Muse bouche

I’ve got to tell you this today because next week I will ridicule myself for it. Next week I will be telling you that I wrote a script that was dreadful – but today, I’m going to tell you that this script is the best thing I’ve ever written.

We can analyse this predictable forthcoming about-face in some detail at any time or in any psychiatrist’s office of your choosing, but let me instead focus on the one thing that is undeniably good about this script.

It’s done.

Most of the time I’m a rather practical, even pragmatic, writer, in that if I have an idea then I also know that I will finish it. There aren’t a lot of opening scenes or chapters here. I’ll abandon, certainly, but usually the thing I like as much about getting an idea is seeing it through to the end. That applies as much to events as it does writing, but invariably it’s applied to everything I write.

Except I need a word that’s somewhere between invariably and variably.

Because every now and again, there is something that I think is good, that I think I may even be able to do well, but I keep not doing it.

Recently I’ve been talking with a writer who keeps not writing her book, and the discussion becomes one about the business of writing as much as the art. She needs to be in the right place, so to speak, to write this novel, and I absolutely see that – but not if it means it never gets done.

I didn’t believe in the muse and if I now wonder about it, I don’t think muses are on our side.

But there are people who are. I hope that in talking with me, this friend will write more of her novel, not least because I want to read it.

And in talking with people in a particular writer development programme I’ve been on – Room 204 from Writing West Midlands – I’ve written more of this script. So much more that yesterday on a train, I finished it.

I can see me there, stopped at Northampton again, looking at the screen and thinking, really? It’s called Sequences Shortened and the idea came from another friend, radio presenter and poet Charlie Jordan, who mentioned something about her work to me around 2017. It happens to be something I used to do too, back when I was working for the BBC, and it is the tiniest thing, yet it started something that finished yesterday.

You can’t wait for the muse. I don’t know what in the world you can wait for, I just know that on occasion, there are projects that take a long time. Projects that are sweet stones in your stomach, pressing away at you, somehow keeping you in them and yet away from the keyboard.

Writing that scares you, really. And for all that this is a job, I make my living entirely through writing, there have to be things you write that scare you.

I think this one has worked out. If only there wasn’t a book that I was afraid to finish too.

Sticking to type

Earlier this week I needed to get a photograph of a keyboard for a colleague on a project. Easy, I said, do you want a shot of the two I carry in my bag or of the three on my desk?

Easy, they said right back, you’re scaring us now and we’re just going to be over here, phoning other writers and a few medical experts.

Look, I can make my keyboard obsession seem perfectly normal and healthy if you’ll just let me tell you two things. One is that, excuse me, plenty of writers through the years have fixated on their 2B pencils or expensive fountain pens, I’m just ahead of the technology curve.

Okay. That didn’t work. Fine. This will. I can make the keyboard stuff seem perfectly sensible by blowing it out of the water with something worse.

For by coincidence, someone else asked me two days ago what I write in. I like her so I should’ve just said “English” rather than being boring for an hour but, pretend to be shocked, I chose the boring option. For an hour I answered that I write in Microsoft Word. And Apple Pages. Scrivener. Ulysses, Final Draft. Evernote. Apple Notes. Drafts 4. OmniOutliner. DEVONthink.

I’ve weaned myself off also using Simplenote. I never quite got into Bear Notes, Typed, Vesper, BBEdit, MarsEdit or the various flavours of WordPress but there’s still time. Ooooh, also Slack.

What I don’t understand is how I use all of these apps every day and for whatever it is that I’m writing. Without thinking, I automatically know which one I’m going to work in. That’s a bit bleedin’ obvious when I’m writing scripts because that’s what Final Draft is for – except, mind you, Scrivener is good for scriptwriting and some places I write for are less fussed about formatting and more fussed that you must deliver in Word.

So, yeah, occasionally I can’t find a piece of work because I don’t remember which app I wrote it in, but that’s just normal, everyday sane first-world problems.

What I very much don’t understand, though, is how writing can physically feel so different in each of these apps, on each of my dozen current projects. In every case I’m typing on the same keyboards into the same machines, iPad, iPhone and Mac, but they feel different. Seriously. Also, when I’ve been writing in Ulysses for iPad using an external keyboard and then go to use Scrivener for Mac with a very similar external keyboard, my fingers react differently.

A pianist I know says she finds the same thing when she goes between a Church organ and a regular piano.

I can understand that for her yet can’t explain that great difference I find where there surely can’t be any. It’s as well that I’m not fussed about justifying it as I can’t. And you may have been looking at me funny for the last couple of minutes but I’ve been thinking about this stuff for years.

Which is why there is one thing that I do understand about my fussing over keyboards and about my constant search for the next thing to write in.

It’s because that’s a damn sight easier than searching for the next thing to write.

That’s what I should’ve told my what-do-you-write-in friend: I write in the tiny amounts of time between my having been able to successfully distract myself.

She was asking, incidentally, because she’s been using Word and knows there are alternatives. I showed her all the ones on the iPad I had with her and some appealed, some didn’t, but we talked about what she wanted and ended up agreeing that Word is fine for her. It’s fine enough and she knows it well so she’ll stick with that.

So apparently I can cut through the crap when it’s someone else’s writing, I can see clearly what they need and how they’re just postponing writing. I can see that just making any decision about an app or a keyboard is better for everybody.

Except me. I’ll definitely crack on with this collection of Time stories I’m writing, though I’ll just wait until the new update to OmniOutliner for iPad is out.

So you haven’t done it, so what?

This has come up a couple of times recently. I have a natter with someone – because they asked, come on, I don’t accost people in the street with productivity advice – and it seems to go well.

I think they get a good idea of what’s really on their plate and which of it matters to them. There’s usually a new project that they want to do and after a hour or so with me, they tend to have a plan. And most importantly, I think, that new project has turned from a nebulous, unwieldy thing that’s overwhelming them into something they can do. And will do. Talking it through invariably leaves you physically no further forward yet in every other way extremely far down the line. The intangible is at least well on its way to tanging.


What’s happened these couple of times is that armed with their own new plan and, I believe, fully enthused at what they’re going to do, they haven’t done it.

They tell me this with something approaching guilt and I feel terrible. I like people thinking of me as someone to account to if that is what helps them, I loathe it when they think I’m judging them, damning them.

So here’s the thing.

Bollocks to me and what you think I think of you. What I actually think has not changed at all: I think you had this great idea and it wasn’t working out but now you have a plan, now you know you can do it. Whether you do or not almost doesn’t matter.

I want you to do this thing: it is exciting and it’s you, only you can do this and I want to see how it turns out. But what I needed, if we’re to get all personal about this, was to help you go from this stage of it being a mountain ahead of you to your seeing the path you need to take.

I promise you that I will never think badly of you for not having started on your path yet. I’m struggling to think of a situation where I would think badly of you. Come on, it’s you. How could I think badly of you?

And here’s another thing.

That plan you came up with, that simple set of steps to get this project of yours started, it’s still there. You may have changed: your interest in it may vary, your ability to fit it in with everything else you’re doing may very well have varied, but the plan is true and you can start it any time.

Are you reassured there? Because I’d like you to be. I’d like you to feel better about not doing the things you wanted to do, I’d like you to bounce off and do them. And I would not like you to read on.

Because it would be great if you still thought I knew what I was doing – and that I was doing it. And unfortunately this prevarication has been happening to me, too. In one small and one big way.

The small is that this week I’ve fallen off the OmniFocus wagon: it’s been a week of racing around – almost literally, I’ve driven a couple of hundred miles since Monday – and more than the average number of meetings. Hang ing, lemme count this out. Say it’s been a week of short days, working just nine hours a day. Monday to this morning, that’s 36 hours. I spent 21 hours in meetings and getting on for 7 hours driving. Plus I’ve somehow watched 15 episodes of Community, but that was overnight, honest.

I feel better. I feel anoraksic for working this out and for being able to work it out, but the fact that I’ve officially had just 8 hours regular working time makes me feel a smidgeon better for not being on top of all my tasks in OmniFocus just at the moment. Hang on 2. Ulp. There are 26 tasks in my OmniFocus inbox, 43 overdue ones in my Forecast calendar. Hang on 3. Just at a quick glance, I can tell you that of those 69 tasks I’ve definitely done 38.

Blimey, you’re good for me today. I almost feel okay about the small way. Plus, I’ve only glanced now to count for you but I’ll fly through an OmniFocus review in a bit and be back on top of absolutely everything. It is a great place to be: you feel so much better when you do this.

But back to the big way. How good are you at helping me with this big one? There is a project I was first approached about around May 2013, I think. That was just a whisper of a possibility and I was in the middle of two books, so. But by at the latest August 2013, it was on. I was committed to it, I had plans, we had meetings, I’d created a shared Evernote notebook for us all and was chucking lots of research detail in there. And it’s not as if I then stopped, but I then stopped.

I will be telling you about the project when it happens – and it’s going to now, otherwise I might not be telling you even this much – but the kicker is that I dragged my feet for months and I don’t know why. It did seriously irritate the other people involved: their patience was tried and convicted.

I could point to problems we have to solve and there are things about the project that were terribly nebulous that I needed to focus on. To think about. Sometimes in the rush to be productive, I lose thinking time. It’s quite a hard thing: today I will Think About The Project.

All of this is post-rationalisation, it’s just bollocks: I dragged my feet and I failed to do the work because I was crap. Can’t find reasons, shouldn’t look for excuses. But yesterday a friend, the main other guy on the project, invited me round to his place for a mug of tea and a natter. There are other things we’re doing and have to discuss, it wasn’t anything like I was driving to my doom at the headmaster’s office. Plus I just like the guy and enjoy tea with him.


With that ahead of me, I got back on the wagon for this big thing.

I looked at what the next step I could take was. The next action that I could do before going to see him. It was a hard one for me: it was a phone call. Not just a call, a cold call. Not just a cold call, but a call to an organisation I didn’t know and could not determine who I needed to speak to. I find cold calls tough but the way I cope with them is being really clear in my head who I need to speak to, what it’s about and what my aim for the call is. This time it was all about the nebulous stuff and it was to this unknown possible person in this unknown possible department. It was going to take a good few goes to just find the right person.

Except he was the one who answered. The fella I needed picked up the phone, listened, and explained how he was the one I needed. He then un-nebuloused the idea, gave me answers that totally defined the project: we can do what we like but if we do this, we get support and if do that, we don’t. Hang on. My iPhone says I was on that call for 4’56”. By the end, I knew what I was doing.

One call got me back on the wagon. I still feel I’ve been letting down the others in this project, most specifically because I have, and I’m afraid of it happening again. Very much afraid, in fact. So as soon as we’re done here today, I’m getting on with it. Well, after I’ve driven out to a meeting about another thing.

Thanks. You’ve helped. And without my intending this to be about my taking my own advice, what I wrote up there for you about it being okay to have not started, it being fine because you can still start again whenever you like, it was very nearly okay that I hadn’t started and it is fine that I am starting again now.

Do you need tea now?