Finding a time and place to write

The Problem

Imagine sitting down in a cafe, ordering a fresh brew, finding a decent table somewhere away from the grinder and taking out your quill in preparation for your muse to begin her inspiration. You’ve got a billion ideas whizzing around inside your head, you’re ready to release them onto paper. The chatter of the happy people and the clinking of plates makes a welcome distraction from pure silence and there’s nothing to prevent the flow of words from the brain to the paper. Now pick up that imagined scene, fold it nicely with a perfect crease along the edge and file it under ‘F’ for ‘Fanciful’. Better yet, make that ‘N’ for ‘Not going to happen’! If you’re like me, there simply aren’t enough hours in a day to get the essentials done, let alone making time to sit down and get into that ‘zone’. One of the biggest sources of frustration I find comes in the form of interruptions. These can be technological, environmental, work or home related or, most commonly, they come from those around you.

Environment

It’s sunny outside, your muse is getting twitchy, so you take your laptop outside and sit in the warmth while your pen your masterpiece. Sounds like a good idea? I thought so. And I persisted with it through Spring and Summer, until I realised that I was getting less and less written. When the Sun wasn’t baking my neck and turning it red, it was glaring off the screen, making it hard to read what I had written. Moving to the shade didn’t help all that much, either. I’d get too cold, or too warm (and start to doze) and the reflection on the screen showed up in contrasts so I’d be constantly shifting the angle of view. I’ve tried parks, busy roadways, quiet backstreets, even the beach. All seemed perfect to begin with, commanding a lovely view, a comfortable bench to sit on, a light breeze. They provided inspiration, yes, but inspiration alone is not enough. In the end, none of these outdoor settings were suitable for the serious business of writing. Offices are built for a reason. The lighting is consistent, the temperature is comfortable, there are power points and running water. These buildings, although often sterile and boring, are actually the perfect place for getting stuff done. ‘Stuff’ being ‘words’ and ‘done’ being ‘written’. After all, a book isn’t a book until it’s successfully out of your head and onto a piece of paper (or a hard drive, as the case may be). So while an office may not be the most inspirational of places to write, it does encourage serious progress on your book if, and it’s a big if, you can avoid the distractions that reside within.

Work and Home

When I get to work, I generally perform a solid amount of administration, answer emails, figure out what I’m going to be doing for the day, put out any spot-fires and attend the daily Scrum in order to sync with the team. Once this is done, and the path is free, I’m designing, coding, testing, debugging, cursing under my breath at a dodgy third party API… and then lunch time is upon me. At this point in the day, the body craves exercise and the brain craves rest. I’d prefer to go for a long walk to stretch my legs and get some fresh air, but I’ve got ideas that are pushing their way out and require my immediate attention. If it’s all you’ve got to work with, then using half an hour of your lunch to write isn’t as bad as it sounds: The change of task, in itself, can be refreshing enough. Still, a candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long and, from my personal experience, writing through lunch day in, day out, takes a mental and physical toll. One way around this, I’ve discovered, is by moving the period from lunch to before work: You’re still in the office, with all the benefits (and coffee, hopefully) that you need, but you’ve not got the exhaustion creeping up on you. If writing after work suits you, go right ahead, only be warned that you run a greater risk of your peers bugging you (more on this later). Writing at home would seem to be without the pitfalls mentioned here, and why not? It’s comfortable, familiar, it has everything you need in terms of resources. The problems faced here a more subtle. They are temptations and interruptions.

Technology

Which leads me to talk about technology and how it can prevent you from reaching your potential. Indeed, my laptop enables me to churn out words, rearrange paragraphs, jot down ideas, poke about for the right phrase, without the need to rub out pencil scrawls or tear off bits of paper. It saves trees, it saves time, it is essential. However, and here’s the catch, it also enables me to waste time looking at You Tube videos, read emails, check on the up-coming Sprint. It’s a double edged sword. It requires discipline to master the urge to ‘quickly check something’ which can easily lead to slabs of time wasted on frivolous, non-productive tasks. This goes the same for the telephone. And the television. And the radio. And anything else that your brain wants to play with. If you find yourself watching ‘just one more’ Cat-Playing-A-Piano video, or are checking your Twitter feed every other minute, you’re not concentrating on your work (and it is work). In this case, I would strongly encourage you to pull the battery out of your cell phone, turn off the wireless connection, physically unplug the television or whatever device is sucking your time out, and give yourself a tap on the nose.

People

The problem, I find, with any artistic pursuit, is that onlookers just don’t get how bloody hard it all is. It may be a case of ignorance, it may be disrespect. I’m still working it out. What I have found, though, is that you’re more inclined to get stuff done if you don’t have: A) Bob discussing last night’s football match with you B) Sally looking over your shoulder critiquing your work as you write C) Joe and Nancy deciding which cat played the piano best while you’re trying to get inside your protagonist’s head. You can politely mention your frustration and this, generally, has a positive effect. I say generally because, from time to time, the mere mention of “Excuse me, but I’m trying to nut out this paragraph…” unwittingly elicits more questions, more discussion, more “Oh, what you should do is…” and, ultimately, more time wasted.

So what to do?

I do not want to end this post with the cliche of, ‘Whatever works for you’. That’s obvious. And unhelpful. What I can tell you is what has worked for me and why.

Form a Habit

There are many online resources to describe how to do this, so I won’t bother with that here (besides, I want to get back to writing), but the main point is that, by discovering the best pattern for your writing and creating a habit out of it, you set yourself up for a regular, productive past-time that you can look forward to. It might be every day, or every other day. It might be several times a day. But if it’s consistent, then even when you come to the inevitable case of writer’s block, you know in the back of your mind that it will be dealt with at the next session. You know that if you have a fantastic idea, it will be flowing out of your fingers soon enough.

Mitigate Fatigue

I mentioned before that the body and the brain both need to exercise and to rest. It’s tempting to flog one’s brain with another cup of coffee in order to squeeze out that last drop of intellectual goodness, and I’m the first one to put my hand up to admit that I’m guilty of this. The problem is, while it works in the short term, caffeine is not a long term solution. Indeed, too much and you’ll wind up jittery, unable to concentrate because you’re too wired. Not only that, but there’s every chance you’re going to crash, whereby your brain simply throw’s it neuronic hands in the air and storms off, leaving you drooling out the side of your mouth while your lament your inability to get a single sentence out. Controlling your physical and mental fatigue to coincide with your writing time is quintessential to maintaining healthy writing hygiene. You can reduce the fatigue in physical ways, too. I sit in front of a computer screen all day. There’s not an hour of the working day that goes past when I’m not looking at some kind of computer generated image. I found that, little by little, my eyes were hurting, my head was aching, and I could barely look at the screen without squinting. I tried application like Lux, with some success, but it got to the point where I was wearing sunglasses by the end of every day. The solution, I found, were Gunnar glasses (www.gunnars.com). They took a while to get used to, and I nearly tossed them in the bin the first day, but I stuck with them. And boy am I glad I did. While it doesn’t eliminate eye-fatigue, it certainly reduces it to the point where my eyes aren’t like sandpaper when I come on home. Another simple way to avoid the problem of being too tired to write is to switch it up a little. Change from one book to another. Jump out of the current chapter that you’re labouring over and get going on the fun one that you’re aching to do. You know what? Start planning you front cover or writing up the blurb, or even do some creative writing that has nothing to do with anything in particular. While it may not be adding to the word count of your book, it is adding to your portfolio of ideas and creativity.

Be Assertive

People. People. People. Some people get it, some people don’t. Either way, it’s up to you to educate them on when it’s acceptable to bug you (say, during work hours) and when it’s not. If explaining nicely doesn’t work, and your precious writing time is being sapped away, consider being more obvious, less subtle: “Ah, excuse me, I’m trying to write.” “Oh, cool. What are you writing now?” “The same thing I was yesterday when you asked me that same question. Now, if you’ll excuse me…” A little curt, perhaps, but more assertive than engaging in open conversation. Another strategy I have found that works is a visual aid. Try wearing a funny (but comfortable!) hat. Or putting a pineapple on your desk. Something obvious. Something zany. Then, when pressed, you can say, “When I’m wearing this hat / that pineapple is on the desk / the monkey has his hands up / [insert your own zany thing here], I’m writing and I dn’t wish to be disturbed.” Sooner or later people will be actively looking for the monkey with its arms raised.

Eliminate Sensory Interference

Make some noise! No, really. Head on over to mynoise.net and look around. Peace and quiet is grand, and if you can go and write in a library then by all means, do that. If, like me, you simply don’t have the luxury of a great cone of silence, then the next best thing is to eliminate the distraction by making an even greater distraction. More precisely, generate enough noise that you cannot distinguish the pesky noises. Simply broadcasting noise into the air won’t do, not least because it will annoy those nearby. Get a pair of headphones or earphones and crank up the volume. It’s a matter of “Can’t see the forest for the trees”. The really cool thing about this is that you can pop on your earphones wherever you are, be it at your desk, next to the photocopier, in front of a television, wherever, and in half a minute you’re back to being focused on your work. I’ve tried white-noise generators (which really do help), and pink and brown ones, too, but, to be honest, I keep coming back to the MyNoise site to fulfill my sensory needs. Don’t believe me? Try the Cafe Restaurant Noise Generator. I’m using this right now, as I write this, to prevent the television from tearing my attention from the screen. So while you might not be able to live your life in a cafe, armed with the right tools, you’ve got something even better.