Local Creatives Share Their Workstations
Whether a writer, musician, photographer or label owner, the things we surround ourselves with are key to stimulating ideas and productivity
My writing space looks a little untidy in this photograph but everything is in its place and where I want it. When I'm about to launch on a new book, I go into nesting mode. The one thing that isn't visible is the music that's always playing, usually from one of my Spotify playlists or saved albums. I can't write in silence and the location of my study is in the centre of the house, between the kitchen and the living room.
My study door is never closed and my ultimate dread would be to be forced to write in some attic or, even worse, in one of those isolated writer retreats that are occasionally kindly offered. I like to be surrounded by images – family photos, favourite paintings, things that I've been given.
Some years ago I bought a small portrait of James Joyce in a local auction and so I have him looking over my left shoulder, which amuses me. The photograph of Beckett above my computer is there because he has the face every writer wants and which only he got. Because I love it I have the opening sentence of Richard Ford's Independence Day also above my computer: 'In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems.'
To my right are these images: George Best, Healy's goal against England, Japanese prints, my beautiful daughter, my wife's exquisite ceramic art. And today I'm listening to Nick Cave's Skeleton Tree, Kate Tempest's Let Them Eat Chaos and pondering if the words my local Chinese takeaway has on their waiting area wall are really true: 'Once you raise your sail you will get the wind you need and it will take you where you want to go.'
I have a very humble set up and have been writing most of my material in this room on either of these two instruments for the guts of a year now. I am not technologically gifted by any means, hence my writing tools are pretty organic.
As a songwriter I don't like to hide behind too many layers to begin with. I firmly believe that at its core, or in its most skeletal form, a song must be able to stand on its own two feet, away from distraction and dependant solely on the bare essentials.
I use books and listening to other music as my fuel for creativity. I am a huge fan of short story collections and I tend to listen to just about anything bar hard house. They both serve a purpose of stimulating language and sounds that over the years have led me to an idea.
My job is to support writers to develop scripts and ideas, figuring out suitable processes and to work with our artistic director, Patrick O'Reilly, on Tinderbox Theatre Company productions. So today I have been talking to writer John McCann about the next draft of his play Famla. Then the script needs to go to the rest of the creative team – designers, actors, production crew.
In spite of being a swede I have become utterly dependent on builder's brew. A strong black cup of tea will get me going. And if you want to bribe me, bring crisps and I am yours completely.
Because I do so much reading for work, and I can't listen to music whilst I read, I am constantly in search of silence in the office. But when I stop, I am nationally obliged to work my way through the ABBA collection, where my favourites are the less known songs like ‘Dum Dum Diddle’. Genius!
Me and Patrick will spend the rest of the day discussing the workshops associated with our productions, and this week I have also read a first draft of one of our Take Away Theatre artists, Abby Oliviera, and responded with notes and questions. This is very early work and a new project for Tinderbox, so it’s really inspiring. At the moment of taking this photo, I am finishing the script from our autumn production, Hiatus, one of the shows in What We're Made Of series. It never stops!
I have two distinct areas of work – the photographic studio and my desk at my home office. Like a lot of photographers, most of my time and creative process takes place at my office desk. I try to schedule my photographic work and my computer editing work into separate days so I can dedicate full days to each discipline.
Workdays at my office desk are fairly standardized. I like to keep to a fairly structured schedule. Typically days start early. I rise at 6.30am and my first task is to make a Bulletproof Coffee with Kerrygold butter and MCT oil. It completely energizes and increases concentration for a long day of editing.
Whilst drinking my coffee, I browse the web for the latest news and current events whilst listening to TalkSport radio to catch up on all the football gossip. Answering emails and social media messages are next and I like to conclude all of that before I start my work at 9.00am sharp.
Sitting in front of a computer editing and retouching can be mind-numbing at times so, I like to keep my motivation high by keeping my main sources of inspiration close by. I love beautiful books from my favourite photographers; when I get stuck I take five and browse. I love listening to music. My mood dictates what I listen to but it is mostly jazz, hip-hop and funk. Also keeping up with the latest trends in fashion magazines is a huge source of inspiration. I take a quick delve in when I need a fix.
Working at a computer most of the day can be tiring, so I try to stop every hour for a quick stretch and walk about. I can be quite bad at forgetting to do this but I do like to keep rehydrating myself throughout the day by making numerous cups of green tea. I intermittingly fast throughout the day.
If I get my scheduled work done its relax time. More often than not there may be a few more hours still to do, so I like to re-stimulate my brain by watching a few bits and bobs on my adjacent laptop while I work. I do tend to like something light-hearted and not too taxing, so comedies or sitcoms, especially US programmes as they last only 20 minutes. Nice, easy bite-sized distractions. And all the while I have to share my office with my two kitties, Marvin and Tonto. They kinda rule the roost.
I work at the kitchen table mostly and I have a light lamp I use when it's dark in the winter. I don't get much natural light and I'm trying it out to see if it helps with that. It's supposed to make the winter days less dreary.
Behind me my dog, Sally, mostly snores in her bed. For inspiration I go to the garden. I have a cottage front garden and go out there to make notes/do read throughs in the summer. I am disciplined because it's also my work-work space and I keep my notes in notebooks and my work in files on the laptop backed up to my tablet.
I don’t listen to music. It gets in the way of the process, although Muse would be the band of choice if I did, especially for my Space Opera stuff. In terms of inspiration, it's mostly the garden. It's not big but it surrounds the house and in the spring/autumn I eat lunch in it when I can and get out to it when writing gets stuck.
The three most important things in this image are my laptop, Alexa and the promotional copy of Joshua Burnside’s new album, which is one of the releases I’m currently working on. Alexa I use for listening to demos and ideas that the artists I represent send me, it sounds great.
There are two in/out mail trays there but aside from paper contracts we run most of the business online. We use Trello for workflow, Google Drive for storage, shared Google Calendars for artist engagements and Skype for international calls.
We have past releases from the label on the wall and a couple of my favourite posters also. One is of Ryan Vail when he supported Nils Frahm in Belfast City Hall and another is one of Ciaran Lavery’s support tours in Europe last year.
There’s also a post-it note on the wall. I leave myself notes sometimes when I’m leaving and there’s a painting by local artist Lee James of Johnny Cash that I love, which gives me something nice to look at.
I spend so much of my time travelling – between Lancaster and London and Belfast and Armagh – that I've got used to working on trains and in airports, and even when I'm at home I'm likely to work wherever I happen to find myself, whether it's at the kitchen table or on the sofa. But officially my workspace is in a room at the top of the house, dominated by this big old desk that was here when we bought the place.
The previous owners discovered it in the Highlands of Scotland, intervening to save it when it was about to be dumped during the refurbishment of a local town hall or council building. I have no idea how old it is but it has all sorts of little nooks and crannies where you can tuck stuff away. The advantage for me is that it gives the illusion of tidiness, even though the drawers are all jammed full of old bills and notes and things that I keep meaning to sort out but never get around to.
On the top of the desk are some family photos, a drawing I did of my son Danny when he was a baby, and a photo of me with Yoko Ono, who I met at the Belfast Festival many years ago. Also a pair of brass candlesticks that came from my granny's house at Gregg's Mill, outside Loughgall, and an old ceramic TARDIS money box I had when I was a kid. Just a few talismans, a few things that have an aura about them. The laptop is new but the screensaver again is a childhood thing, the old BBC testcard. So the space is both tidy and untidy, both new and old. The chair was given to me by my friend the comics writer Andy Diggle. There's a guitar tucked in the corner, and art materials in case I need to get away from the screen for a bit. Oh and there is of course coffee, lots of coffee.
My writing routine varies, according to the projects I'm working on and whatever else is happening in my life at the time. Sometimes I'll go to a library, café, or jot down ideas when travelling, but I do most of my writing at home. Over the years with husband, two children and a spirited dog, I've had to find ways of being flexible as well as sustaining momentum and discipline!
I do aim to write something every day, whether or not I feel in creative form. This might include revising or editing, creating new material in draft, making notes or researching ideas as they arise, developing text for articles. Sometimes I'll write by hand in a notebook, but more often than not, the act of sitting down at my laptop can be the cue to get motivated and I start warming up. If I continue to feel like I'm having to drag every word out of myself, I'll take a screen break, read, have a short walk or do something practical.
I think balancing solitary writing time with interaction and observation is very important. My work is inspired mainly by people and nature. It needs your soul to get 'out there', experience varied landscapes, listen to people and engage in conversation. I also make a point of responding to emails and being active on social media, earlier rather than later in the morning if possible.
As far as my writing desk goes, I actually have quite a few! I do need to have quietness to concentrate, but I'm not overly attached to one place. Often I'll work at the kitchen table by the window, at my daughter's desk when she's at uni, in my bedroom or in the sitting room. Last summer I acquired my own writing space in the garden – so pleased! A simple secluded shed, retreat apart. A bit cold in the winter, but when Spring arrives I'm looking forward to getting back in there! A lack of clutter really helps me. Ideas, my laptop, notebook, pen and some tea or coffee are the main things I need.