One of the things people seem most interested in when they hear you're a writer, after where you get your ideas from, is what method you actually use to write your stuff with. I think lots of people imagine a quill pen, hand-sharpened pencils, or a beautiful antique Olivetti typewriter. But for most of the authors I know, and certainly for me, it's far less glamorous.
I was thinking about this last week; I had just come from Petitou, the café opposite Review bookshop where I work. I was talking to a Swedish friend of mine who is a freelance journalist and translator, and I noticed she has the same white Apple laptop as me. The difference is hers is four-years-old and mine is about 14-months-old. Hers is pristine, no dust on the screen, no scratches on the plastic on top, and mine looks like a toddler has used it as a playmat. Over time, I've convinced myself that if you have a white computer, that's just what happens. It collects filth and pet hairs, and cleaning it would be a waste of energy better spent writing. Seeing hers made me realize this is not the case.
The simple fact is I'm horrible to my computer. I peel and eat oranges while I'm sat at it, I carry it around in a plastic bag, I drink coffee over it. Once I opened a beer next to it, and the spray caught the screen pretty well, so I gave it a wipe with my sleeve - job done. If it was just a little more absorbent, it would have coffee rings on it and if I smoked, it would have fag ash between the keys.
It's made me wonder where this lack of respect for the closest thing to a tool my work has comes from. The only way I can justify it, and I'm really trying here, is by thinking I mustn't take what I'm doing too seriously. Otherwise I'm not sure I would write in the first place. If I didn't feel comfortable dragging the thing all over London in a Sainsbury's bag, I wouldn't take it with me at all. If I decided to have a no food or drink around the computer policy, I wouldn't work ever. Coffee and beer are at least as important to me in the writing process as the recording of words.
I've heard it said that it's important not to make your work look too much like it's a finished object - I know people who swear by writing in longhand, some won't even use ink, they have to write in pencil. I met a man last week who is on his fifth novel, and all five have been written on the same typewriter, all crossings out done by hand, all spelling mistakes without the red wonky spell-check lines underneath. I think there's definitely something about writing fiction that requires you to break away from what we had drummed into us at school (not that it ever had much of an effect on the appearance of my work) that it must be neat, that it must have no scribbles on it, that it must be a certain length, that it must look like a complete object, even if the content was off (mine was always off).
Working on a computer you are faced with a neatness problem- you could type out a phone book and if you cast your eyes over it without reading, by the length alone, you could think there was a novel in there. If you set it up in landscape, with the right margins, you can make it look exactly like a book, right from the beginning - all finished surface and polish and no need to redraft a word of it.
This then is my embarrassed explanation for the state of my computer: if it looked too neat on the outside, I would get fooled into thinking that the stuff on the inside was equally well polished and never do any of the messy, stop-start stuff to it that makes it into an actual book.
Of course that's all rubbish, or at least it's unconscious, but surely there's something there, isn't there? I'm not just a massive slob am I?
Just in case, this evening, I'm going to stick the hoover over the keyboard this evening, and I may even look into giving the screen a wipe with a J cloth.