Author Archives: John Burnside

John Burnside: ‘Writing is what I steal from the usual flow of things’

John Burnside … Illustration by Alan Vest

The prolific poet and novelist on insomnia, noise sensitivity and the glorious salvation of the writer’s residency

My writing day: say it like that and it’s a highly inviting proposition. Immediately, I picture the comfortable, mildly ritualistic routine of the self-sufficient author, immersed in the stylistic minutiae of some new, and still untarnished magnum opus, composing and then patiently reworking until the elegance of the prose is almost dizzying. Hour after hour of glorious solitude. Birdsong in the trees, light rain, perhaps the occasional, very distant sound of traffic as the city flows on around the garden studio, or the high attic room, where all this alchemy unfolds.

I think I once believed in this idyll, without reservation. Nowadays, however, I take anything I can get: an hour here, an afternoon there: every day is an improvisation. If I am awake, I am usually working, whether alone at home, or in a crowded station, or (weather permitting) a high meadow in the Swiss Alps. Often, the bewildered victim of a gamut of sleep disorders that, so far, have defied medical science, I can be found in our kitchen at three in the morning, pen in one hand, a cup of valerian tea in the other. Nevertheless, none of this constitutes what I understand by a writing day: like grace, or happiness, writing is what I steal from the usual flow of things, from all the noise and interruptions and the constant rendering unto Caesar that seems to take up more and more of everyone’s time and energy.

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