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.
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.
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).
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.
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.