‘The Write Tools’: a blog series featuring authors, artists and their favourite tools.
Today's guest is novelist and short fiction writer Jessica Au, former Deputy Editor of Meanjin Quarterly literary journal. Jessica's debut novel Cargo was published in 2011 by Pan Macmillan.
A few years ago, whilst trawling the internet on one of those pre-writing, procrastination benders, I came across this photographic record of Will Self’s writing room.
There were 71 photos in total, shot in no particular order by Phil Grey and uploaded as a digital slideshow. For any other writer, the project itself might have been unremarkable – a minute or two of empty time – yet here the end result was, effectively, a 360 degree panorama of chaos and wonder, because almost every inch of the room was covered in tiny yellow post-it notes. They were everywhere – on the walls, the desk, the lip of the bookshelf, the lamp, and their positioning was both haphazard and ordered. Self had stuck them wherever there was space, yet the notes were always grouped together, in set columns or rows, sometimes as tightly overlapped as fish scales. There were occasional gradients of pink and orange amongst the yellow, making the walls appear almost pixellated.
At the time, I was in the very early stages of writing my first novel. And while I had always been interested in literary paraphernalia, I was pretty dismissive of such things when it came to myself. I’ve never been able to keep a writer’s notebook, for example – for one, my handwriting is atrocious, and for another, I always forget to jot down my thoughts at the right moment. Anything else I used was purely functional – laptop, internet, desk, pot of tea. I was quite fond of the bright blue pen, with its pouring liquid ink, that I used for editing, but even that I could have done without. Anyway, I filed away the link to Self’s room away for a blog post, and then went on with the day.
A year and a bit later, I found myself right in the thick of editing, trapped, it seemed, in a hell of my own making. In trying to stretch and mould three short stories into a longer work, I’d created a structural nightmare. The novel was a giant Rubik’s cube of scenes and chronology that never seemed to match up. I had no idea how solve it.
I can’t remember exactly when or how Self’s erstwhile writing room came into my head, but eventually I started to write out each scene on some post-its of my own in cryptic, slightly cringe-worthy fragments. I colour coded them by character (orange for Frankie, blue for Gillian, and green for Jacob), and stuck small markers on problematic scenes that needed reworking (practically all of them). There were further notes for dates, sub-scenes, and ideas.
The wall was of course a much more modest and boring version of Self’s artistic chaos, but somehow it seemed to work. I could get a bird’s eye view of everything. It was easier to compartmentalise, to cut and reshuffle. For the next year or so my wall reflected the shape of each draft – growing and contracting with the chapters, gradually becoming cleaner as I reworked each scene. I marked my progress with a yellow stationary tab, awaiting the moment when I could finally paste it to the end.
The novel’s wrapped up now, and yet I still haven’t managed to take the wall down. The paper is curling, and their backs are becoming unstuck. Soon they’ll end up in the recycling, but not this week. Maybe it’s laziness, or maybe I am a little sentimental about these things after all.