In my last post, I lingered on the desirability of making physical space in your home — or somewhere else, if you can afford separate office space — specifically dedicated to writing. Like playing the same music every time you sit down to write, lighting your desk area more brightly than the rest of the house in midwinter, or painting your kneecaps bright green as a pre-writing ritual, setting aside a space where you do nothing but write can be very helpful in fending off writer’s block, seasonally-induced or otherwise.
Why, you ask? Well, like the other sensual cues mentioned last time, walking into a dedicated writing environment makes the transition from mundane (non-writing) time to creative time clear to not only your daytimer, but to your body. Just as nice, clean towels coming out of the dryer tell my cats that it’s time to curl up and have a nap, walking into my writing space tells me that it’s time to get to work.
You can TELL your body that it’s time to write until you’re blue in the face, but let’s face it, we’re animals at base, and creatures of habit to boot. That pancreas of yours will need a non-verbal hint or two, and when’s the last time your T2 vertebra listened to reason?
You’ve probably already noticed the stimulus-bodily reaction phenomenon manifesting in less positive ways. The body’s no fool. When you have a job you hate, merely walking into the building raises your stress levels markedly, doesn’t it? The smell of baking bread or cookies cheers most people up, regardless of what else is going on, and incessant holiday music following one from store to store so stuns the nervous system after a while that one begins to buy frantically in self-defense, just to get out of there.
(No one can tell me that last effect isn’t calculated. I was in a children’s choir for many years, doomed to wander puckishly from rest home to shopping mall to stage to insane asylum all throughout the holiday season, piping carols at the top of our childish voices. The sounds we were yelping were generally considered high-quality, but let me tell you, spectators’ eyes glaze over like Santa’s swimming pool before the end of the second verse of even the most beautifully-rendered carol. They’ve been hypnotized by sheer repetition.)
Having a dedicated space usually helps with that other common writerly tendency, jumping up after only a minute or two to do something else. The less comfortable your writing area, the more likely that urge is to overwhelm you.
(Confidential to the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver who might still be snuffling around for meaningful means to mark a Hanukkah evening: have you considered giving an office chair with really good back support? Not a generic office chair, but one that fits the writer’s body specifically? Or a copy of THE NOW HABIT, psychologist Neil Fiore’s excellent and accessible book on breaking procrastination patterns?)
A solid fit between computer user and furniture can help avoid all kinds of writing-delaying problems, as many of us now know to our cost. Business offices are notorious for trying to force every body type into identical chairs, as are colleges. When I was an undergraduate, my college saw fit to equip each and every dorm room with large, square wooden desk chairs like the one above, emblazoned with the school’s insignia — so, you know, if we forgot the school’s motto, we could just turn around and read it. My friends who happened to be 6’2” hockey players claimed that the chairs were most comfortable.
Everyone else ended up with sore backs and overworked arms. And in my day, whippersnappers, those chairs did not come equipped with that festive pillow, so after an hour or two of studying, what I shall delicately call the end of the spine began to complain as well.
Perhaps because there is no such thing as a good, supportive one-size-fits-all desk chair, one can surprisingly often find quite decent barely-used ones at thrift stores, I’ve noticed. You may need to canvas your entire city to find one that suits you and take a carpet-cleaner to it before you use it, but the eye-popping discounts are often worth it.
To return to my previous point: once you have established a space, song, lighting condition, specific chair, etc. as THE signal to begin serious writing, your body will soon come to understand that it’s time to stop distracting you with minor matters like the desire to eat, sleep, or have meaningful human contact and get down to work. Perhaps equally important, having a dedicated space — particularly one with a door that closes firmly on loved ones’ noses — tells everyone else in your household that you are not to be disturbed.
So it’s not only your habits that we’re hoping to recondition here. When intensive writing schedules work, EVERYONE in the household is cooperating to make that happen, starting in babyhood.
Oh, you laugh, but having grown up in a family of writers, I can tell you with absolute confidence: a career writer’s kid learns to go to sleep by the sound of typing (and speaking of conditioned reflexes, the sound of a manual typewriter still makes me distinctly sleepy). To this day, I seldom raise my voice above quiet conversational level, lest there be someone writing in the next room.
It’s habit, like everything else.
It’s also absolutely necessary, incidentally, for the household of a writer working on a deadline — and lest your kith and kin be harboring any fond illusions on the subject, the more successful you are as a author, the more deadlines you are going to have and the tighter they are going to be. It’s just a fact that at some point, no matter how nice a successful writer is, s/he is going to have to say to loved ones, “My writing needs to be my #1 priority right now. Which, by definition, places your needs slightly lower on the list.”
And mean it. So why not avoid the proverbial Christmas rush and start getting your kith and kin in the habit of hearing it now?
Did the last few paragraphs make you a trifle uncomfortable? If so, you’re certainly not alone: many writers are too sweet-tempered or too responsible or too habit-bound or just to gosh darned nice to expect their family members to change ANYTHING about THEIR schedules in order to make room for Mama or Papa or Sissy’s writing. Mama or Papa or Sissy simply give up sleep or recreation or dating in order to finish that book in spare moments when nobody else is making demands upon their time; Mama, more often than not, trains herself to drop her train of thought in mid-sentence the nanosecond anything remotely resembling a request for assistance or care falls upon her distracted ear.
Since this is the season of giving, may I suggest that this would be an excellent time to reexamine that attitude just a little?
Of course, I’m not suggesting that writers’ children should be taught to stifle their cries over their bleeding, severed limbs (although admittedly, writers’ kids of my generation often did). I’m merely throwing out the notion that everyone in the household might make supporting the writing project a top priority on an ongoing basis, rather than leaving the poor writer to struggle with trying to carve out time and space alone.
Why, yes, you may pause in your perusal of this post at this point to read that last bit out loud to your significant other, children, upstairs neighbor, or dog. I’m perfectly happy to wait. Tell ‘em it’s my idea, not yours.
While I’m being subversive — and to wrap up my series on gifts that the average writer would love to receive — FNDGG, why not give the writer in your life the gift of TIME TO WRITE on a regular basis?
After all, a few hours a week is a gift that even fairly small children could give to an overworked writer-parent. Maybe Santa could be induced to whisper some suggestions during that usually one-way communication on his lap; I know many, many writers to whom a pack of hand-made gift certificates, each good for an hour of uninterrupted time, would be the best stocking-stuffer EVER.
Monetarily, it would be hard to find a less expensive present — or New Year’s resolution, for that matter. In most aspiring writers’ households, though, it would require some fairly significant reshuffling of priorities to institute.
Which brings me to another very, very good reason that you might want to speak up about desiring dedicated time and space now, rather than holding your tongue until the happy day that you land an agent, sign a book contract, or see your nom de plume jauntily topping the New York Times’ bestseller list. Remember how I mentioned at Thanksgiving time that the vast majority of North Americans have absolutely no idea how books come to be published or how long it typically takes? Until they see the bound volume for sale at Borders or Chapters, even the most habitually kind and considerate of these well-meaning souls is prone — nay, likely — to express puzzlement and even disappointment at the most exciting tidings falling from their writer friends’ lips.
It’s usually expressed through hoping they’ve misunderstood you. “You signed with an agent?” they will say, uncomprehending smiles playing about their faces. “Great — when is the book coming out?”
They don’t do it to hurt you, honestly: they just don’t understand how many stages (or how much work) is involved in shepherding a book from first bright idea to successful publication. Or even unsuccessful publication. From the outside, a writer who isn’t being paid to sit and tap at a keyboard can look an awful lot like an unusually obsessed hobbyist nursing repetitive strain injuries.
Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because practically everyone in the English-speaking world, or at any rate English-reading one, mistakenly believes that when a genuinely gifted writer adds the last bon mot to any book worth reading, agents, editors, and scouts for the Oprah Winfrey show magically and spontaneously appear on his or her (usually his, in this fantasy) doorstep, clamoring to bring the magical book out tomorrow.
In the face of that preconceived notion, anything less than instant, massive literary recognition for the writer one actually knows personally is bound to seem like a bit of a letdown.
To be fair, plenty of aspiring writers buy into this fantasy, too — at least until they learn how the publishing industry actually works. In reality, even the writer of a book destined to be a classic a hundred years from now will often spend years querying, pitching, submitting, and revising before being picked up by an agent. Even after that legitimately thrilling achievement, there’s no guarantee that the agent will be able to sell the book to a publisher, or if s/he can, how soon it will be.
I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but I’ve met literally hundreds of authors who didn’t attain any serious recognition of their writing until their third or fourth books, not third or fourth month marketing them to agents.
I’m bringing this up not to depress you (although I could see where it might conceivably have that effect) but so that you will not talk yourself out of considering asking for more time, space, and support for your work just because you’ve been looking for an agent for a while — or talking yoursel into making one of those lamentably common New Year’s resolutions that demand landing an agent or a publishing contract by the end of the year.
You’ll be happier in the long run — and, dare I say it, less likely to fall prey to writer’s block — if your view of what a good writer can hope to achieve in the short run is realistic.
These days, even the IRS recognizes that ultimately very successful authors often expend years of effort without making a profit at their craft before hitting the big time. (It’s true; look it up.) If the government can accept the unappetizing fact that they’re going to have to wait to tax your book sales, is it really too much to expect those who love you to do the same?
Astonishingly often, it seems to be, but again, try not to blame your kith and kin too much. When everyone one knows seems to believe that an unpublished book must be by definition inherently flawed — because if it weren’t, it would already be published and featured on Oprah, right? — one is likely to look a trifle askance at a dream that takes a long time to come true. Or which appears to be coming true in small increments whose importance the observer doesn’t really understand.
All of which is to say: if you were planning to wait until your writing caught a break before politely requesting that your kith and kin
(a) stop nagging you to get published and go on Oprah,
(b) arguing that other activities are inherently more important than preserving your writing time and/or space,
(c) installing fitness equipment in the only logical space in the house for your desk,
(d) interrupting your scheduled writing time with the crisis du jour,
(e) interrupting your scheduled writing time for phone calls, and/or
(f) interrupting your scheduled writing time because someone just said something funny in a sitcom (improbable, but within the realm of possibility, certainly),
it might not be worth the wait. What is to a writer a major event — the realistic possibility of completing a novel within the next three months, for instance, or an agent’s request for materials, or finally selling that book proposal to a small publisher — may not be to them the unanswerable argument for support you’ve been expecting it to be. They may not respond as you would like, because after all, if your book were REALLY destined for greatness…
Well, you know the tune by now, don’t you?
And that, to slip into the vernacular for a moment, is going to suck, because at that point, you’re going to want to drop everything and devote yourself to your art. Trust me, because I speak from long, long experience and observation: at that ostensibly-joyous-yet-practically-stressful juncture, even the most sweet-tempered author is bound to feel bubbles of ulcer-inducing resentment welling up against her solar plexus.
Consider, then, the alternative. There are many advantages to gathering one’s significant other, paramour(s), children, parents, grandparents, friends, coworkers, pets, and anyone else who might be at all likely to disturb your writing time and announcing, “Now hear this! Starting this very minute and until this project is complete, I’m going to need all of your help. Raise your right hands and repeat after me: ‘Unless the house is actually on fire, I shall not interrupt my beloved writer while s/he is working…”
I’m feeling waves of panic floating from the timid at the very notion of saying such a thing. “But Anne,” I hear some of you kindly souls squeak fearfully, “isn’t that a little, you know, drastic? After all, they do leave me alone to write sometimes; I don’t want them to think I’m not grateful for that. I’ve got a much, much better idea: what if I don’t say anything at all, and just hope that they’ll take the hint?”
I understand your reluctance, oh gentle souls, but I have one question to ask in response: how has that strategy worked out for you so far?
As lovely as it would be if one’s families, roommates, and friends would spontaneously cry, “You know, honey, I’ve been thinking, and you would have two and a half hours of clear extra time per week to work on your book if I did the grocery shopping for the next six months. Please let me do this for you!” in my experience, it doesn’t happen all that often. Habit is habit, unlikely to change without somebody laying out some awfully good reasons that it should.
(Although for the benefit of any Significant Others, paramours, cats, etc. who may be reading this: anyone who DID murmur such words under the mistletoe — and actually followed through on them — would be exceedingly likely to find by spring that every writer of his/her sweetie’s acquaintance is bright green with envy. I just mention.)
Call me a cynic, but I believe that one is far, far more likely to get what one wants if one asks for it, rather than waiting for those in a position to give it to read one’s mind. Especially when, as so many aspiring writers do, you’ve probably been juggling your writing and the rest of your life well enough that from the outside, it might not look like the strain it undoubtedly is.
So instead of relying upon your loved ones to realize that you could use a bit of extra time, why not come out and request it? Or — don’t faint on me here — decree establishing time and space to write as your holiday present to yourself?
Your writing is important to you. You are NOT being selfish to ask for time and a place to do it.
Before any of you tell me that you are far, far too busy for this to be practicable — I can tell which ones intend to make this objection by the loud guffaws of disbelief and tears of mirth running down your faces — let me hasten to add that I’m thinking about some fairly small increments of undisturbed tranquility. What if, say, you were no longer the one doing the laundry? Or your teenager cooked dinner twice per week? Or you stopped playing canasta with those neighbors you never really liked in the first place? Or — and I suspect this one might resonate with some of you at this particular season — you opted out of hosting your thirty-person family’s holiday dinner next year?
How much time would that free for your writing? And, more crucially, just what message would such a step send to your kith and kin about precisely how important your writing actually is to you?
Because, if you don’t mind my asking, if you’ve never asked them to sacrifice anything for it, even momentary pleasure, are you positive that they honestly understand that you consider it your real life’s work, your genuine passion, regardless of whether your writing ever actually gets published?
Assuming, of course, that you feel this way. Most of the dedicated writers I know do.
Yes, working up the nerve to convey this to non-writers is hard, but anyone who ever told you that being a writer is easy was — well, let’s say inadequately informed. I’m going to talk more next time about how one might go about expressing this to one’s kith and kin, as well as some practical means of figuring out what can and cannot be altered in order to make more time and space for writing in your life. Before you groan, believe me, the rewards of self-expression are massive and ongoing. It is well worth reassessing the demands upon your time and space to make room for you to try.
At least think about it, please: even writers with great support and lovely, comfortable, well-lit writing spaces can usually figure out where there’s room for improvement. As Emily Dickenson wrote so charmingly, “We never know how high we are/till we are called to rise.”
She was talking about something completely different, of course, but it brings me back to a question I asked you to start considering way back in October: what do you actually need in order to write happily and well?
You didn’t honestly think that I was going to content myself with a mere pep talk today, did you?
To render subsequent discussions of October’s burning question and today’s modest proposal both more useful and more interesting, let’s expand that general question into a number of more focused ones:
(1) What conditions would you actually need in order to write productively for a significant, unbroken chunk of time? What are your necessary minimum conditions — not just generic ones, but yours — for retreating to write, even just for a day?
(2) What specific factors — ambient noise conditions, lighting, seating, height of monitor, being able to lock a door, whatever — are of tangible assistance in your creative process, and what is merely nice?
(3) Is there anything that you currently use that you could do without? If you could snap your fingers and replace a neutral factor with a useful one, what would it be?
(4) Conversely, what conditions render the actual act of writing more difficult for you? Be as specific as you can, please: cold drafts blowing across your keyboard, telemarketers calling every fifteen minutes, a bookshelf that threatens to dump its contents onto your head as you attempt to type next to it, fear of rejection? Write ‘em all down.
(5) If you believe taking a writing retreat of any length to be impossible or well-nigh impossible for you, why? Again, the more specific you can make your reply, the better.
(6) What feels like support for your writing? What are others in your life already doing that’s helpful to your writing progress, and what seems like a stumbling-block?
Yes, yes, I know: these are some pretty weighty questions, downright fundamental to who you are and how you write. That’s why I’ve given you a couple of months — and the upcoming weekend — to ponder them. They are questions that every successful professional writer has to face sooner or later, not as daydreams, but as practical realities that can be changed as necessary.
Usually, the answers become apparent about three days before a major deadline, but I think we can do better than that, don’t you? Give ‘em some thought — and keep up the good work!