What Is Your Optimal Writing Environment?

Every writer is different. Each of us has different needs or expectations about what it takes to be in a good place to have a productive, successful writing session.  And for at least some of us, these needs change over time.

For me, when I was younger I could write anywhere, any time. It didn’t matter if there was noise or television or anything – as long as I had a pencil and paper, I was good to go.  As I’ve gotten older more experienced, I found that writing in complete silence was difficult for me.  My mind would wander and thoughts about upcoming tests or baseball games or marching band competitions would filter in and distract me from the story or essay I was writing.  I found that writing with music on in the background was immensely beneficial. This continues to be true today – music in the background helps put me “in the zone”.  Other types of distractions or noises, though, are more difficult for me to handle when I am writing now.

I have also learned that different types of music work better for different types of writing.  For the most part it is not specific (with one exception).  If I am writing a comedic piece, it can really be any music that doesn’t offend me. If I am writing a lot of dialog or poetry, it can be any instrumental music.  If I am writing a “scary” scene I have a definite preference for dramatic instrumental soundtrack music, like the soundtracks for “Star Wars” or “Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”.

The one very specific bit of music I’ve needed is an interesting one and honestly I cannot tell you how I figured out that I needed to play this particular album.  In high school and in college, I found myself struggling to write essays, term papers and lab reports.  The drudgery of slogging through these was extremely disheartening considering how easily I could write fiction pieces. Somehow I found that if I played “The Cars Greatest Hits” (by The Cars) while I was writing these, I could write them easily. Weird, right? I don’t even particularly like The Cars. But I happened to have this album on cassette and for some reason I popped it into the player one day and the words just flowed.  This worked repeatedly for me, through high school and college.  I don’t have to write essays anymore, but I do have to write performance reviews.  And you know what?  This album works for performance reviews, too.

So now I’m throwing over to you – what is your preferred writing environment? I focused on music here because location, clothing, beverages, etc. seem to have no impact on my ability to get into the writing zone, but music has a tremendous impact.  Do you have any specific requirements for environment when you are writing? Anything particularly “strange” or unexpected?  Share in the comments.

Birds of a feather

By FC Robinson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By FC Robinson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m suddenly awakened by the deliberate plunking of a piano blues riff: Daah duh duh duh dhaaam…daah duh duh duh dhaaam. 

“Cut it out, N’awlins,” I yell out in a raspy voice.  “Yuh hear”?

The rhythm continues to crescendo from across the room.  Daah duh duh duh dhaaam…daah duh duh duh dhaaam.  I yell out again, “That you, Money Fatts”?

My wife is not amused at my early-morning attempt at humor.

In one swift motion I swing my body off the bed, pulling half the entwined sheet and comforter combination with me until it’s tugged back into place like a rubber band.  I take a few clumsy steps in the dark, feeling for the top of my tall mahogany-stained dresser with outstretched arms, and retrieve my phone from the charger to silence the troublesome “blues riff” alarm tone.

The air in the room is brisk and cool.  About sixty-six degrees, I suspect.  I hate January; we really should move to Florida one of these days.

It’s nearly five o’clock on a Tuesday and I have just one hour to devote to writing and related research for the day before showering, dressing, and leaving for work.  I need to make this hour count!

I throw on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, feed the cat a small portion of his morning breakfast to keep him quiet, and bump up the thermostat.  Click, click, click, ker-plunk, ker-plunk, whooooosh.  The burners fire and warm air begins to flow throughout the house.

I finally head into the family room where I sit down at my laptop to start writing.  The room is dark, as I’ve deliberately kept off the lights sans for the glow of the laptop LCD at the head of the table.  The daily self-interrogation begins.  Do I dive right into writing, or do I check my Twitter feed first to see what new insights were posted by my writing friends?  Maybe I’ll tweet the word count of my current WIP?  Or maybe I’ll comprise a romanticized tweet to impress others with my dedication to the craft at five o’clock in the morning? 

I log into Twitter and take a moment to skim my feed.

That woman is a machine…was she really awake two hours ago to comprise a tweet about her WIP? 

There’s this guy again…why did he re-post that same article he posted just yesterday afternoon?

I swear this woman…best-selling author of nineteen novels I’ve never heard of…must have six identical Twitter accounts!

I put my hand on the crown of my head, feeling to see if the thin spot has gotten any worse from the day earlier.  I slump back into my chair.

Coffee.  I need coffee!  I walk into the kitchen and brew myself a cup of Keurig.  The aroma of sweetened espresso shifts throughout the room when the forced-air blower kicks on for a second time.  This will surely wake her up.

Returning to my chair at the table, I see fourteen new tweets are available to me.  Three are duplicates, two are advertisements.

It’s now ten minutes to six, and I realize I’ve squandered yet another potentially-productive writing morning with no substantial benefit.

With the push of the mouse, a small arrow glides to the upper-right corner of my screen.  Account… Settings… Deactivate My Account.  Complete.

If I want to be a writer, I need to actually write, I think to myself as I snap shut the lid to my laptop.  Tomorrow’s another day.

On Being An Unexpected Writer

Writing fiction is one of the central features of my life.

Confession: that sentence evokes a strange feeling of dislocation as I write it. It’s strange to think about just how many hours per week I spend writing and thinking about fiction.

This wasn’t my life’s goal, not something I always dreamed of doing when I grew up. I read loads of novels and short stories, of course, in all sorts of genres: Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, horror, etc. To write them, though… this was never something I ever considered.

Mostly, this was due to other, stronger passions and career ambitions. In part, it was because my family and culture regarded storytelling skill as trivial bullshitting and blarney, a fine ability to go with conviviality among family and friends, but not anything that should be regarded as an actual skill with any real marketable value. In part, though, it was because I took up with my mother’s milk the assumption that (in the unfortunate lingo of Missouri in the 1970s) “only drug addicts, queers and Communists” wrote books. It might be OK to READ books sometimes, but it wouldn’t be at all respectable to WRITE them.

Needless to say, I didn’t fit in well as a child.

How strange it is, then, that after so many years of thinking that writing is something that only “other people” do, a respectable, boring, 9-to-5 day job, statistically average guy like me should recognize writing as one of the mainstays of my life. The foundations laid down in my youth still whisper that this is somehow wrong. Playing a sport of some kind (softball, bowling, cycling, hunting, etc.) would be a sufficiently manly past-time, as would the watching of other grown men play a sport of some kind (football, baseball, basketball, auto racing, etc.). Even watching cooking shows, political screaming and other forms of mindless television for hours on end would be more acceptable. After all, who in their right mind would deliberately make things up and not only write them down, but worry over the phrasing so that their lies would be more convincing? Every now and then, the cognitive dissonance can be almost overwhelming.

How important is writing to me? When other things don’t go well, I dust off my hands and get on with the next task. When my writing doesn’t go well, I agonize, lying awake at night wondering what has gone wrong with me.

Recently, I read that Miguel de Cervantes didn’t start writing until he was in his forties. He never wanted to be a writer; he worked for, and succeeded at, a career in the army. It was only after twenty-odd years of military service that he began to cast around for something else to do, some new passion in which to invest his hours. “Don Quixote” was one of the works that resulted, probably the best known work of Spanish literature in all of history.

I wonder if Major Cervantes’ superiors knew that he was a scribbling away on odd bits of parchment during his lunch breaks and on slow afternoons in the quartermaster’s office. All those reports, memos, budgets and other administrative tasks that were so vitally important at the time are now just dust, unrecorded and unremembered. If only all writers with day jobs could draw comfort from latter-day success of their hobbyist fictions!

My first real book is out in the world, trying to find a home. I’m working hard not to build up expectations for how it will fare in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel competition. My next book is banging at the doors of my mind, trying to get out and onto the page.

Do other writers function the way I do? Is your writing a pair of glasses through which you view the world?