Where do you write? At what time? are questions all writers hear at some point. Questions that ask, indirectly: which type of writer are you?
Familiar questions. Icebreakers. Questions that help to set the scene. Questions that offer up lenses that illuminate something more too.
The first book on craft I read, whilst studying for an MA, was ‘The Art of Writing Fiction’ (Andrew Cowan). The book dedicates a chapter to exploring writers’ routines. The chapter opens with a list detailing various writers’ habits, including: frequency and setting, equipment and duration, quirks and rituals. As I read, patterns emerged across different writers’ routines which were fun to discover – not least that many writers work from bed, where I was reading at the time.
I applied to study Creative Writing to find more time and space to write. Before the course, my answers to questions of where and when I wrote were ‘everywhere’, and ‘whenever I can’. In many cases, necessity and real life pressures shape writers’ routines. Toni Morrison wrote ‘The Bluest Eye’ in sessions that started early in the morning, working full time as a single mother. In an interview she said, “I stole time to write.”
During my months as a student, I was elated to find not just time to write, but time to read and experiment with routine. Or rather, as it turned out, to let routine experiment with me.
Through permutations of schedules, setups and rituals, it soon became clear that routine belonged to the writing; the where and when and how shifted around each piece I wrote. Though nocturnal by default, I became a morning writer on occasions when inspiration swept me through till dawn. I wrote to all genres of music, in the library and on the train, sitting outdoors and cosy in bed. Each story’s process became all that it required. Wonderful were the short stories that gushed forth at once. Wonderful were scenes I wrote, and then rewrote and later cut.
Still, in my quest for a routine, I sought a clearer structure for what felt amorphous and huge. In reading of other writers’ habits, I imagined – and hoped – it might be possible and worthwhile to recalibrate. Before the course, writing was chaotic. I hoped to organise this dimension of life, to explore: how writers worked if they could, if all other pressures fell away.
All the discussions of writing processes might imply a formula exists, an optimal approach and routine for writing. There are well known practices that help, which science endorses too – a walk in solitude can soothe the mind towards insight. A night out dancing with poets can shake up inspiration. Standing under running water can help induce a flow state. But the more that I read (and wrote) the clearer it became: as varied and diverse as our stories themselves, are the routines and habits that give them life.
Interest in writers’ routines makes sense in this age of data and transparency. Questions of when and where we write also ask when we are most productive or comfortable, and how we think creatively. Here is the age of illuminating, mapping, in which the author is invited back from death. Asking where and when we write expresses a desire to see not just the author, within, through and beyond their work, but to see the author’s world, the world from which their worlds are made.
For some this can be frustrating, distracting from the work itself. But perhaps when these questions surface, they open space for something more. Jeanette Winterson describes creating art as ‘a kind of energy-wrestle’. She writes (in 12 Bytes) ‘We’re trying to make visible the invisible world.’ James Baldwin reflected that the language of writing is ‘finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.’
Perhaps, with this in mind, there is deep comfort to be found in reflecting on routines, an aspect of the craft that can be easily described, and more than this, an aspect that grounds us, when much of the work is unseen.
Perhaps that is why these questions of setting arise so frequently. But beyond this, answering them might illustrate more than the where and when; the variety of responses, even from the same artist, can serve to underline that process is defined by change. Process is the constant that changes, and that changes creators.
Perhaps that is why we discuss it, and write about it – the search for space and time – to remember, to celebrate the stories of our stories – and through this, the whole story, with the fondness with which we might recall beloved childhood play sites; the story of it all, all the spaces writing opens, all the worlds it lifts us to.
Sussie Anie is a British-Ghanaian writer. Born in London in 1994, she writes about ideas of home in the transient and unsettled, and how technology reveals and distorts the human condition.
She holds a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics form the University of Warwick, and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she was a recipient of the 2018-19 Kowitz Scholarship. Her writing has been published in Lolwe, and shortlisted for the White Review Short Story Prize 2020.
Her debut novel TO FILL A YELLOW HOUSE was published by Orion and HarperCollins in 2022.