Roopa Farooki on Making Time to Write

March 16, 2015

Mornings always sound hectic in our household, as any interviewer who has the misfortune to call me before the school run soon finds out. Our lofty discussion of books becomes inevitably peppered with ‘Not those trainers, THOSE trainers,’ ‘Stop upsetting your brother,’ ‘Stop tormenting your sister,’ ‘Uncrumple those spellings NOW… okay, I mean now, please,’ and so on. Except I speak to the children in French, so perhaps it sounds more profound than that. You wouldn’t know that beneath the noisy chaos my morning routine is like a military machine, right up until I push my feet into my boots and race out the front door with my laptop under my arm to get the 7.55am train to work…

Everyone’s busy. We all get that. I have four children, aged nine and under, and work at two universities (Oxford and Kent), so I’m probably more time pressured than most. But as a writer, time is what you need. Not necessarily a room of your own, although that would be nice, but just some time of your own.

Finding that time hasn’t always been easy – it used to feel that I was hacking my writing hours out of a hectic day like blood from a stone. Some years ago, I was writing THE FLYING MAN, my fifth novel, between three hour breastfeeds for my twins, and often late into the night, while also teaching on the Masters at a local university. I’d frequently find that I was peeling myself off my laptop in the early hours, having fallen asleep on the keyboard. Sometimes in mid-sentence. A colleague who was managing to do her PhD with young children, told me to stop working so late. ‘Work early, instead,’ she said. ‘Really, really early.’

I wasn’t convinced at first, but it was great advice. Once I started doing that, I couldn’t understand how I’d ever thought I’d be more productive from 10pm to midnight, with a glass of wine, than from 5am to 7am, with a cup of coffee.

Yes, 5am. When I tell people that I’m usually up writing at crazy o’clock, they back away from me slowly, in case whatever I have might be catching.

But that’s what I do now – it’s wonderful not to be forced to carve and cajole my writing time out of an over-diaried day, but to know at 5am, every morning, I can simply sit and write. The children have worked out that I get up early, so there’s the cloak and dagger element of sneaking about in the dark, so I don’t wake them. I tip toe past their rooms, and have got into the habit of making a pot of coffee the night before, to minimise clanking about in the kitchen. I just heat up a cup and start writing.

Sometimes I write well, and sometimes I don’t. I’m never terribly ambitious, and I’m happy if I just get a few hundred words down. But I always have an enormous satisfaction, that just before 7am, when my ‘real’ day begins, I’ve already achieved something as a writer. I tell myself that bad work can be improved upon or rejected, but a blank page is just a blank page; I always think it’s better to have written something rather than nothing. And when I wake the kids up, or they bounce in on me unannounced in the kitchen, I’m in a really good mood.

Then the day takes over, just for an hour or so, and I make extravagantly complicated breakfasts for my children to make up for the fact that I’m not there at home-time. My twins have allergies, so I whip them up pancakes with raisins (dairy free, egg free, wheat free… I’ve worked out a fantastic recipe) which they love, my oldest son is keen on his omelettes, and my second son usually requests French toast. I set the boys the task of unloading the dishwasher and beating the eggs, while I’m flipping the pancakes, and sit down with them with my cold cup of coffee, shamelessly foraging any of their leftovers for my breakfast. (I hate wasting food…) My husband comes down to take over for the school run just before 8am, and I kiss them all goodbye, and run out of the door (literally, run) to make my train.

And then, on the train, I munch on any pancakes that I haven’t yet finished, open up my laptop, and spend an hour editing or adding to the morning’s work. My writing day is pretty much completed by 9am. And I spend the rest of the day without resentment, not worrying about the time I’m spending away from my fictional world, because I know it’ll be there for me tomorrow. At 5 am.

Maybe it’s a writing routine that wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works for me. My sixth novel, THE GOOD CHILDREN, was the longest and most ambitious book I’d ever attempted, and I was writing it with more commitments than I’d ever had. It came to almost 700 pages in the proofs, at 170,000 words. But a few hundred words a day soon adds up. I managed to write the first draft in a little under a year, even with vast structural edits.

I’ve published six novels in seven years, and I just have to hope that I’ll be able to keep this up, although possibly not at the same pace, as from September I’ll be switching from university lecturer to university student. I’m starting medical school on the fast track graduate programme, and will try to take advantage of the longer commute to get more early morning words in the bank.

I think I’ll manage it, because with my every day writing routine, even at crazy o’clock, I always feel close to my craft. Because in the end, being a writer isn’t a grand and complicated thing. A writer is simply someone who makes the time to write.

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