Where I write: John McCullough

Blog | Published on February 16, 2022

Like a cross between the Guardian’s Writers’ rooms and MTV Cribs, our ‘Where I write’ series brings you up close and personal with the furniture of our authors’ lives to discover where – and how – the magic happens. In this episode, poet John McCullough takes us freewriting in his cheerfully designed notebooks and comes to terms with lost fragments.

Where do you write? What does your workspace look like?

My poems often emerge from a collision of phrases or images in a notebook. I do a lot of freewriting and gathering of observations on paper before the language reaches a screen. This initial scribbling can take place anywhere for me: on the bed or sofa or in cafes where I can people-watch. I also especially enjoy taking notebooks to locations I want to write about like particular parks, seascapes or streets. I love observing everything in the moment so I can capture the leaps and swerves of my mind as it tries to unpack what it sees. I choose notebooks with friendly covers that make me want to hang out with them. My latest two both feature little nudibranchs on them and I frequently find pictures of cats and kawaii vegetables helpful in this regard.

I then usually type up poems on my laptop at the living room table. I have lots of poetry collections behind me, and many books of facts and trivia. I’ve always been strongly affected by colour and I often like to arrange things so they’re bright and cheerful.

What time of day do you write?

Most of my freewriting and typing is done first thing in the morning, after a coffee. I tend to be at my most alert and creative then, most in touch with my manic, imaginative side. (Reading is for afternoons and evenings).

What font/typeface do you use to write?

My computer automatically uses Calibri as a typeface which at some point I convert into Times New Roman, or Garamond is another favourite. I try not to type up poems until I’m at the first draft stage as, with the quantity of freewriting I do, the act of typing in itself makes them look to my brain as though they are a little more finished. In reality, there’s always a lot more editing to do and I like to take early versions to feedback groups. 

How has your writing space and practice changed over the years you’ve been writing?

My approach has remained fairly constant over the years – I’ve been keeping notebooks regularly since 1998 and have a cupboard full of them. In the months when I’m especially organized I put a contents page at the front of each one to make it easier to find the material I’m looking for, which always endears my current incarnation to future Johns. Mostly I don’t get round to doing this, however, so there can be a bit of hunting as I try to track down a particular freewrite or fragment of phrasing.

I used to worry about this more until I read a brilliant John Ashbery remark about it happening to him and it not ultimately making a great difference ‘because whatever comes along at that time will have the same quality. Whatever was there is replaceable’. I really believe that, especially since the original fragments usually change beyond recognition during drafting. There’s always another path. You just have to start laying down the stones.

Panic Response by John McCullough is out now.

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