Creating Space: A Writer’s Quest

canstockphoto18728910After many years of constant motion, I set out over the last year to make deliberate changes to my life. I stepped down, resigned, said no, cancelled activities and walked away. When all the excuses were gone, I was left facing the most formidable obstacle ever to being the writer I want to be – myself.

There’s a lot of talk about the corrosive effect of our distracted lives and it hasn’t been until I tried to sit still that it became truly apparent. I feel a little lost, a little uncertain about what I’m supposed to be doing. I have to look at the calendar to see what day it is and remind myself to shower. I have done every imaginable household task – my home has never been cleaner. I’ve spent countless hours doing internet research on any random question that has popped into my head. I have done, you see, everything but write.

I had a problem to solve and I’ve been working to come up with solutions. How do I create the space and time to write?

Where? Writers are presumed to be able to work anywhere. I have not found this to be the case. Sensory-wise, I can be pretty easily overwhelmed. My husband has told me for years that I need better “filters”. I told him that he needs a different wife. Defensiveness rules after being told for so many years that I’m too sensitive to sounds and smells. Maybe the world just needs to shut the hell up for a moment and back off the cologne.

I constantly hear about the coffee shop writers. I mean, J.K. Rowling, right? Sound impacts my ability to concentrate. Everyone tells me “headphones”, but I find that not being able to hear what’s happening in a public space to be unsettling, much the same way that mafioso like their backs to the wall in a restaurant.

I do a lot of writing at home when I’m in a productive phase. Those are joyful times for me, when I believe in my own potential as a writer. Still, emails pop up, the phone rings, texts ding and Skype beckons me. Hunger is never unabated, since I’m about 20 feet from the kitchen. If I’m really desperate to avoid the page, there is always housework to be done, rooms to be painted, yellow wallpaper to be stared at until I’m completely bonkers. Potential wanes in the face of interruption.

Random questions never go unanswered, even in the midst of writing. Is ragweed in season when I have my character having an allergic reaction? Google, oh wise one, tell me. An hour later, ragweed has linked me to the genus name ambrosia has linked me to the wine god Dionysus has linked me to numerous nude statues and a staff of fennel. And no, I still don’t know if ragweed is in season when my character’s nose is running nonstop.

This week, I’ve started using a new tech tool called Freedom. It blocks all internet connection for a timed period. You’d think with a little self control, I could do this without paying the $10 for the download. It was eye-opening to realize how often I attempted to access the internet reflexively. It was such a habit interruptus to check email, look something up, to even look at my weather app (seriously, I sit in front of a big damn window – weather is self-evident). I think it’s a brilliant little tool that, at bare minimum, made me realize what poor habits of concentration I have in front of the computer.

With the running “to do” list for household work, I decided that I needed to scout out a secondary location for some writing sessions. I visit our local library branch a couple of miles away at least once a week. I “discovered” that there is a quiet room with strict protocols and just tables and chairs. I’d never noticed it before – it was full of natural light, with huge windows that face a wooded area. How had I missed this gem?

Today is my first two hour writing session in The Quiet Room. I’m going in cold turkey, armed only with paper and pens. I used to write like that, with a lefty’s ink smear across every page. I think of it as an exploratory time – to figure out my whens and wheres of writing. I’ve been a hit-and-run writer for years. Now it’s time to park it and focus.

If you’re a writer or artist, how do you create space and time to work?

Administrative Note: The Green Study “What’s on the B Side of that 45?” Contest is revving up with some very thoughtful entries! You have until Sunday, December 7th, 2014, 12:00 pm (US Standard Central Time) to get your entry submitted. 

28 Comments on “Creating Space: A Writer’s Quest

  1. I am one of the lucky ones. A career as an ad agency writer/creative director has trained me to ‘write on demand’. You get a brief, you get to work. End of story. Not in the mood? Too bad. Off you go and mind the deadline. And by God, you learn to do it.

    It also forces you to come up with ideas at the snap of a finger — uh — make that the crack of a whip.

    In an ad agency there’s no such thing as no distractions. No sooner do you sit down at your computer then your phone rings. You’re called to a meeting, or a client wants to go over your copy or a team member needs to vent about something — that very minute. Then there’s all the people who just show up in your office, or at your desk or cubicle — to talk, to bitch, to brief you on a new job (with the same deadline as the job you’re already working on, lucky you) or any one of a number of other reasons.

    Right next to you someone is listening to music — the same song or jingle over and over and over and over again — stopping and starting, stopping and starting because they’re timing it. Right across from you someone is screening a TV commercial — over and over and over and over again. A couple of doors away someone’s having a meeting with 4 other people and you can hear every word they’re saying. Down the hall someone has a meltdown.

    It’s the same thing every day. And somehow, miraculously, you learn to block it all out. It just becomes a buzz of human energy after a while which, in my case, makes working at home, alone (now that I freelance) feel strange.

    When I decided to freelance I made myself a beautiful office, with everything I could possibly need or want, right at my fingertips. I have never sat in there to work. Not even once. It makes me feel too isolated.

    I love working in cafes. I have no idea who’s coming or going. I have no idea what the people around me are saying. I guess I am also lucky because I get so immersed in my work, so lost in the words I am oblivious to everything else. It’s that “buzz” I find so comforting, so inspiring actually — so UNdistracting.

    Total silence distracts me. But I have been forcing myself to become comfortable working from home. And I find my favourite spot is at my dining room table. No TV or music on. Don’t ask me why, but this works for me. I live on the 15th floor and have a gorgeous view — and my apartment is very bright. The light there is perfect. And I can also see my living room and into my kitchen. So for some reason here I don’t feel isolated like I do in my office.

    I’ve worked well on planes and trains — love to work on the train, actually. And truly, I think I could work on a park bench.

    Advertising is a very tough business. Brutal deadlines and stress, stress, stress. But it’s given me the ability to ‘work on command’ and, under a myriad of less-than-desirable conditions — and for that I am extremely grateful.

    Sorry for the long-winded comment.

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    • You’re fortunate that you can work like that – and likely productive. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am a little precious when it comes to environment. I truly hated working in an office where, despite having an office with a door, I could hear the lawyer down the hallway clipping his nails, which set me on edge. I’ve really come to accept that sensory-sensitivity is part of my make up and does much to define my needs in terms of productivity. While I can work in a distracted environment, I’m grateful to be able to choose otherwise.

      I have to believe that finely tuned senses will also inform my fiction. Perhaps, too, the kind of writing one is drawn to emerges from one’s personality and ergo the type of amenable workspace. Chicken…egg…chicken. After being in the Army, I don’t do anything on command, which is likely why I don’t have a career!

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      • I don’t think you are “precious”. Devoting yourself to writing full time is still new for you and you just need to find your ‘groove’ (ugh…for lack of a better word). You’ll figure it out. Relax and let it happen. The perfect spot will find you.

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        • You are a womderful writer. It will all fall into place, guaranteed. Don’t angst — although having said that, it’s worked incredibly well for Woody Allen 🙂

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  2. I find that I work best on paper. When I try to just sit and type out things they don’t seem to turn out just write. So I sit down somewhere and write out a story or a poem. I used to have a desk I would go to- an antique stationary desk that my father is waiting for my aunt to come and pickup. She never will and I have claimed it with papers tucked in the small drawers and a pen or two on top. I can write on almost anything but I find that I like to write on graph paper. Keeps everything neat and organized even when my story isn’t.

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    • I used to write on a small wooden desk that I got from the thrift store, but when technology was invited in, I had to get one of those monstrous pressed wood desks. It’s ugly, but gives me space.
      I’ve been thinking about the psychological connection between longhand writing and creativity. While I can write much faster and legibly on the computer, I wonder if something is lost in the process. I think that is what I’m most interested in discovering – what emerges when I have to write slowly and thoughtfully. I think the idea of using graph paper sounds interesting.
      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your writing “space”!

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      • You’re very welcome. Thanks for the article. I don’t really think about it much but space can have a huge impact on writing.

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  3. Home is a constant distraction – great for editing, not so much for generating anything new. Coffee shops are fine – I actually enjoy the background buzz and can ignore it because it’s not my problem … BUT … coffee shops contain evil fancy coffee, and cake, and all manner of goodies that I am smart enough to keep out of the fridge. Our library is wonderful; it has armchairs all over the place, including arranged around a huge fireplace. Perfect!

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    • I love libraries – especially those that really focus on a variety of community spaces. I’m hoping that this afternoon’s writing session will be encouraging. I have tried coffee shops but always end up with a headache trying to filter out the noise. Our local coffee shop has crappy space as well – too many people crowded into too small a space. I’m looking forward to the spring and summer, when I’ll be trying some outdoor writing. I find being outside such a brain clutter-clearing activity.

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      • Yes, when the weather is good one of my favorite things is just to park my car somewhere that there’s a view, and sit inside it and work. With the option of rolling windows up or down one has better climate and bug control, which can be helpful.

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      • I hope your writing session is the start of something good for you. NaNo was a bust for me; when I finally figured out what was wrong with my book, it just wasn’t possible to keep plowing forward. And while I can see huge benefit in simply driving forward with a project, ignoring imperfections and focusing on the final page, I couldn’t do that when I realized I had totally lost the plot.

        Right now I have backed off a bit. I’m getting my life in order – cleaning house, taking care of necessary year-end yard chores, trying yet another approach to eating (ARGH!), wrapping up some editing projects … I hope I’m not just procrastinating. Maybe a little. It’s such a huge realignment, as you know … For years I have said, “I am a writer and One Day writing will be the main thing I do.” Well, One Day is here, and I’m floundering a little, trying to figure out how it’s done, and trying NOT to be discouraged and heartbroken by all the fresh young faces on various dust jackets. I just wish my friends would stop trying to encourage me by invoking Grandma Moses … It doesn’t work!

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        • It was a good writing session. Sorry about the NaNo bust, but it happens. As I am learning, it takes a while to find the writing life rhythm. Patience may be a virtue, but it’s never been one of mine. Hence, all the blog posts about figuring it out.

          I don’t pay attention to what other people are doing when it comes to the idea of ever getting published. With e-publishing and self-publishing, it’s the wild west out there. Do what will make you happy in your own timeline.

          And that wraps up today’s bit of unsolicited advice. Hang in there!

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  4. Five years ago, I build this cabin in my woods as a place to write. It once worked well as a place to go to get away from little distractions – but eventually too many distractions have followed me into the woods – most notably the internet. I have to get tough with myself to drive them off.

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    • I used to fantasize about a cabin in the woods, but the internet definitely kills that vision. I’d love to do one of those wilderness writing retreats, but that would involve other people. I had a productive day today between blocking my internet connection and going to the library quiet room. Apparently it can be done. One more excuse to cross off the list!

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  5. “(seriously, I sit in front of a big damn window – weather is self-evident)” This cracked me up. I’ve found it helpful to write down every random thought, emotional upheaval, or bizarre combination of words that float through my head. Then, when I have time to really focus, I edit. Sometimes not a damn thing comes of it, but on that rare occasion when an inspired phrase catches the light just right, that’s when I know I’m on to something. Hope your time in the quiet room yields something amazing for you.

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    • Thanks, Honie! The library quiet room was the BOMB today. I figured out some plot problems, wrote some new and improved scenes and worked on my sad ass dialogue skills. I was alone for two hours in utter silence. It really was great and I’m so excited about finding another solution to the distraction issue. My longhand was, however, abominable. Will be deciphering it well into the new year. Might need to bring a laptop next time!

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  6. I hear you.
    I’m resigned to being distracted. It’s just who I am. Being distracted means I’m just working things out in my head. Landry is good for that. I’m more concerned with place. I’ve had a couple of different stations over the years. These days, though, I seem to do my best with a laptop on my lap sitting in a recliner, reclining. Also good for napping.

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    • I think being distracted is who I’ve become. I used to be able to sit still, but I think that was a couple of decades ago, before office jobs and having a family. I’m getting that false old age nostalgia. A recliner is where I drop off to sleep while losing my place in a book. It likely wouldn’t work with a laptop as I’d likely fall asleep, setting myself on fire with a defective laptop battery. That would give me a little focus, though.

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  7. Love your line about keeping your back to the wall. We live in a relatively small house with many small nooks and crannies and lots of desks. I work on my laptop and move around as the mood suits me. Sometimes, I’m pleased as punch to be at my main desk in the heart of the cabin with the woodstove close by. Other times I need to move to the kitchen table with wide, expansive views of the lake. Other times it feels better to be upstairs at the back of the cabin looking out to the woods. I can work with noise as long as it isn’t someone talking directly to me. I usually like to have music or some podcast going on in the background when I write. The internet can certainly be a distraction but working my way into my fourth novel now, I now that once the story takes over nothing will call me away. Some days I think the whole house could fall down around my ears and I wouldn’t even notice. Good luck on carving out your ideal working space.

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    • Your workspace sounds ideal. I love a view to the outdoors and it occurred to me that so often nature informs my writing. I tried listening to music while writing and found it too distracting. My problem now is that the skill to get lost in something has been decimated by distracted behaviors and in changing my habits and surroundings, I’m hoping to get back to that level of concentration. Thanks for sharing your “space” and work habits!

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  8. It’s funny: I’m reading this now because I sat down in my recliner to try to write but something happened with the kids and my wife is moody as a result (can’t blame her) and even though I put on my favorite VU record and really NEED to write to clear my fucking head, I won’t have it tonight. But I got to read and commiserate here, and that is all good. “Jesus: help me find my proper place.” – Bill

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    • Household tension never bodes well for writing. I’ll have a mini-meltdown about needing some time to write, stomp off to the study and find myself incapable of doing anything. Thankfully, that is not too often. Hopefully you can find some room soon, Bill.

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  9. Some people claim they study most effectively while listening to loud music. I’ve always needed silence.

    As a newspaper reporter, I could knock out a hard news story on deadline in the midst of chaos. But if there’s no impending deadline and the writing requires more thought and creativity than daily journalism, I’m easily distracted by noise.

    Steven King recommends writing in a room with a closed door, facing a corner or wall, not a window. He says only open the door and allow your beta reader(s) to critique when the first-draft of the book is done.

    I’m pretty sure I need the closed door and silence.

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    • I think Stephen King has something there, being a published author many times over and all. I do like my nature scenery, though, when mulling things over and the window in the study, as well as the one at the library, feels useful to my process. But silence is a must. That’s a little harder to track down these days.

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  10. Yes, is sounds like experimentation is required. I hope the quiet room works.

    I’m one of those coffee shop writers–and I *do* sit with my back to the wall. With iPod buds firmly in place (if I’m going to have noise, I want MY noise). Only notebook and pen. I’ve been tempted to get a laptop, but this is my practice and it works for me–first draft written by hand, edits and second draft plugged into my desktop, print out the draft, start there the next day.

    Good luck finding the right venue!

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    • I had a laptop for many years, but writing in coffee shops never worked for me. I think pen and paper will be my “off-site” approach. The library quiet room was awesome and is now on my list as a weekly ritual. I didn’t get as much writing done as I do at home, but I problem-solved a lot of scenes as well as a major plot point I was not happy with in the novel. It felt very productive and better yet, distraction-free. My penmanship really needs to improve though! In college, one of my many jobs was reviewing medical records. I could competently decipher doctors’ notes. Mine, when I returned from the library? Not so much!

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      • Maybe after making the Quiet Room a habit, it will get easier and more productive. Getting away from the distractions seems to be a priority.

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