What to give a writer for Christmas, Part III —- and what writers can give themselves

The basement is fairly dry now, thanks (see my last post for why that is news), so I have turned off the ShopVac, turned on the fan (it’s about as humid as a New Orleans August down there), and at last have time to write a proper post. And some people say there’s no such thing as progress!

Last time, I lingered on the desirability of making physical space in your home — or somewhere else, if you can afford separate office space — specifically dedicated to writing. Like playing the same music every time you sit down to write, lighting your desk area more brightly than the rest of the house in midwinter, or painting your kneecaps bright green as a pre-writing ritual, setting aside a space where you do nothing but write can be very helpful in fending off writer’s block.

Why? Well, like the other sensual cues I have mentioned, being in a special writing environment makes the transition from mundane (non-writing) time to creative time clear to not only your daytimer, but to your body. You can TELL your body that it’s time to write until you’re blue in the face, but let’s face it, we’re animals at base, and creatures of habit to boot. Just as nice, clean towels coming out of the dryer tell my cats that it’s time to curl up and have a nap, walking into my writing space tells me that it’s time to get to work.

You’ve probably noticed the stimulus-bodily reaction phenomenon in less positive ways. The body’s no fool. When you have a job you hate, merely walking into the building raises your stress levels markedly, doesn’t it? The smell of baking bread or cookies cheers most people up, regardless of what else is going on, and incessant Christmas music following one from store to store so stuns the nervous system after a while that one begins to buy frantically in self-defense, just to get out of there.

(No one can tell me that last effect isn’t calculated. I was in a children’s choir for many years, doomed to wander puckishly from rest home to shopping mall to stage to insane asylum all throughout the holiday season, piping carols at the top of our childish voices. The sounds we were yelping were generally considered high-quality, but let me tell you, spectators’ eyes glaze over like Santa’s swimming pool before the end of the second verse.)

Having a dedicated space usually helps with that other common writerly tendency, jumping up after only a minute or two to do something else. The less comfortable your writing area, the more likely that urge is to overwhelm you.

(Confidential to the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: have you considered giving an office chair with really good back support? Not a generic office chair, but one that fits the writer’s body specifically?)

A solid fit between computer user and furniture can help avoid all kinds of writing-delaying problems, as many of us know to our cost. When I was an undergraduate, my college saw fit to equip each and every dorm room with large, square wooden desk chairs emblazoned with the school’s insignia — so, you know, if we forgot the school’s motto, we could just turn around and read it. My friends who happened to be 6’2” hockey players claimed that the chairs were most comfortable. Everyone else ended up with sore backs and overworked arms.)

Once you have established a space, song, lighting condition, specific chair, etc. as THE signal to begin serious writing, our body will understand that it’s time to stop distracting you with minor matters like the desire to eat, sleep, or have meaningful human contact and get down to work. Perhaps equally importantly, having a dedicated space — particularly one with a door that closes firmly on loved ones’ noses — tells everyone else in your household that you are not to be disturbed.

So it’s not only your habits that we’re hoping to recondition here.

Having grown up in a family of writers, I can tell you with absolute confidence: when intensive writing schedules work, EVERYONE in the household is cooperating to make that happen, starting in babyhood. A professional writer’s kid learns to go to sleep by the sound of typing (and actually, speaking of conditioned reflexes, the sound of a manual typewriter still makes me sleepy). To this day, I seldom raise my voice above quiet conversational level, lest there be someone writing in the next room. It’s habit, like everything else.

It’s also absolutely necessary, incidentally, for the household of a writer working on a deadline — and lest your kith and kin have any illusions on the subject, the more successful you are as a writer, the more deadlines you are going to have. It’s just a fact that at some point, no matter how nice a successful writer is, s/he is going to have to say to loved ones, “My writing needs to be my #1 priority right now.” And mean it.

Did the last few paragraphs make you a trifle uncomfortable? If so, you’re certainly not alone: many writers are too sweet-tempered or too responsible or too habit-bound to expect their family members to change ANYTHING about THEIR schedules in order to make room for Mama or Papa or Sissy’s writing.

Since this is the season of giving, may I suggest that this would be an excellent time to reexamine that attitude just a little? Or, to appeal to the Furtive NDGG’s sensibilities, why not give the writer in one’s life the gift of TIME to WRITE?

A few hours a week is a gift that even fairly small children could give to an overworked writer parent. Maybe Santa could be induced to whisper some suggestions during that usually one-way communication on his lap; I know many, many writers to whom a pack of hand-made gift certificates, each good for an hour of uninterrupted time, would be the best stocking-stuffer EVER.

However, as lovely as it would be if one’s families, roommates, and friends would spontaneously cry, “You know, honey, I’ve been thinking, and you would have two and a half hours of clear time per week to work on your book if I did the grocery shopping for the next six months. Please let me do this for you!” it doesn’t happen all that often. (For the benefit of any Significant Others who may be reading this: an SO who DID murmur such words — and mean them — under the mistletoe would be exceedingly likely to find by spring that every writer of his/her sweetie’s acquaintance is bright green with envy.)

So instead of relying upon your loved ones to realize that you could use a bit of extra time, why not come out and ask for it? Or — don’t faint on me here — decree it as your holiday present to yourself?

Your writing is important to you. You are NOT being selfish to ask for time to do it.

Before you tell me that you are far, far too busy for this to be practicable — I can tell which ones you are by the loud guffaws of disbelief and tears of mirth running down your faces — let me hasten to add that I’m thinking about some fairly small increments of undisturbed tranquility. What if, say, you were no longer the one doing the laundry? Or your teenager cooked dinner twice per week.

Or — stick with me here — you opted out of hosting your thirty-person family’s holiday dinner this year? How much time would that free for your writing?

If you (or the members of your household) find this notion a bit difficult to imagine in practice, take a week and keep a meticulous record of how all of you spend your time. Think of it as a time budget. Where are you spending it, and would you prefer to invest elsewhere?

Then try breaking your normal routine for a week or ten days, to get a clearer idea of what is and is not immutable in your usual schedule. Switch around chores with your spouse; if you pick up the kids after school, try rearranging your carpool so you drive them there in the morning instead; it may well be that this will leave you fresher for evening writing. If you always do the dishes or laundry in the morning, do it late at night; maybe it will turn out that early morning is your prime writing time, and if so, do you really want to fill up that time with housework?

In short, just how much of that cast-in-stone schedule is actually cast in stone?

At the end of your week or ten days of messing with your schedule, after your routines are good and disrupted, look back over your account of how you spent your time. What worked and what didn’t? Where could you fit in chunks of solid writing time on a regular basis?

Could you use this information to rearrange your life so you could get more writing done? You bet your nose, Rudolph.

To minimize the resentment of the rest of your household, as well as to gain a more accurate sense of how you would use your untrammeled time, I advise your going on a media fast for that week or ten days when you begin the new Schedule of Joy. It won’t hurt your worldview to turn off the TV and radio for that long, nor to skip the daily newspaper.

Not only will this allow you to assess just how much time every day you are currently spending being entertained and/or informed, to see if you could purloin some of that time for writing, but it will also help you get back into the habit of listening to your own thoughts without distraction.

I go on one of these fasts every year, and it honestly is amazing how much it calms the thoughts. It also arouses the pity and wonder of my household, and reminds my kith and kin just how important it is to me to have inviolate writing time. It reminds them that they, too, are contributing to my success, if only by remembering not to telephone during my writing time. It reminds them that they can actually LOOK for a stamp when they need it, rather than asking me.

And it reminds them why I am so strict throughout the rest of the year about not wanting to hear what is happening on the currently hot sitcom. For me, getting sucked into an ongoing plot line is a big dispensable time waster. I have seen a grand total of one episode of FRIENDS, two SEX AND THE CITYs, and no Seinfeld at all, but I have written several pretty good books.

I’m not sure that I could pick Jennifer Aniston out of a lineup, though.

Yes, this is hard, but anyone who ever told you that being a writer is easy was — well, let’s say inadequately informed. Still, the rewards of self-expression are massive and ongoing. It is well worth reassessing your schedule to make room for you to try.

Or so says the person who just spent a working day bailing out her basement; who knew I had time in my busy schedule for THAT?

As Emily Dickenson wrote so charmingly, “We never know how high we are/till we are called to rise.” Or stoop, as the case may be. Keep up the good work!