It’s Thursday night again, time to brew Friday morning coffee. Same Chock Full o’Nuts as last time, and the Bigelow teas sampler nobody touched last week is still here (each bag individually foil wrapped). I do have a selection of bagels this time – the Bagel Basket, where I grab lunch, had a slow day and plenty left over. They’re day-olds now, of course, but if you toast them, who’s to know? Couple of different cheeses, some regular butter and a cinnamon-butter my daughter loves but I never acquired a taste for. Help yourself while I get organized.
It is difficult for me to write this.
What makes it difficult is a project my son is working on for his game business. The details of the project are unimportant. In fact, I don’t know any details. I can’t even tell you if the project is part of development or sales.
More important than the purpose or objective of the project itself, at least to me at this moment, is the location of the project. He’s got the dining room table covered with paraphernalia. It’s stuff that can’t be moved; stuff that could not be moved last night. Stuff that will likely not move all weekend long. Oh, it will change shape and arrangement as he works on it; parts will certainly come and go. But the essential fact of its presence on the dining room table will not change.
And the dining room table is my writing space. I always sit in the middle of the long side, my back toward the wall so that I can see into the kitchen or the living room or out the window, depending on which way I turn my head. I don’t sit in one of the wooden chairs, of course. I use the nicely padded incidental chair (though it hasn’t been involved in any incidents I know of) that usually lurks in the corner. My son is using that chair now.
If one were to be objective about it, there’s nothing wrong with where I am right now. I’m in our bedroom, where Valerie usually studies (she’s working on another degree). Seating is comfortable, my laptop is at the right height, and Valerie is on night shift, leaving me with the peace and quiet to compose.
But this is not my writing space.
And that makes it difficult for me to write.
I am a creature of habit. I like things to be the way I expect them to be. Perhaps it’s a function of my ADD; or maybe it’s an artifact of advancing age. In either case, I need a certain amount of structure to be comfortable.
As a writer, structure is important. You can’t go through life jotting down a few words at stoplights or filling your notebook during commercial breaks. Writing is not something you do when and only if everything else is done. If you don’t treat writing as a job -- something that must be done for a certain stretch of time or until a certain quota of words is produced each day -- you will never accomplish anything. Or, if you do finish something, take six times as long to get it done.
For many of us the process, the ritual, of getting ready to write helps us settle into the craft. Gets the mind in writing mode, helps us transition from “real” life to the world of our stories. But there is a tipping point. When the preparation for writing becomes as important as the writing. When any interruption of the pattern makes writing impossible. (Or, in the case of this essay, more difficult.)
My first novel, Wolf Hunters, is about 97,000 words long. I was given 90 days in which to produce the manuscript (which was supposed to be 90k) but with my self-doubt, procrastination, and general unfamiliarity with the process of producing a novel on deadline, I almost didn’t get it done. 50,000 of those words were written in the final month. (And remember, for every word I keep, I usually throw out three.) How did I do it? At the time I was working direct support rather than case management, and my hours were flexible -- with most in the early morning and evening. I went to a Port City Java that was central to my client’s homes and built myself an office. Not a real office, of course; a favorite table where I could sit with my back to the room. I had a baseball cap pulled down so I could see nothing but the laptop and headphones on so I heard nothing but jazz, and I typed like a mad thing.
This worked out pretty well. I made my deadline and I was proud of my work.
From that point on, I had to go to Port City Java to write. And when I was there, if I didn’t have my cap -- or worse, my headphones -- it was a struggle to get words out. Even finding someone else at “my” table was enough to throw me.
I realized what had happened of course. Once I was aware something had happened. I had conditioned myself to associate quality production to a specific set of circumstances in that one setting. The ritual had become the most important part of the creative process. I eventually broke the Port City Java habit, though it took me another year to shake the nagging suspicion that I would be writing more and better at my window table with Coltrane in my headphones and a steaming mug of organic Kenyan in easy reach.
What structures do you use as a writer? Location? Time? Music? Goals?
What things do you do to get your creative engine running and keep it on track?
And what rituals have you developed that get in the way of your writing?