a meeting place than a space for deep concentration. I’ve had to become quite good at adapting myself to wherever I am. I often try out different writing areas to help me break out of various ruts: editing at the kitchen table, rereading and redrafting from my couch, writing by hand in the back garden. But the bed seems to be my preferred place at the moment.

And if you’re feeling sympathetic to poor Malcolm, please note that I gave him the office for his design work. Also, those are his beautiful feet in the picture—his feet, my thumb. (This will be the title of the next short story I write.)

This is where I finished the editing of The Migration, my debut novel which has just launched from Titan in the UK. As my first full-length novel, it was an exercise in stamina that required repeated redrafting. Much of that I did in this bed, between the hours of four and eight in the morning before I went in to the university. I’m proudest of the process of writing The Migration in large part because it challenged me to keep going even when I had completely lost confidence in myself. Sometimes you feel proudest of the stories which come out easily but I find myself wanting to focus on the ones that take real effort.

I don’t have a set routine per se because my schedule changes so much. What I’ve found is that I write best first thing in the morning. So I try to schedule my day—where possible—to give myself a couple of free hours before I check my e-mail or my social media. Whatever I start doing while I’m drinking my coffee is what I’ll end up doing for the first half of the day. If I can make that writing then I’m a happy camper. When I actually sit down to write, I tend to start off by reading something written by someone else for the first twenty minutes, largely to quiet my brain and to begin to get into the rhythm of writing. Poetry works best for this, I find, because it is imagistic and the language is so condensed. Currently I’m reading Simon Perril’s lovely book Archilochus on the Moon which is both on-target enough for my current novel about travel to Mars, yet oblique enough that it doesn’t feel like research. Quite often I read until I find myself wanting to write something new of my own down. Other times, once I feel in the groove then I’ll go back and reread and lightly edit what I wrote in my last session. If I hit a wall, then I either go back to reading or I try to do something physical but not brain-intensive (like cleaning or going for a walk) so I can distract myself while my subconscious turns the problem over in search of a solution.

My biggest distraction from writing is the massive, ever-present to-do list in the back of my head. When I wake up my impulse is to sort through the small tasks that I find slightly scary—like e-mailing people—so that I don’t need to think about them anymore. But I’ve found this is a mistake because if I start by doing those tasks, then I seldom come back to writing later in the day. I’ve found the trick is to put my writing first and add anything worrying me to an on-going digital to-do list. That seems to give me permission to forget about it for a bit.

I find music with lyrics of any sort to be a massive distraction. I did write one short story while listening to the same song over and over and over again until the lyrics became so rote they seemed like white noise.

Sometimes writing just flows out of you and it feels effortless. When I’m in the “zone” I feel as if I’m entertaining myself, surprisingly myself, making myself laugh. A lot of writers talk about this feeling and it can be a rush. But there are other aspects of writing I enjoy as well including the careful editing that puts paragraphs in the right order and clarifies sentences. But the greatest part of writing, I’ve found, is the permission it gives me to be myself in the fullest way possible, to value the unique perspective I have on the world. When people tell me I’m a bit weird—which happens all the time—I don’t see it as a problem anymore. The weirdness is me. It’s what I’m here for.

The least enjoyable part of writing is not writing. I get antsy if I don’t manage to write for three days. I get antsy if I try to write and I don’t get anywhere. Mostly I find that the anxieties and experiences of writing that I see in my students are the same anxieties I still have whenever I’m trying to write. They think getting published will solve the problem for them. It doesn’t, not really. The only thing experience really teaches you is that there are good writing days and bad writing days. Bad writing days are part of the process. Don’t beat yourself up when they happen.

I’ve started work on another novel called The Floating City, which is something of a ghost story set on Mars about the processes of colonization and the unforeseen impact we can have on an environment. It’s an attempt at something closer to science fiction than I’ve really done before and so it’s been more research-intensive—or rather, research-intensive in a different way than my previous books. But it’s challenging me to learn new skills and that’s never a bad thing. If you happen to know anything about sentient sludge, please get in touch!

[*Malcolm Devlin is next week’s escapee.]

Helen Marshall is the World Fantasy Award winning author of two short story collections. Her writing has received critical acclaim far and wide, including from author Neil Gaiman. Helen’s excellent debut novel, The Migration, is available now. You can find out more about Helen here.