Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part IX: desirable alterations of the space-time continuum

All right, I’ll admit it: I love all forms of temporary public decoration, the more bewildering, the better. Take, for example, the wee park above, seasonally fraught with enigma. The bench urges one to pause and enjoy the view, while the snow argues for walking on swiftly. The garland clambers far overhead, yet somehow neglects to finish the shape inherent to that lamppost; it simply cries out, “Make me into a candy cane,” does it not?

Which naturally begs the question: had the person who selected the decoration perhaps never seen the lamppost before (or own a tape measure), but merely went on a mad garland-purchasing spree whilst in a state of ignorance? Or did s/he have a traumatic childhood experience with sweets that caused the bare sight of a candy cane to be hideously painful?

Finally, whatever does that semi-permanent banner mean? Are the wave shapes intended to alert the inattentive viewer to the fact that there is a body of water just a few steps away? Is that something anyone of reasonable intelligence is likely to miss at any time of year? More mysteries of the season, I guess.

Speaking of which, I spent a small-but-significant portion of yesterday’s post on the dreaded subject of writer’s block, or at least that species of it that leads to seemingly perpetual procrastination. Not entirely coincidentally, last week, I began talking about that reliable annual writer’s block-inducer, the winter blahs.

And no, I’m not just talking about depression induced by hearing the same fifteen carols, often in precisely the same versions, in EVERY store into which one has the misfortune to wander between Halloween and the after-Christmas sales. Admittedly, after an interminable decade singing in children’s choirs, I have a lower-than-normal carol tolerance, but geez, I don’t know how retail workers stand the sheer repetition.

I’m digressing again, amn’t I? Back to seasonal writer’s block.

Annually, light-deprivation, overtaxed schedules, family demands, and constant invocations to be overtly jolly and spend lots of money leave many aspiring writers too blue — not to mention too tired — to write. This year, with grim news about publishing hitting us every time any of us pass within a few yards of anything remotely related to the media, I’m betting that even writers normally suffused with seasonal cheer are finding their vim fading a trifle faster than usual.

Ho, ho…hum.

With the new year approaching swiftly (and with it, perhaps, the consciousness of another year’s having slipped by without landing that yearned-for agent and/or book contract), the temptation to turn off the computer and cry, “Oh, the heck with it — I’ll start writing again in January!” can become downright overwhelming.

I want to concentrate today on techniques designed to fend off that state of mind, before any of us find ourselves glancing at our dust-laden manuscripts on Valentine’s Day, murmuring, “Will it REALLY make a difference if I don’t get back to the book until Groundhog Day?” or “Can’t I get away with not sending another set of queries until Easter?” And if I happen to mention in passing a few helpful and not-very-expensive gifts for writers to suggest to the FNDGGs (Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Givers) in their lives, well, let’s just say that I shan’t be terribly surprised.

If you thought you were the only writer who ever thought like that — about delaying getting back to a regular writing schedule, that is not about peppering one’s FNDGG with hints — let me assure you, you’re not alone. I’ve known authors with lucrative three-book contracts in hand who still habitually burrowed under the covers in the morning because they couldn’t imagine anyone paying to read anything they might conceivably write that day.

Listen: talent doesn’t just dry up. But motivation can and often does. The good news is that with effort, it can be revivified.

Earlier this autumn and again last week, I mentioned the possibility of refreshing writerly momentum by scheduling a writing retreat, a time when you can leave all of your everyday duties behind and just WRITE for a while. But realistically, absent a very generous gift-giver (hint, hint, FNDGG) or suddenly acquiring the independent income and a room of one’s own Virginia Woolf recommended, for many writers, the very idea of arranging quotidian life to disappear for a month, week, or even a day seems like an impossible dream.

Believe me, I understand this feeling: you’re a responsible person with obligations, after all, someone who is going to have to keep paying bills throughout this retreat.

And let’s face it, other people’s demands and schedules would need to be disrupted. If you have kids, it may be hard even to imagine disappearing for as much as a week before they graduate from high school. If you have a demanding job, even the suggestion of being absent for a few days running may be enough to induce hearty guffaws in your boss’ office.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have.

If you have been able to find an hour or two per day for writing, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! You need to make the most of every second – which in and of itself can be intimidating; if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible.

(Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s a strategy I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. Like the light bulb trick from earlier in this series, it seems disappointingly simple at first, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music EVERY time you sit down to write.

Not just the same CD, mind you, but the same SONG.

The repetition may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent; pretend you’re working in a mall during the holidays and can’t change the music, or one of Pavlov’s dogs waiting for a bite to eat. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with writing — which in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly.

After a while, you can put on other music later in your writing sessions, as long as you always begin with the same song. Your brain will already be used to snapping immediately into creative mode.

I do the music-repetition thing myself, so I can give you first-hand assurance of its efficacy. For the novel my agent has allegedly been circulating for me recently (one never knows, does one?), I put on the same Cat Stevens CD (hey, I was writing about hippies) literally every time I sat down to write – and now that I have finished the book, I can’t hear THE WIND without moving instinctively toward my computer. And even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s UPSTAIRS AT ERIC’S without starting to think about my long-completed dissertation. For the novel I’m currently writing, set at Harvard in the mid-80s, Berlin’s FOR ALL TOMORROW’S LIES is destined to be forever associated with a keyboard for me.

So I can tell you from experience: it works, if you give it a chance.

(So yes, Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: installing a small stereo system in a writer’s designated workspace WOULD be a delightful surprise, now that you happen to mention it. How clever of you.)

If you are a person who needs to write under conditions of complete silence, try lighting the same type of incense or scented candle seconds before turning on the computer. Always wear the same socks, or pull your hair into a specific type of ponytail. Do twenty-five jumping jacks immediately before sitting down to write, or lock the door and belly-dance for a few minutes.

It actually does not matter what your ritual is, as long as it is a sensual experience that occurs ONLY when you are writing – and is repeated EVERY time you sit down to write, so your body will come to recognize it as a signal that it’s creativity time.

Or you could institute a ritual in reverse, rewarding yourself for staying a set amount of time in front of your computer, even if you are feeling frustrated. Graham Greene, I’m told, forced himself to write 147 words prior to taking his first drink of the day.

While that may not sound like much — the preceding three paragraphs add up to 146 — don’t underestimate the value of cumulative endeavor: Mssr. Greene’s enormous daily thirst added up to a very successful 30-year writing career.

Okay, so he wrote mostly about alcoholics, but still, you’ve got to admit that it’s impressive.

It’s also helpful, when you find yourself avoiding writing, to take a good, hard look at your writing space: can you in fact concentrate there? Is there a way you could make it more comfortable — or more private?

Or — and I find this is often the case with struggling writers — do you not have a space dedicated to writing at all?

Yes, you CAN write in a crowded café at a table immediately adjacent to a bongo band while babysitting a hyperactive rhesus monkey. And Antonio Gramsci wrote a major work of political philosophy entirely on toilet paper while imprisoned in a small, dark cell, but that doesn’t mean that either is an environment particularly conducive to long bursts of concentrated creative thought.

Frankly, I think the advent of the laptop, however laudable in itself, has resulted in a general lack of recognition that writers tend to be more productive if they have their own spaces in which to write. (Not that a laptop wouldn’t be a pretty great present for a writer, Furtive NDGG.) Or at least more space than is taken up by a standard-sized placemat, sans silverware.

Call me overly reliant upon symbolism, but a writer’s home that does not contain at least a few square feet of floor space set aside ONLY for writing has always struck me as more likely to induce writer’s block than one that does. Not to guarantee it, mind you — plenty of authors have typed up a storm in cramped spaces — just to be conducive to it. Like a schedule too jam-packed to permit a few hours of quiet meditation at a stretch, not having space to write renders the likelihood of being able to take immediate advantage of an attack of inspiration considerably lower.

And yes, Virginia, I am deliberately mentioning this at a time of year when some of you have whisked your notes into desk drawers so relatives can bed down on an air mattress in the room where you normally write. That alone might well tempt even the most hospitable writer into shelving the novel or book proposal until January.

Or, if the seed I’m trying to plant here germinates successfully, to try to figure out a part of the house or apartment where one can retreat to work, even with guests in the house.

Hey, Furtive NDGG: what about committing to converting a spare attic, bedroom, basement, or corner of the living room into a comfortable writing space as a present? How about improving an existing one to make it more ergonomically friendly to its user — good desk set-ups are definitely NOT one-size-fits-all — or a more cheerful place to be?

Remember, though: lighting, lighting, lighting. And did I mention lighting?

In smaller living situations, how difficult would it be to install a screen to create a private space for a writer? Or, if even that is spatially impossible, investing in a really good pair of noise-blocking headphones?

Seeing a pattern here, FNDGG? Anything you can do to alter space and/or time to render concentration easier is a dandy gift for a writer.

What about you, writers? All too often, we writers assume that the only possible reasons for feeling stalled in our writing are problems within ourselves: lack of willpower, lack of commitment, an unwillingness or inability to restructure our lives in order to write rather than fitting writing into already overcrowded lives, limited talent.

Or just a book idea that’s not as spectacular as it originally seemed.

While either the actuality or the fear of any or all of these can certainly stymie a writing project, it’s worth considering practical steps that may make the physical act of writing easier — and creating long-term habits that will encourage us when the words are not coming easily.

Give it some thought. Or don’t, and wait until I come back to this absorbing topic next time — which, judging from the dirty looks the relatives have been popping into my writing space for the past fifteen minutes to give me, is going to be after a certain holiday that shall remain nameless.

Either way, have a merry one, and keep up the good work!

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