A Way with Words

Au­thor Damien Wilkins de­scribes his writ­ing day.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - Damien Wilkins is the di­rec­tor of the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute of Mod­ern Let­ters at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity. His 11th book, Dad Art, was pub­lished last year by Vic­to­ria Univer­sity Press.

Damien Wilkins

My mother was a typ­ist. She of­ten typed up PhD the­ses to bring in ex­tra money when my fa­ther was a stu­dent and there were five young chil­dren to cope with. This was in Lon­don in the early 70s. Com­mon­wealth stu­dents, hag­gard and wretched, would ar­rive at the door with their bun­dles of hate­ful, spilling pa­per. Later an en­ve­lope of cash, a beau­ti­fully neat type­script. Do I imag­ine some­times the stu­dents weep­ing?

We would hear my mother typ­ing on the din­ing ta­ble. The noise trav­elled through the house. Typewrit­ing by a pro­fes­sional sounds an­gry, un­stop­pable. In the war comics I read, the ma­chine guns would al­ways fire RAT-A-TAT-TAT! This was the sound of my mother at the ta­ble. Back in New Zealand, she con­tin­ued in this line. Usu­ally she wore a head­set and con­trolled a tape ma­chine with a foot pedal. She was driv­ing the lit­tle toy car of writ­ing. She was typ­ing up the dic­ta­tion of men from the So­ci­ety of St Vin­cent de Paul. Yours in faith. That ma­chine gun. Die! Die! Die!

Fool­ishly, I never learnt to type, but

I’ve per­suaded my­self that my two-fin­ger method pro­ceeds at about the rate of my thoughts when I’m writ­ing fic­tion. Is this true? Prob­a­bly not. But it seems to work okay. And that’s the truth of any ­writ­ing regime; what­ever non­sense you can come up with is fine so long as you’re get­ting the work done.

My su­per­sti­tion around process is to elim­i­nate as much su­per­sti­tion as pos­si­ble. No favourite pen­cil or pen, no ­cher­ished note­book, no writ­ing trousers, no spe­cial time of day or night, no di­etary ­re­quire­ments. Okay, two cof­fees be­fore 10.30am. God, I love a dough­nut. But not a cronut.

When I was writ­ing my last novel, Dad Art, I had time off my teach­ing job and worked mostly in the sun­room of our house. I hooked up my lap­top to a large mon­i­tor I’d bought for record­ing my own mu­sic. You need the ex­tra real es­tate to or­gan­ise the tracks, to see at a glance all the peaks and troughs of the dig­i­tal sig­nals, where pre­cisely to put the long cym­bal splash.

I do like writ­ing on to a big screen. I sup­pose it’s Large Print writ­ing, easy on the eye. And I can see more eas­ily where in a sen­tence to put the long cym­bal splash.

But, re­ally, when­ever I’m won­der­ing about the con­di­tions for writ­ing – is this right? is this? – I think about my mother hooked up and go­ing for it at the din­ing ta­ble, with five kids. She was typ­ing, of course, not com­pos­ing a novel, but the im­age sticks: a per­son in an ­un­promis­ing sit­u­a­tion, through in­dus­try and skill, mak­ing other peo­ple cry and hand over money.

In the war comics I read, the ma­chine guns would al­ways fire RAT-A-TATTAT! This was the sound of my mother at the ta­ble.

Damien Wilkins: “I’ve per­suaded my­self that my two-fin­ger method pro­ceeds at about the rate of my thoughts when I’m writ­ing fic­tion.”

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