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Edward Gorey – in a marvelous little piece titled The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel – describes the conditions under which his protagonist writes: “Mr Earbrass belongs to the straying, rather than to the sedentary, type of author. He is never to be found at his desk unless actually writing down a sentence. Before this happens he broods over it indefinitely while picking up and putting down again small, loose objects; walking diagonally across rooms; staring out windows; and so forth. He frequently hums, more in his mind than anywhere else, themes from the Poddington Te Deum.”
I can’t claim to be quite so eccentric as Mr Earbrass. However, I will concede that one of the more baffling, indeed frustrating, elements of learning how to write has been trying to figure out what my own ideal writing circumstances are and then inventing ways to achieve them.
Successful writers (or so I’ve heard it said) are those who can organize their lives so that no matter what else they’re doing, they keep on writing. In my case, however, I have to say that success in doing any kind of writing at all involves tricking myself into actually putting words on the page, despite all the internal psychological barriers that always seem to be pushing me not to write: mostly fear, with a substantial leavening of indolence and guilt.
Raising the stakes, in my experience – making vast resolutions, cajoling myself with envisioned consequences for my writing and not-writing, telling myself that if I don’t do it now it will never happen – doesn’t actually make me more productive. Indeed, past a certain point such strategies may backfire by making me more afraid, increasing my guilt, and enhancing my awareness of just how much work writing is.
Instead, what seems to work better is to take it a little bit at a time and find ways to write while lowering my inhibitions and reducing my self-consciousness. In short, the available evidence suggests that this teetotaling Mormon boy would probably write – well, not better, but at least in greater abundance – if I could just belt back one or two shots before setting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be).
Ironically, the best approximation of this that I’ve managed to discover is writing during sacrament meeting. There’s something about emotionally fraught dialogue, in particular, that seems to simply flow when I’m sitting in a Mormon chapel and ought to be attending to the words of my fellow saints. I tell myself that at least it’s better than sleeping in church, but I know I’m only rationalizing. I’d like to think that the writing comes easier when I’m at church because that’s when I’m more in tune with the Spirit, but in fact I think it has more to do with the fact that (a) I’m at least somewhat relaxed; (b) the thing I’m doing doesn’t take much of my mental attention and leaves my hands free; and (c) it’s also okay if I don’t write.
Back during Christmas break, I got in some really marvelous writing sessions at my father-in-law’s, sitting in front of the downstairs fireplace early in the morning before anyone else was awake. No interruptions, a calm, peaceful setting, and (perhaps most important) nothing in particular that I was supposed to be (or could profitably be) doing – as opposed to almost any time in my own home, where there are always things to clean and books to read and children to help with their schoolwork. I could feel lazy and self-indulgent and still get some fairly large chunks of writing done. And I did.
It’s perhaps not coincidence that both of these examples involved writing by longhand. Computers are my primary professional tool, particularly when it comes to the kind of marketing and informational writing that puts food in the garbage. (Wait, that somehow doesn’t sound quite right…) But computers are also a major distraction, and I think that my composing speed using a keyboard may be a little too fast for the pace that I’ve found to be best for creative composition. So even though everything gets transcribed onto the computer, and most of my editing and a lot of my composition takes place there as well, more often than not the writing sessions that stand as the model for my own personal best writing conditions feature notebooks or blank paper and mechanical pencils.
I also find that my best creative writing – and my best work on thorny edits – often takes place in the morning, not too long after I get out of bed and following a night when I’ve gotten a fair amount of sleep. This is a bit of a disappointment to me, since I’ve been hoping for an appropriately Bohemian image as a perpetual night owl. Goodness knows I’ve been living the life of a night owl for the past 20 years or more. Sadly, a wealth of evidence is slowly forcing me toward the conclusion that I’m actually a morning person, albeit one in deep denial. The fact that this seems to be true of my creative writing as well is simply one more nail in my artistic coffin.
Which brings me to the matter of walks.
There’s a scene in Nephi Anderson’s classic Mormon novel Added Upon where the king of Poland, visiting Zion during the Millennium, notices “a man sitting on a bench by the lake. As his occupation seemed to be throwing break crumbs to the swans in the water, the king and his companion concluded that here, at last, they had discovered one of the idle rich” (p. 200).
On expressing this thought, however, they are corrected by their guide: “‘Oh, no; he is one of our hardest working men. That is one of our most popular writers. . . . We are told that when he is planning one of his famous chapters of a story, he comes down to this lake and feeds the swans.'”
Aside from the understandable hint of wish-fulfillment fantasy on Anderson’s part, I find something here that reflects my own experience. Sometimes you just have to get away from your keyboard or notepad or whatever and find a way to distract yourself.
This is precisely what I’ve found in my own career, both as a creative writer (so far) and as a professional freelance informational writer. Back in the olden days when I worked in a cubicle, I would get up and take a walk around other offices in our division and generally make a nuisance of myself when I felt like letting my brain idle for a time. (It’s called “spying” and it actually served me and my department very well, which was one reason my supervisor never made me stop.) Since starting to work out of my own home, I’ve found this kind of getting out and about to be even more necessary, lest I sit and vegetate or whatever.
Basically, going on a walk is a corrective for whatever unproductive mood I’m stuck in: if I’m having a hard time letting go of my writing, if I’m feeling low on energy, if a particular scene or plot problem is proving intractable. I don’t necessary come out of my walk with a solution to my problem. Often enough, what I get instead is the ability to walk away from my writing for a while and do other things instead of pounding my head against the sand. (Wait, that doesn’t sound quite right either.) It centers me, and in so doing helps center my writing as well.
Writing, as I’ve said before, is (for some of us at least) a kind of psychological game: something we have to fool ourselves into doing. Why we play such a game with ourselves seems beyond knowing at times – and is, at any rate, the subject of a different blog. (See The Writing Rookie #1). But if we are going to play this kind of game, it behooves us to give ourselves a home-court advantage by learning what kinds of conditions can help us produce our best work.