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A Way with Words: Catherine Chidgey

Catherine Chidgey. Photo/Fiona Pardington

Author Catherine Chidgey describes her writing day.

I pull my 1990s swivel chair into my 1930s desk, manoeuvring back and forth a few times as if I’m trying to parallel park in a motorcycle space on Christmas Eve. The desk and the chair are not a good match, but I’m superstitious about giving either of them up; I bought the desk with prize money from my first novel, and ACC paid for the chair back in the days when OOS was RSI. The desk has a split in it, from being stored in a damp Dunedin garage while I was in Ireland on a damp writing residency.

I stare at the split for a while instead of opening my laptop, wondering how much it would cost to have repaired and deciding it’s probably not worth it, because Mum’s small coffee table was over $200, wasn’t it, and that was years ago, and a small coffee table. I clear the desk of distractions – the vacuum cleaner instruction manual, my Visa bill, the chewed Z from one of my daughter’s educational puzzles. My lucky paperweight is allowed to stay – a fossilised spider crab, discovered by my grandfather and named Actinotocarcinus chidgeyi after him. I line up the Te Papa coaster with the edge of my keyboard.

All right then.

My laptop is a hefty, inelegant machine inherited from my brother-in-law. I’ve had it ­neutered so it can’t connect to the internet; if I want to post pictures of my cats on Facebook or look at botched celebrity nose jobs, I have to use the slim silver MacBook in the kitchen/dining/living area. The rules around this are very clear. My ­writing laptop is 255 years old in computer years (I checked online).

It takes me quarter of an hour to type one sentence. I keep adding alternative phrasings, questions to myself, rows of Xs if I can’t think of the right word: We keep those lost to us as a charm against time, ­filling the simulacra??/XXX we have made with quivering life, clear-winged and sweet./filling them with swarms of life, clear-winged and sweet./filling (the memory/space of them/)their spaces/their hollows/their form/structure their shapes with the quiver of life, clear-winged and sweet.

The deaf cat claws and shrieks at the door and I know better than to try to ignore him. He savages the couch my mother has no room for in the rest home, walks across my keyboard and adds lolololololololol to my work, then wants out again. The other cat comes in and sits on my mouse. I let her. It’s just easier.

I read over my sentence. It’s a dog. A turkey. A turd. It’s the worst sentence I have ever written. Literally. I add some more alternative phrasings, bold some bits that probably should go.

I stare at Actinotocarcinus chidgeyi for guidance. It says nothing, stuck in its stony bed. I start another sentence.

At the end of the day, I move to the kitchen/dining/living area and email a few acceptable lines to Tracey, the other half of my two-person writing group. Subject: Today’s Tragic Output/Pathetic Offering/Pitiful Nanoparagraph. Every few minutes I check my messages for a reply. ­Nothing. Nothing. She’s read it and she hates it. She’s read it and she’s ­embarrassed for me and doesn’t know what to say. She’s read it and she’s ­laughing at me, not with me.

I study Meg Ryan’s nose.

This article was first published in the December 24, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.