Around the world in eighty desks

4 Mar 2021 | The Writing Process

To be honest it was probably a lot more than eighty, but you get the idea!

Thanks for visiting my website, reading my first ever author’s blog and supporting the journey of Locust Summer. It’s been a long one. Ten years or so with writing done all the way around the world.

Travel is an important part of my creative process. And though we can’t go anywhere at the moment, I’d like to share (and celebrate) some of the disparate and disheveled desks that I worked at tocreate the book, as they really shaped me as a writer and could help inspire your journey.

Because though Locust Summer is set in the harsh white sunlight of the West Australian Wheatbelt, the book was largely written overseas, everywhere from a mist-draped mansion in the mountains of Dominica in the Caribbean to the Gamelan-tinged dawns of Bali.

That’s far removed from what I thought writing would be like. I’d imagined a grand oaken desk with mighty paperweights and a view of a skyline or a lake in the Alps. Yet I found myself writing wherever I could, whenever I could, and had to get handy at scratching together reasonably level surfaces to rest the laptop on and chairs to occupy.

Of course I lusted for that antique airy minimalist cluttered fantasy office every writer has in the back of their minds. But then I’m reminded of what the writer Hugh McLeod said in his seminal book on creativity, Ignore Everybody’.

“Meeting a person who wrote a masterpiece on the back of a deli menu would not surprise me. Meeting a person who wrote a masterpiece with a silver Cartier fountain pen on an antique writing table in an airy SoHo loft would seriously surprise me.”

Hugh McLeod

You don’t need the props. You just need to sit your butt down. And sometimes you can stumble on a brilliant spot to get the work done like these:

The beer garden of Gethsemane

In the bible, Gethsemane is the garden where Jesus is arrested by the Romans before the crucifixion. The name also lives on as ‘Getsemani’ in the Colombian port city of Cartagena, where my wife and I stayed for a few weeks back in 2015.

Taking a cue from Hemingway, I rose before dawn and made my way to the rooftop of our shambolic hotel in Getsemani to get in a few pages before the heat of the day made working life unbearable. Perhaps the best part was hearing neighbourhood street baseball games get going, and having to wait for a break in the play to leave the hotel!

That’s my old laptop – an ancient Dell that I bought off a teenager in Portland, Oregon for cash. Served me well enough.

Life in the dog house

From La Costa and the islands of the Galapagos to the highlands of La Sierra and the jungles of La Amazonía we were enthralled by Ecuador. So when the chance came to house sit in the UNESCO-heritage listed city of Cuenca (Tumipampa in Quechua), we took it with both hands.

The home was a beautiful traditionally built space with hand-painted friezes on the walls and two resident bull terriers who made life very interesting! With a fast-flowing river nearby and a truly local neighbourhood, the dining room table quickly became a perfect writing space, especially with a strong cup of locally-ground coffee.

Cuenca is high up so got very cold. That local jumper was a daily bit of insulation.

Bali high

While exploring the island of Lombok, all of a sudden my left arm swelled up to the size of Popeye’s. Spider bite? Infection? Nothing that a drip bag of antibiotics and some strong painkillers couldn’t clear up!

To recover, we went to East Bali and stayed at an elegantly shabby resort near Candidasa with a sweeping view of the shipping lane dividing Bali from Penida island. I’m right handed, so I could still type, and every morning I dragged a deckchair to the edge of the concrete sill and wrote with the sun rising, ships bellowing their horns to pass through the channel.

Not a bad spot for writing. Cocktails afterward though.

Chiang Mai chilling

Now why isn’t every library like this? While hanging out in Chiang Mai – epicentre of digital nomads and expats in Thailand – we stumbled upon a library where for a few Baht you got a drink, access to the wi-fi and freedom to browse the shelves.

Plenty of locals came to do their homework, study or meet up with friends. It was a wonderful space to tap away in, and I went almost every day. I even managed to read a few chapters of War and Peace, though I had to return it before we left for good. One day I’ll finish it…

My kind of library.

My beautiful laundrette

This would have to be my favourite “desk” of all time.

I was on an 18-month caravan trip around Australia with my daily and deep into a revision process for Locust Summer. We got to the Adelaide Hills as winter was coming, and every night the rains set in, quashing my usual routine of sitting at a camp chair and table outside to do the work.

So I improvised. The laundry at the Mt Barker Caravan and Tourist Park was dry – and warm when someone was using the dryer – so I used a low brick wall as a standing desk and did my words in there, usually with a whisky on the go to make it more tolerable. 

Did some of my best work there.

It wasn’t glamorous, but it worked.

Four lessons from writing anywhere

So if you’re inspired to be a MacGyver of a writer and make instant writing spaces wherever you may roam, there are a few tricks I’ve learned for cobbling a workspace together.

Avoid the kitchen table

Sometimes you can’t, like me in Cuenca. And maybe noise and chaos are boons to the creative mind sometimes. But as Hemingway said, the telephone and visitors are work destroyers, so I try to stay away from the centre point of domestic life. 

Got a box? You got a desk

Embrace the chaos and imperfection. All that matters is the work.

Take the time

My usual thing was to rise very early and get it done while the sun was rising. It was hard at first, but I came to appreciate having the world all to myself for a while. Days when I didn’t take this time put me at the mercy of events, and often I had less time or none at all.

Have an internal routine

In this topsy-turvy world nothing goes according to plan. There are no perfect days. So before I write I shut my eyes and go through a little visualisation exercise. It’s mine, so I won’t say, but once I’ve done it I’m ready to go.

Car alarms, barking dogs, nagging kids, all of it fades away. So just as people can train themselves to fall asleep anywhere, with my little routine I find I can write anywhere.

What’s been your best writing desk?

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