John Burnside: Writing is what I steal from the usual flow of things

The prolific poet and novelist on insomnia, noise sensitivity and the glorious salvation of the writers residency

My writing day: say it like that and its a highly inviting proposition. Immediately, I picture the comfortable, mildly ritualistic routine of the self-sufficient author, immersed in the stylistic minutiae of some new, and still untarnished magnum opus, composing and then patiently reworking until the elegance of the prose is almost dizzying. Hour after hour of glorious solitude. Birdsong in the trees, light rain, perhaps the occasional, very distant sound of traffic as the cityflows on around the garden studio,or the high attic room, where all this alchemyunfolds.

I think I once believed in this idyll, without reservation. Nowadays, however, I take anything I can get: an hour here, an afternoon there: every day is an improvisation. If I am awake, I am usually working, whether alone at home, or in a crowded station, or (weather permitting) a high meadow in the Swiss Alps. Often, the bewildered victim of a gamut of sleep disorders that, so far, have defied medical science, I can be found in our kitchen at three in the morning, pen in one hand, a cup of valerian tea in the other. Nevertheless, none of this constitutes what I understand by a writing day: like grace, or happiness, writing is what I steal from the usual flow of things, from all the noise and interruptions and the constant rendering unto Caesar that seems to take up more and more of everyones time and energy.

We are all painfully aware of how much more wilful (and how very humourless) Caesar has become in recent years, but there are also personal reasons for my writers predicament. Ihave a growing family and a rewarding full-time teaching job and, over the last couple of years, Ive increasingly had to contend with the aforementioned sleep problems (it began with severe insomnia, then blossomed into night terrors, sleep paralysis and apnoea; I cant wait to see what comes next). I also have hyperacusis (extreme sensitivity to certain noises), which means Id be hopeless asa spy. The enemy would require no more than a Starbucks worth of laptop-hammering geeks, or a small barking dog, to prise loose all my deepest secrets. Having said all this, however, Ivery much wish to add that none of itconstitutes a complaint. I love my writing life. It is a privilege, a quest and a lifelong discipline. I just wish the writing days could be more consistent.

The single huge exception to this round of compromise and improvisation is the residency. Ive been fortunate enough to enjoy several writer’s retreats and can safely say that, had I not, I would be at least two books behind (which might not be a bad thing, I suppose). Two years ago, I was granted the artists dream of a year in Berlin, courtesy of the German exchange programme DAAD: it was one of the most stimulating and productive periods of my adult life. I also have a running agreement with the organisation that runs the Spycher literary prize, which offers accommodation in Switzerland for up to two months at a time. Some years ago, the Scottish Book Trust offered me a months retreat on the island of Jura; had this piece of luck not come along, I would probably have ended up scrapping the project I was working on at that time. In short, if any one factor has made a difference to my working life, it is the opportunity to escape for a while, simply to write. Its a luxury Ihad never envisaged, starting out.

At such times, I rise when the birds begin to sing (usually at dawn, in the absence of light pollution) and I write, or rewrite, for up to 16 hours at a time, with breaks for camomile tea and snacks. When I stop, I walk; after which I eat and sleep. There are no days, there is only continuum. Like an old-style Taoist monk, I eat when I am hungry, drink when I am thirsty and sleep when I am tired. Its not perfect (I miss my family), but its very close.

The other benefit of a residency is that it allows for the serendipitous: I may arrive on the island, or at the gates of the villa, with a best-laid plan but, with time to walk, to listen (the poets craft, certainly, is almost entirely a matter of listening) and, best of all, to be assuredly alone, all kinds of new ideas beginto gestate. (One of the most poignant book titles ever is surely theone Nicholas Raychose for his memoirs: I Was Interrupted.) In the final analysis, that probably says it all: a good writing day isa day with the fewest interruptions, mixed with a sense of gratitude, just for being able toput pen to paper.

John Burnsides new novel, Ashland & Vine, and his latest collection of poetry, Still Life With Feeding Snake, are published by Cape.

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