I’m suffering under the slings and arrows of the current version of that annual plague known locally as That Thing That’s Going Around. Not bad timing, actually, since outside, it’s about as cold as it ever gets in my part of the world: I believe yesterday’s 19 degrees Fahrenheit shattered an all-time record for December in these parts. Or at any rate for December 15ths.
In short, I’m staying inside, well bundled up.
The snow on the ground has resulted in some quite uncharacteristic light conditions for these environs in the winter — you know, clear, merry, and bright. We Seattlites hardly know how to handle the glare; if this keeps up, we’ll have to dig out our long-buried sunglasses.
Why? Well, let me clue you in to what our midwinter days are usually like: I took the picture above at 3 pm, and my poor kitty looks as though she might be carried off by vampire bats at any second. Even if the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (ho, ho, ho) were standing right next to her, handing her a nice piece of sashimi-grade tuna and a bucket of catnip, nothing about this photo would remotely suggest a season of joy.
It’s just too dark.
Ah, the charms of a Pacific Northwest winter, light gray for a few hours in midday, dark gray or black for most of the time, and drizzly pretty much all of the time. For the edification of those of you with the good sense to live farther south, this is the time of year when Seattlites who hold a day job droop visibly, because they are going to work AND coming home in the dark.
It can be depressing, making getting out of bed feel like an outright burden, even when That Thing That’s Going Around has already come and gone. Not the best environment, in short, for doing sustained creative work.
Yes, the gloriously long days of summer do compensate for the blahs of a northern winter, but that’s awfully hard to remember in mid-December, isn’t it? Try to remember the kind of September when grass was green and…
Well, admittedly, the grass does stay pretty green around here all winter — or did before Mother Nature dumped all of that snow on top of it — but still, you know the song, right? My point is, back in September, you could glance lawnward on your way to work and still SEE that the grass was green without whipping out either a pocket flashlight or a shovel.
Seattle is, after all, where those clever doctors DISCOVERED seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — just nanoseconds after, one presumes, having figured out that those maps schoolchildren are encouraged to color give quite a skewed sense of the relative positions of Washington and Maine with respect to the North Pole. We’re far enough north that my shampoo and toothpaste labels boast directions in both English and French, for goodness sake.
As much as I love being a three-hour drive from Vancouver, I’m a Northern Californian by birth and upbringing, and let me tell you, I spent the entirety of my first Seattle winter fuming at my sixth-grade geography teacher for leading me so far astray.
I believe Mr. Werle is now inadvertently running his fingernails over that great chalkboard in the sky (oh, did his chalk ever squeak!), so it’s no longer possible to ask him what the heck he was thinking back then. Didn’t it ever occur to him that someday, one of his wee charges might conceivably need to drive from Seattle to Montreal — but that he’d mistakenly trained his students to figure on driving northeast, instead of southeast?
I was lucky not to end up in Banff, Mr. W. And I was one of your better students.
So if those of you up my way been feeling sluggish lately, you have a perfectly good excuse — no, not your sixth-grade teachers (although I’m sure some of you had some lulus; please don’t get me started on Mrs. Oswill’s literary tastes), but the lack of light. We who live north need to take better care of ourselves in the winter.
Which, presumably, is no surprise to the good people of Manitoba. Or to the elves in the workshop of the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver.
The late dawns and early dusks of winter are particularly hard on writers, I suspect. No matter whether you tend to get up early or stay up late to snatch your precious daily writing time, the fast-waning winter light is bound to cramp your schedule a little.
And let’s face it, the longer it takes to ramp up your energy to write, the less time you have to do it.
I write and edit full-time, so I am spared the pain of the pitch-dark two-way commute, but let me tell you, when I look up from my computer and notice that I have only an hour of daylight left, I practically have to lash myself to my desk chair to keep myself at work.
Fortunately, there is a tool that makes this time of year easier: the lightbox, which, as the name implies, is a great big box on stilts that shines oodles of non-burning noon-aping light on the user’s face. They’re spendy — $200-$400 for a medical-quality one, although one can find reasonable facsimiles online for less, in case the Furtive NDGG is planning a shopping trip for the benefit of writers in Fargo (which is, incidentally, SOUTH OF HERE, Mr. Werle) — but sitting in front of it for 45 minutes a day does tend to trick the body into believing that it should not go into hibernation just yet.
With practice, you can read or even work on a computer in front of it; I know ambitious souls who have arranged theirs to shine upon them while they walk on a treadmill or ride an exercise bike.
Me, I’m more sedentary these days: I plop myself in front of it with my laptop and a few selected houseplants (oh, like THEY don’t resent the winter’s loss of light?) to read my voluminous e-mail and scan comments posted to the blog. At least until the cats displace me.
It puts me in a good mood while I am deleting the hundreds of spam comments posted here daily — which, for my money, is as high a recommendation as one can give a depression-lifting device.
I just mention this, in case any of you out there are blessed with the kind of kith and kin susceptible to suggestions for good gifts to give a writer for any major holiday that might be coming up. You have my full permission to print up this post to stuff into Santa’s pocket the next time you sit on his lap, as a gentle hint.
But this year, most of us are on tighter budgets, aren’t we? Fear not, impecunious generous folks: installing full-spectrum light bulbs (as low as $5-$10 apiece) in your writing space can also be very helpful.
Are you listening, Furtive NDGG? Properly wrapped so they will not smash coming down the chimney, that’s a pretty stellar stocking-stuffer.
Yes, they are a bit more expensive than your average light bulb, but they do undoubtedly help fight the November-February blahs. And if you use them strategically, you need not spend a fortune to improve your mood.
They really are worth the investment. US-based writers who file Schedule Cs for their writing careers might even be able to write ‘em off as a business expense; have a chat with a respectable tax advisor familiar with artists’ returns. It’s potentially legitimate: most writers do find that they are more productive in the winter months with adequate lighting.
Don’t believe me? Okay, I’m about to share a trick of the full-time writing trade, one of those professional secrets that you always suspected the published shared with one another in clandestine whispers: in the winter months, have your writing space be the ONLY room in the house equipped with full-spectrum lighting, and plenty of it. Make it blaze.
“That’s it?” I hear you cry in frustration. “Light my studio differently from the rest of the house?”
Yes, oh scoffers, that is indeed what I said. Do it, and make sure you spend at least an hour per day in the room for the first week with the new lighting. (Hey, why not spend that time writing?) Soon, you will find that your body actually CRAVES being in your writing space. You will automatically gravitate there.
As will, as I can tell you from experience, any pet mammal you happen to house. Unless you happen to cherish moles, they’re probably missing the light midwinter, too.
You think I posed my cat for that picture? I had stepped away for thirty seconds to refill my tea, and she displaced me.
Naturally, the full-spectrum strategy alone will not necessarily turn around a deeply entrenched writer’s block, but it’s a start. For a lot of aspiring writers, finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer is not the hard part: it’s the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper.
It’s conquering the fear of starting. Or, in some cases, of finishing and the result’s not being perfect. Either way, it can be pretty paralyzing.
If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. They worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to take time away from all of their other obligations.
For instance, about a third of the writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded T-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.
I’m not going to lie to you — if you find that you’re not sitting down on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. Good books are seldom written overnight.
If you are waiting until an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations pops up spontaneously, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most US citizens work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of unused leisure time.
And yet somehow, we find the time to shop for presents this time of year. Astonishing, isn’t it?
I could parrot other advice-givers, and order you crabbily to turn off the TV/radio/IPod/Internet connection/Facebook/my blog, but my God, have you seen the economic news lately? I would be the last person to advise you to be LESS aware of what is going on in the world around you. And chances are, by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, etc.
But, as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a tastefully-appointed mountain cabin with hot-and-cold running servants who will see to your every whim while you dash off a first draft in its entirety. Perhaps with the addition of a qualified massage therapist to rub your tired wrists nightly and nymphs playing the lute and lyre softly whilst you compose.
Oh, all right: spend a few moments daydreaming about it now. I’ll wait.
If you can afford such a retreat, great. As I mentioned some weeks back — could it be as long ago as the end of October? — there are plenty of artists’ colonies that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. Such formal retreats may be less costly than you expect; many hold competitions for free or inexpensive residencies — which, as a fringe benefit, also look good as a credential on a query letter. (A good place to seek out such opportunities is the back of Poets & Writers magazine — an excellent publication which, last I heard, was more than happy to let a Furtive NDGG buy a gift subscription for someone, incidentally.)
While admittedly it can be very nice to squirrel yourself away in the company of other artists, communal dining halls are not for everyone — the social dynamics of some of them make recess after Mr. Werle’s geography class seem positively urbane by comparison — and you don’t necessarily need a full-fledged artists’ colony to replicate the retreat experience. There are plenty of secluded bed-and-breakfasts and hotels that are delighted to cater to people who never want to stick their noses outside their rooms. Heck, when I’m on a short revision deadline, I’ve been known to lock myself in a downtown hotel room for a week, just to get away from the phone.
In case I’m being too subtle for any non-writer Furtive NDGG who happens to be eavesdropping: the best gift anyone can give a serious writer is a chunk of unfettered time to write.
Seriously, you might want to consider asking the less-furtive NDGGs in your life to consider donating toward a retreat — or banding together to help construct one from available resources. It needn’t require subsidizing a couple of weeks’ worth of room service; think creatively.
And, ideally, become intimate friends with people who own far-flung cabins and under-used second homes.
I’m only half-kidding about this, actually. Housesitting for vacationing friends can make for a lovely retreat; many a novel has been completed by the dog-sitter. Even if it’s for only a day or two, scoring some unbroken time can go a long way toward pulling the stuffing out of a seemingly insurmountable writer’s block.
Just don’t forget to bring some good lightbulbs along, okay?
More tips on beating the dark winter blahs follow tomorrow — and if, in outlining strategies, I should happen to stumble across a few more items for you to add to your favorite Furtive NDGG’s shopping list, well, that won’t be my fault.
Don’t say I never did anything for you.
Before I sign off for today, let me just set a few minds at ease: yes, I shall be returning to my half-completed series on constructing one’s own writing retreat, probably early next week. I wanted to whet your appetites again first — and give those of you who haven’t had a moment to spare in the interim a few more days to come up with that list of your personal requirements for a writing retreat (as opposed to a generic one that might suit anybody) that we discussed back in October.
Even if you are absolutely convinced that you would never be able to get away from your quotidian life for even an entire day, please do give a little thought to what you would actually need in order to write productively and intensively. As I mentioned back when I began writing about retreats, figuring out what ambient conditions help you write can be very, very useful even in everyday writing situations.
Besides, do you really want to state positively that you’ll never have time to take even a brief retreat? The Furtive NDGG might hear you.
After all, rumor has it that he sees you when you’re sleeping, knows when you’re awake, etc.
Keep up the good work!
PS: hey, speaking of furtive gift-giving, would you mind humoring me by making a back-up of your computerized manuscript files right away? Thanks; I’ll sleep better at night.
Why am I requesting this? Well, I spent a couple of hours in a computer store over the weekend, and I ran into that saddest of human creatures, a writer whose hard disk had disintegrated, taking the only copy of his Great American Novel with it. Please let his misfortune prevent something similar from happening to you. If you would like tips on how to back up something as large as a manuscript, please see the BACK-UP COPIES category on the list at right.