Louise Dean: How I Write

I write with gnashed teeth and rounded shoulders, making sure all would-be interrupters know the shape of my displeasure. I use loud unpleasant music to ward off intruders. An abrasive attitude is a prerequisite and it would seem sensible to abandon hygiene.

  • When you’re working the sensation is of failing in slow motion, but as with childbirth you forget about it afterwards. Writing is work that you moon over when you’re not working, you romanticise it, but in practice it’s just work. Except for the temerity of writing at all, and the feeling of how tenuous is the life it seeks to stay – what is worth keeping, writing down?

    I write daily, first thing, somewhere around 1,400 words feels good when I’m in the thick of it. I try not to berate myself in the moment of writing, I leave that till the next day. I consider the next piece during the afternoon and evening, leaving it somewhere between the subconscious and conscious, on simmer. I think out a lot of my chapters in my head in the car; the experience of motion seems to help. I keep a notebook with me always, and often scribble in lay-bys or even on the steering wheel. I am an erratic driver and a constant writer.

    Often you hear something, a sentence, in your head. It becomes a song. It’s good if it feels alive and perverse, and very good if it makes something inside of you break or give way. I know my writing works best where I fall short as a person. It has to deal with the things I cannot manage in real life. My favourite delicacies are the things I don’t say and I always imagine other people are the same as me – a necessary delusion.

    I use music to train me. To get closer to a single feeling, to drown out other noise. Usually one artist’s album will dominate the writing of a book. Popular music is far more economical in its evocation of the feeling of life.

    I am toughest on my work when I spot myself out and about in my Sunday best. I dread cute or stylised writing. There’s nothing more dreary than heavy-handed use of the condiments of punctuation or spaces or upper or lower case.

    If I was once, out of the corner of my eye, looking for the approval of friends and family, I am no more. With the book I am writing now, I have tried to follow Conrad’s maxim to ‘immerse yourself in the forces of destruction’. It deals with mental illness and racism in colonial Kenya. I have had to shake truth out of all of us, my cast and myself. With a family, one has to pull oneself up slightly short of destruction. Perhaps it’s for the best. But it’s because of this book that it’s much less necessary for me to be liked or even to like.

    I start a book with the mania of desire and end it humbled by unrequited love.

    Of course, it hasn’t made me better. I can only hope that I have used me to make the book better.

    On the one hand I have an unholy ambition to be the finest living writer. On the other I wouldn’t mind simply being left alone. In either case, I know I feel grateful that I have something of my own that I love to do, and that it helps make sense of what seems to have no sense at all.

    Louise Dean is the author of ‘Becoming Strangers’ and ‘This Human Season’, both published by Simon & Schuster.

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