When even the weather seems to conspire against you — or, what to give a writer for Christmas

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Ah, the charms of a Pacific Northwest winter, light gray for a few hours in midday, dark gray or black for most of the time, and drizzly pretty much all of the time. I’m not kidding about the paucity of light: or the edification of those of you with the good sense to live farther south, this is the time of year when Seattlites who hold a day job droop visibly, because they are going to work AND coming home in the dark.

It can be depressing, making getting out of bed feel like an outright burden. Not the best environment, in short, for doing creative work.

Yes, the gloriously long days of summer do compensate for the blahs of a northern winter, but that’s awfully hard to remember at the end of November, isn’t it? Try to remember the kind of September when grass was green and…

Well, admittedly, the grass does stay pretty green around here all winter, but still, you know the song. My point is, back in September, you could glance lawnward on your way to work and still SEE that the grass was green without whipping out a pocket flashlight.

Seattle is, after all, where those clever doctors DISCOVERED seasonal affective disorder — just after, one assumes, having figured out that those maps schoolchildren are encouraged to color give a false sense of the relative positions of Washington and Maine with respect to the North Pole. We’re far enough north that my shampoo and toothpaste labels boast directions in both English and French, for goodness sake.

As much as I love being a three-hour drive from Vancouver, I’m a Northern Californian by birth and upbringing, and let me tell you, I spent my first Seattle winter fuming at my sixth-grade geography teacher for leading me so far astray.

So if those of you up my way been feeling sluggish lately, you have a perfectly good excuse. We who live north need to take better care of ourselves in the winter.

Which, presumably, is no surprise to the good people of Manitoba. Or to the elves in the workshop of what my politically-correct college dorm used to call the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver. (Ho, ho, ho.)

The late dawns and early dusks of winter are particularly hard on writers, I think. No matter whether you tend to get up early or stay up late to snatch your precious daily writing time, the fast-waning winter light is bound to alter your schedule a little.

And let’s face it, the longer it takes to ramp up your energy to write, the less time you have to do it.

I write and edit full-time, so I am spared the pain of the pitch-dark commute, but let me tell you, when I look up from my computer and notice that I have only an hour of daylight left, I practically have to lash myself to my desk chair to keep myself at work.

I’m noticing it even more this year, thanks to the Autumn of Mono: when you have only two or three hours of concentration in you per day, losing even ten minutes to staring out the window at gray gloom represents a sizeable blow to productivity.

Fortunately, there is a tool that makes this time of year easier: the lightbox, which, as the name implies, is a great big box on stilts that shines oodles of non-burning noon-aping light on the user’s face. They’re spendy — $200-$300 for a medical-quality one, in case the Furtive NDGG is planning a shopping trip for the benefit of writers in Fargo (which is, incidentally, SOUTH OF HERE, Mrs. Oswill) — but sitting in front of it for 45 minutes a day does tend to trick the body into believing that it should not go into hibernation just yet.

With practice, you can read or even work on a computer in front of it; I know ambitious souls who have arranged theirs to shine upon them while they walk on a treadmill or ride an exercise bike.

Me, I’m more sedentary these days: I plop myself in front of it with my laptop and a few houseplants (oh, like THEY don’t resent the winter’s loss of light?) to read my voluminous e-mail and scan comments posted to the blog.

It puts me in a good mood while I am deleting spam — which, for my money, is as high a recommendation as one can give a depression-lifting device.

I just mention this, in case any of you out there are blessed with the kind of kith and kin susceptible to suggestions for good gifts to give a writer for any major holiday that might be coming up. You have my full permission to print up this post to stuff into Santa’s pocket the next time you sit on his lap, as a gentle hint.

For those on tighter budgets, installing full-spectrum light bulbs in your writing space can also be very helpful. (Are you listening, Furtive NDGG?) Yes, they are a bit more expensive than your average light bulb, but they do undoubtedly help fight the November-February blahs.

They really are worth the investment. Write ‘em off as a business expense; most writers do find that they are more productive in the winter months with adequate lighting. And if you use them strategically, you need not spend a fortune to improve your mood.

Okay, I’m about to share a trick of the full-time writing trade, one of those professional secrets that you always suspected the published shared with one another in furtive whispers: in the winter months, have your writing space be the ONLY room in the house equipped with full-spectrum lighting, and plenty of it. Make it blaze.

“That’s it?” I hear you cry in frustration. “Light my studio differently from the rest of the house?”

Yes, oh scoffers, that is what I said. Do it, and make sure you spend at least an hour per day in the room for the first week with the new lighting. (Hey, why not spend that time writing?) Soon, you will find that your body actually CRAVES being in your writing space. You (and, most likely, any pet animals you happen to own) will automatically gravitate there.

Nifty trick, eh?

Naturally, this strategy alone will not necessarily turn around a deeply entrenched writer’s block, but it’s a start. For a lot of aspiring writers, finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer is not the hard part: it’s the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper. It’s conquering the fear of starting.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. They worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to take time away from all of their other obligations.

For instance, about a third of the writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded T-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you – if you find that you’re not sitting down on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of unused leisure time.

I could parrot other advice-givers, and order you crabbily to turn off the TV/radio/IPod/Internet connection/other electronic distractions/my blog, but my God, there’s a war on. I would be the last person to advise you to be LESS aware of what is going on in the world around you. And chances are, by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, etc.

But, as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety.

Oh, all right: spend a few moments now daydreaming about it. I’ll wait.

If you can afford such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. Such retreats may be less expensive than you expect; many hold competitions for fellowships — which, as a fringe benefit, also look good as a credential on a query letter. (A good place to seek out such opportunities is the back of Poets & Writers magazine — which is more than happy to let Santa buy a gift subscription for someone, incidentally.)

While admittedly it can be very nice to squirrel yourself away in the company of other artists, communal dining halls are not for everyone, and you don’t necessarily need a full-fledged artists’ colony to replicate the retreat experience. There are plenty of secluded bed-and-breakfasts and hotels that are delighted to cater to people who never want to stick their noses outside their rooms. Heck, when I’m on a short revision deadline, I’ve been known to lock myself in a hotel room for a week, just to get away from the phone.

In case I’m being too subtle for any Furtive NDGG who happens to be eavesdropping: the best gift anyone can give a serious writer is a chunk of unfettered time to write. No, really.

It needn’t require subsidizing a couple of weeks’ worth of room service; think creatively — and, ideally, make friends with people who own far-flung cabins and under-used second homes.

I’m only half-kidding about this, actually. Housesitting for vacationing friends can make for a lovely retreat. Even if it’s for only a day or two, scoring some unbroken time can go a long way toward pulling the stuffing out of a seemingly insurmountable writer’s block. Just don’t forget to bring some good lightbulbs along.

More tips on beating the dark winter blahs follow tomorrow — and if, in outlining strategies, I should happen to stumble across a few more items to add to the Furtive NDGG’s shopping list, well, that won’t be my fault.

Don’t say I never did anything for you. Keep up the good work!

(P.S.: as you may have guessed, the nifty photo above appears courtesy of FreeFoto.com.)

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