Environment (Process, Part II)

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Welcome to my ongoing series about about the various parts of what I call “writing process”. Last week I talked about how I consider everyday writing as a necessary prerequisite for producing publishable work. Today I’m going to talk a little bit about the environment I do that daily writing in. Next week, I’m going to talk about what stages I go through emotionally and craft-wise as I bring a book from inception to finished manuscript.

The creative process is intensely personal, and practicing it is like being a mage in Jo Clayton‘s excellent Soul Drinker trilogy. To sum up (which I really shouldn’t, because that series is just so excellent and complex and wonderful): Magical chants in that world are arrived at by a laborious process of finding psychological “keys”, mostly etched into a person as a result of childhood experiences, so there is no one way that will work for everyone.

That being said, there are still some simple guidelines, most of which I’ve arrived at through trial and error. But before I get into that, a digression in the form of some background about my writing environment…

I am now one of the fortunate who can largely arrange her life around her writing. Before this blessed time, however, I snatched bits of writing wherever and whenever I could. I wrote on notepads during lunch and coffee breaks, and also during long slow afternoons working in the drive-through at a bank. I became very good at finding what I called the sweet spot[1]–it was a certain frame of mind where the story felt like it had been waiting for me to pick it up all along. I could almost feel the click of my brain shifting over to another mode. Driving to and from work, or driving to school, was also good because the back half of my brain was busy running through and digesting plot and character, so when I could snatch a few moments to scribble I had something all ready to commit.

I can write under almost any circumstances. I’ve written in hospital rooms, during the crazy period of having basically two toddlers in the house, on vacations, wedged into airplane seats, hiding in bathrooms while a party rages around me. It’s nice not to have to do such things, but I do credit those situations with teaching me to deal with less-than-ideal conditions. Once one knows what less-than-ideal is, one can generally make a stab at closer-to-ideal. So it was immensely valuable.

If you used time lapse photography on me during a writing day, you’d find a lot of motion. Writing’s a physical sport for me. I get up and hop around when something excites me. I jump up and block out fight scenes, I pace when a scene’s not working or when I start trying out dialogue. There’s a lot of me dancing in my chair–either from sheer glee or along with the music, since there’s almost always music in the background. I’ve grown used to writing with noise, and with the kidlets at school during the day, well, sometimes it gets a bit too quiet. Of course, there are days, usually when I’m writing a tricky or difficult emotional scene, or near the end of a book, when I crave silence and will go so far as to keep every curtain in my house drawn, lock the door, and just not answer anything or anybody until the kids come home.

You would probably also notice that I work in bursts. I am not one of those writers who can sit and just go for long periods. I go in 300 word chunks or so, then I sit back and think about it. Occasionally I will hunch over the keyboard and a chapter or two will just flow through me, but that’s the exception, not the rule. I’ll generally write a little, then noodle on something else until I get the next sequence of events/dialogue, then do a little more. On days when I feel especially scattered I like to shut off my wireless router or use Freedom to cut the Internet timesuck. Which brings up an interesting (and to my mind, necessary) point: I plan around my tendencies.

I know I’m a burst writer, and I know the time in between those bursts are when I’m likely to get derailed. (This is another reason why I use kitchen timers so often during the day.) So, I plan and prioritize to minimize distraction. (This became much, much easier when I started living without television.) I also know I’m incredibly physical when I write, so I have different props lying around the house so I can go pick them up and play when I hit a between-burst slump or a knotty problem.

This is turning into a ramble instead of a digression, so I’ll just finish by noting that I’ve only recently (like in the last six months) arrived at what I would consider my ideal environment. Before that, I just did what I could. Now, I sometimes “practice” by writing in places where I have to work to maintain focus, just to keep the iron sharp. This is part of discipline, and discipline is crucial if you expect to consistently produce publishable work. So, on to guidelines!

* Accept that you prefer certain things in your environment while you’re creating. Also accept that we live in an imperfect world and you may not get those things. I would love to write in a seaside cottage with everything I need magically appearing at my door, with other people only around when I want to talk, and a six-week vacation for world travel every year so I could go out and fill up my well of images. Unfortunately, that ain’t gonna happen. I would also prefer to write at night, but with two kids in school and errands to run to keep a house running as a single mum, that’s not feasible. Plus, sometimes I’d really like a pony and a cabana boy. But somehow, I manage to struggle along without. *sardonic grin*

* Accept that you are responsible for figuring out how to make an imperfect environment work for you. Some days, headphones work to drown out distractions around me. Other days, I need more stimulation than I’m getting at home, so I drag the laptop to a coffee shop. It’s a constant balancing act. In the end, however, I am the one who is responsible for either arranging my environment or dealing with the imperfections and doing the goddamn work anyway. Either way, it goes a lot easier when I just shrug and deal.

* Find cheap ways to get what you need. Sometimes I would really like to go to the museum, but it’s not particularly feasible. So I pop down to a bookstore and look at giant art books. I love music, but sometimes it’s prohibitively expensive. I listen to Internet radio and frequent used-CD stores. I really, really want a nice katana to help me through a battle scene, can’t afford one, so a cheap bokken and some imagination works. Movies are kind of expensive, but Netflix is pretty cheap. Maybe I can’t go shopping in the tony part of town but I can go to Goodwill and snark everything I find. Maybe I can’t afford a nice Levenger desk, but I can get an Ikea portable laptop stand and it’ll do the trick. Ersatz can work.

* Get over being embarrassed. I think it was Flaubert who liked the smell of rotting apples and kept a drawer full of them in his desk. When he felt inspiration waning, he opened the drawer, leaned over, and took a whiff. I imagine he might’ve felt a bit embarrassed if anyone caught him at it, just like I feel faintly ridiculous practicing dialogue while stuck in traffic or dancing around my living room waving a weapon. I’ve pretty much made my peace with the fact that I’m going to look ridiculous on a daily basis for the rest of my life. I console myself with the thought that everyone around me is just as worried, and if I can get some creative juice out of it, well, it’s all good.

* Be ruthless with “splinters”. Splinters are the low-level annoyances in a room or your life that grind away at you, whether it’s a laundry pile that irritates you every time you see it or an emotional saboteur, possibly one you live with. Stamp on their heads. Get rid of them, or isolate them, or put them somewhere else. This is a lot easier with laundry piles than it is with saboteurs, but it’s worth doing. The more you prioritize, the better your environment will be.

* Be ruthless with distractions. A little bit of noodling or distraction is okay. I can’t get through a writing session without short breaks to sit and think. Sometimes, the most important part of the session is when I’m sitting and staring at the screen, my brain tuned to that hum of high-octane daydreaming, and insight pops along merrily as if it’s just been waiting for me to shut up so it can get a word in edgewise. But you have to be honest with yourself. Avoidance is avoidance, and you have to understand, anticipate, and plan for your own avoidance behaviors. This is no different than overcoming one’s natural reluctance to do anything unglamorous, like paying bills or brushing one’s teeth, except the stakes are higher. This is, after all, writing we’re talking about.

* Understand that your environment needs will change over time. I used to write cross-legged in a papasan chair, and then cross-legged in THE CHAIR. Unfortunately, my body won’t let me do that for long periods anymore. So now it’s an office chair and a portable desk. For a couple days it was uncomfortable, but then I adapted. Never underestimate your ability to adapt.

* Work WITH your preferences, as far as you’re able. Since writing is so physical for me, and since I love music so much, sometimes the best part of my day is my morning run with my headphones in and my mind full of images. I also get a fair amount of antidepressant neurochemicals and some physical fitness out of it. I know I like to pace while I think, so I get up and grab some laundry to take to the washer, and by the time I come back I’ve got the next few lines of dialogue. I know I’m a burst writer and I get derailed, so I set a timer for ten minutes and get up and get it all out of my system, coming back refreshed and ready to work. You know yourself best, you’ve been living with yourself all your life, you can spend some time thinking about how to make your little quirks and fiddles work for you.

* Allow for screwups. Yeah, sometimes I alter my environment in what I think is going to be an AWESOME way (like, for example, when I thought a metronome would be soothing while I worked) and it turns out about as well as stuffing a cracked out squirrel down my pants[2]. I’ve found it’s easier to just let the damn squirrel go, shrug, bandage myself, and move on.

I just beat that analogy gracelessly to death, didn’t I. Perhaps it’s time to stop.

So, we’ve covered commitment and environment. Next week I’ll be talking about the stages I go through when writing a book.

Keep writing.

[1] Don’t worry, I’ll talk more about the sweet spot later in this series of posts.

[2] I ended up having ticking anxiety dreams and nervously chewing at my cuticles because the metronome kept PRESSURING me, dammit. I finally had to put the damn thing in the garage so it wasn’t looking at me, and then I moved it to a “FREE” box at the end of the driveway and watched until someone took it. Yeah, I know, I’m crazy. Fine. At least the damn metronome is gone.

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