A writer's day

This is an unpublished essay on writing, found among Frances Donaldson’s papers when she died in 1994.

Frances Donaldson:  My Day

No one could understand an account of a typical day in my life unless they knew that more often than not it will be spent in an unavailing and possibly half-hearted attempt to overcome resistance to writing. Some writers are happy at work – the Pakenhams all confessed publicly to this, while it is known that P.G. Wodehouse cared for little else and that nowadays Anthony Powell ventures outside his library less and less. Others find anything from the laundry list or the window cleaner to a letter from their solicitor reason enough to avoid the appalling effort of concentration needed to pass from everyday matters to an attempt at creative thought.

I think one of the main reasons for my own difficulty is that I do not (or I have not until lately been able to) visualise myself in the role of a writer, an attitude of mind inhibiting in the extreme.  George Weidenfeld, for instance, is a publisher and a gifted and successful one, but he also gives a spirited performance of the role – asking authors to luncheon at the Ritz and bustling between Frankfurt and New York and back again to London. I always imagine his desk is covered with a barrage of telephones which are usually silent because he has just gone somewhere else. Because of all this, he is very stimulating and comforting to someone like me who lacks his romantic nature. For I, on the other hand, tend to feel that writing is a secret and shameful occupation, a presumptuous piece of affectation which it is necessary to keep from one’s friends. For most of my life when someone telephoned to me in the morning (the only time I am able to write) and said “Are you busy?” I instinctively denied it and spent the whole of the working hours in idle gossip, rather than reveal the nature of my task.

Is writing a conceit?

I do not know whether mine is a common affliction or whether it was brought on by my father, who, considerably talented himself, regarded the ability to write as a gift from God. From this it followed that for anyone but the chosen to attempt it was an abominable conceit and one to be stamped out of his children at any cost. So, although I take up an almost women’s lib position about the unfairness of being responsible for the cleaning and shopping, answering the telephone calls meant for my husband, the necessity to visit the sick and so on, I respond to these calls with too much alacrity to deceive anyone, even myself. Day after day goes by without my having much except household chores and telephone calls to show for it, although I should perhaps say that I do not regard research as work, and a visit to the British Museum Reading room is as good an excuse as any other.

If it is asked how, in this case, I have managed to produce several hundred thousands of words in a comparatively short time, the answer is that experience has taught me that the basic requirement for a writer is continuity. As the deadline approaches, I cease to fritter away my life and, allowing the house to get dirty, my husband go hungry and the telephone unanswered, I do in three months what I have been avoiding for six.

Every writer, even the most assiduous, knows the difficulty of producing anything worthwhile for the first week after a holiday, and Rupert Hart-Davis once told me that even when not engaged on any particular work, some writers do a stint every day, as a singer or dancer might limber up.

The subconscious and the writing experience

Inspiration comes from the subconscious and the subconscious responds only to the grindstone. The philosopher, Prof H.H. Price gives a convincing description of the process in Essays on Philosophy and Religion. If, he says, just before going to sleep, you turn a topic over in your mind, “not in full detail, because at present you are not clear about it, and a clear and detailed exposition is just what you cannot manage now”, and if the next morning you sit down at a specified time, the subconscious will be found to have solved the problem for you in the night. He believes that the subconscious is a rigorous timekeeper, and that if something delays you (he suggests it might be a telephone call), then the subconscious will not do its work. I do not find my own subconscious, which is extremely obliging in exactly the way he describes, quite so exigent. It allows me a margin of half an hour or so before it deserts for the day. One thing it is adamant about, however, is that it will only deliver on problems to which the conscious has given sufficient attention the day before. Thus, if I am in the habit of writing, so that when I go to sleep I’m still thinking of the problem posed by the day’s work, the subconscious may solve these in the night. But if, as too often happens, my mind is taken up with anxiety about something else, then I will merely wake up with a start remembering something I have forgotten to do.

Aids to thought

One further event of my day must be recorded. I spend a great deal of time in the bath. In a lecture on Thinking, Lord Rothschild said that the mathematician, Henri Poincare, thought best after black coffee (which kept him awake at night) and he went on to say that if you want to think creatively you must find what is in your black coffee:  “Is it Mozart, Art Tatum (like me), a bus trip (like Kekule), sitting uncomfortably in a pub (like my mentor, Hampshire), a journey in the Tube (like my colleague, Ross), or gazing out of the window…” For me it is lying in the bath.


Art Tatum was an American jazz pianist

Kekule was a C19 chemist

Hampshire was the Oxford philosopher Stuart Hampshire

Ross – no idea

The Pakenhams – Elizabeth Pakenham (later Longford), Antonia Pakenham and several others of that family were writers

Anthony Powell – A Dance to the Music of Time

Lord Rothschild – Victor Rothschild, a scientist among other things

A Woman's War