Writing Without Borders

hand-written page
Category: Writing

Just over six years ago, I began writing a story while I was at home recovering from a cold. I sat in a rocking chair and scribbled with a pencil stub in a notebook. I had no idea what I was doing but the Muse was shouting in my ear to get on with it, whatever it was. So I kept going and the pages multiplied.

I was so afraid of jinxing my progress, I glued my posterior to that rocking chair whenever I wrote. Unlike other writers who work in silence, I played my David Sylvian and Dead Can Dance albums over and over, because they had inspired the work from the start. Their songs became a sort of soundtrack for my novel.

When I had enough hand-written pages, I would transcribe them onto a computer. It was painstaking, but I adhered to this ritual for months. I could not imagine creating stories anywhere else but in my living room nor in any other way than this. But then, no one was waiting for my story and there was no deadline, so I could work as I liked.

Once I had a first draft that needed to be revised (and revised… and revised again), my superstitious need to hear certain music or to sit in the rocking chair ebbed away. I put down my pencil and composed straight onto the computer. But I was still locked away in my own little world. That world was prised open when Templar Publishing acquired my manuscript, The Blackhope Enigma, and suddenly I had editing deadlines. I especially remember a flight to America when I rewrote a whole section with my notebook balanced on the tray table. It was liberating. My surroundings didn't matter as long as I had a pencil, paper and dogged concentration on the task.

I hardly used the rocking chair when I wrote the sequel, The Crimson Shard. I typed the story instead of writing it out. I thought I could pretty much write anywhere - and even work without music if I had to. So when I was awarded the fabulous opportunity to undertake one of the Scottish Book Trust Finland Residencies for Children's Writers in March, I was elated. It would be easy to transplant myself to an island off the coast of Helsinki and write much of the first draft of my next book, right?

I set off to Suomenlinna Island with a borrowed laptop and a growing sense of anxiety. What if I was fooling myself? Maybe it was okay to write a bit on a train or plane once in a while, but what if I really needed to work in my usual surroundings ninety percent of the time?

What I learned on my residency was this: I just have to show up at the desk or rocking chair or tray table, and get started. I could have been in midtown Manhattan or Kathmandu - it didn't matter. As it happens, I was on a very quiet and atmospheric island where winter hung on much longer than in Scotland. It was a great place to tramp around when my work got a bit stale or I had been indoors too much.

There were a few low moments when I wondered whether I could do the amount of writing work required in the time I had. With a large project, there is a crisis point where it looks too big to accomplish. But as I'm learning with each novel, I have to trust that I will get the work done as best I can. This is when I dig in and keep going with that dogged concentration. E. L. Doctorow got it right when he said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I look back at my time on Suomenlinna as a valuable gift, not only because of the wonderful location and contact with Finnish artists and writers, but because I left my comfort zone and pushed through another creative boundary. I wouldn't hesitate to write future books in other unusual locations because I now know I will always have my most important writing tools, imagination and determination, wherever I am.

Teresa Flavin

Teresa Flavin is a children's book author and illustrator based in Glasgow. Her first novel, The Blackhope Enigma, was shortlisted for the 2011 Scottish Children's Book Awards and she will be talking about the sequel, The Crimson Shard, at the 2012 Edinburgh International Book Festival. Templar Publishing will publish the final novel in the Blackhope Enigma trilogy in 2013.