Written for Writing.ie
I have written about my observations and internal life in journals since I was a teenager and take great pleasure in drafting any kind of text, this piece included. But I began writing for other people’s eyes only a couple of years ago. Over the course of writing An Equal Difference, I figured out what I needed to work at my best. I learned to listen to what I needed to keep myself focused and enjoy the process.
This is my first book and it weighs in at 20,000 words and 165 photographs. I am originally a photographer but with this project there was too much to say for pictures alone to convey the story. Words were necessary. Like many before me, Iceland has played a hand in turning me into a writer. Icelandic culture is rooted in storytelling.
Of the many events leading up to my maiden voyage to the country in the summer of 2013, there was one distinct moment that called me to Iceland. I was standing on Charlotte Road in Shoreditch in September 2008, having coffee with some colleagues, when the guys from the Financial Times came shuffling up the street. They arrived looking distressed and told us that Lehman Brothers had just crashed. I later read in the papers that Iceland wanted to feminise its banking system. Icelanders were analysing the hyper-masculine behaviours that had led to the financial crash and discussing what could be done to prevent a recurrence. They were not blaming men or women. I thought this was wise and wanted to find out more about the Icelandic mindset. So in 2013 I made the first of more than a dozen trips to Reykjavík to speak to and photograph members of Icelandic society.
I didn’t decide to write a book until well into the second year of a project that took three to complete. It grew out of a need to stop repeating conversations with not only the people I was photographing, but with everyone I came into contact with in my daily life. I wanted to put what I was experiencing into a physical format that could be shared. In a sense the book wrote itself before I even sat down at my desk, although the process of pulling it out of the alphabet soup of my mind still proved challenging.
I gave myself nine months to complete the final photography and do the lion’s share of the writing. Last October I rented a quiet summer house in southern Iceland. I sat down to write every day, sometimes at 6 a.m., sometimes at 10 a.m. Some days I preferred to exercise in the morning and begin writing in the afternoon. Sometimes I worked late at night, if inspiration came. When I pulled late-night sessions, I used a program called Flux to dim my computer screen and give it an amber hue, which wakes the brain less than the native bluish light.
I wrote every day for at least four consecutive days at a time, then took a day or two off to recharge. Time off was as essential to the process as writing. The length of time I spent writing depended on my goals and my energy. I am not a machine, and my energy levels I vary from day to day. The secret lay in being aware of my capabilities and not driving myself into the ground out of a sense of duty or panic. On days when I had more mental energy, I pushed myself, sometimes ten to fourteen hours; on the days I did not, I took it easy and soon regained force.
Early on I bought an ergonomic stand for my laptop which helped my posture tremendously. I wrote most of the book at home but I also spent time in cafés, restaurants, libraries, benches, planes, busses and even cars. Most of us move from our teens to our twenties into middle age without much consideration for our bodies. We take for granted our youth and expect our limber frame to follow us to our death. Follow it does, but only by dragging it if you neglect it.
Every hour or so I made a conscious effort to get out of my chair and stretch. I drank plenty of water. I ate healthy food. I drank alcohol in moderation or abstained for periods. When I found myself blocked – something I experience as frustration – I went to my backyard and jumped on the eight-foot trampoline until I was physically exhausted. Trampolines are ubiquitous in Iceland. I also kept up a near-daily regimen of exercise, mostly swimming and, in winter, cross-country skiing. This helped to relax my mind, restore focus and allow me to begin writing again with refreshed perspective.
I wrote what I could and then I left it. I read what I wrote and rewrote it. I rewrote that. I teased it out into a massive beehive hairdo of words, thousands more than the target, then I shaved it back into a crew cut. My editor, Robert Doran, helped me enormously with this and taught me a lot about economy of language.
By April of 2016 I had 60,000 words written and probably a lot more in scrap notes. Then I tossed it all and began fresh. This was scary, but it felt right. I referred back to that material when I needed to, but for the most part I wrote from memory. In the week prior to the two weeks spent editing the book with Robert, I broke the writing into distinct essays. With Robert’s input I rewrote what became the final manuscript. During that period I worked for fourteen days without a day off. It wasn’t ideal – it was just what the situation required. Although it was tough, I got through it, and best of all I wrote what I meant to say.
Writing something I feel passionate about and putting it out there feels like giving a gift to someone and being excited by the prospect that they will love it. I wrote this book out of a need to say things and hear them said. I wrote it for those who think our world can be better, our media can be more responsible, our leaders can be less corrupt, our children can be better cared for, our families better supported and most of all we can better accept ourselves and each other as equals, by which I mean we can have equal respect for one another. I especially wrote this book for those who don’t think this is possible.
I have learned to be kind to myself and accept that I have a unique make up and that we don’t all flourish under the same conditions. I can not thrive on a nine-to-five schedule, though I am grateful to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) that today we have an eight-hour work day, down significantly from what it once was. I need version 3.0. I know I require variety and consistency, health and balance to function well. Above all else I need regular sleep, and when I am stressed and under pressure, I need to avoid stimulants and depressants of any kind. Including sugar! A crystal-clear mind emerges from that approach and it is the best mind I have to write with. An unbalanced or intoxicated mind spills more mess than sense onto the page, and then I have to work twice as hard to clean it up. I don’t know how Hemingway did it. But then again what worked for Hemingway is what worked for for him. Trampolines work for me.