Space: The Final Frontier (of Writing)

I am relatively new to this trench warfare called writing. I think I know what an inciting incident is, but unlike most seasoned authors I have been perplexed by passive voice. Reading about writing is essential for starting out (thanks, GrubStreet blog) but sometimes, I’ve discovered, the best way to learn a good lesson is to fail all on my own. This is how I discovered the importance of finding the right space to write in.

I have been writing since middle school, but never regularly or seriously. In the past eleven years I have earned a BA, married, moved six times, and brought three sons into the world. I’ve written a bit through all the change—a story here, a newsletter submission there—but consistency was something I didn’t even know I wanted, much less could attain. There always seemed to be a moving truck outside, or a boy with a broken Lego set. But three years ago a series of encouragements from friends (and a BuzzFeed quiz) finally convinced me: I write, therefore I am a writer. So, I did what writers do.

I picked up my laptop and went to Starbucks.

And while the Earl Grey tea was inspiring (Austen, anyone?), the experience was not. I wrote for maybe five minutes before the hipsters next to me became annoying. I whipped out my headphones, gave them a look of literary condescension, and turned on Aloe Blacc. I placed my fingers on the keys to compose my symphony of phrases and started tapping them to the beat of Mr. Blacc instead. All in all, I wrote maybe one hundred words and left dispirited. This was a depressing jolt of reality. However, like every good failure this brought me to three conclusions: creating a setting, soundtrack, and scene are essential to writing well.

Setting. I like working at home, but I could write in a park, in a library or even a mall so long as I am by myself and am not interrupted. In a vocation where I am constantly interrupted by whatever crisis has consumed my children, solitude is precious. I love the ability to focus, and value having room for my thoughts. But every once in a while, I find myself staring at the pictures above my Mac with a mind wiped blank. Nothing. In these cases, leaving the world in my head and finding a setting that matches the one I am attempting to write is invaluable. If I am working on my teen murder mystery, a musty library helps me harness the cunning of Sherlock Holmes. Finding a seat at a Euro café gives me the sounds and smells of Paris, perfect for my short-form spy thriller. These sensory details and experiences can’t be found in my living room. I still prefer to be alone for the long, hard slog of the daily grind; but when I need inspiration, I go out. 

Soundtrack. I cannot (I repeat, cannot) write with music playing. This is not true for most of the other writers I know, but after many failed attempts I have come to the two following conclusions: first, I am easily distracted. It doesn’t take much (squirrel!). Two, I am a musician. This means for me, music is its own story. And so our stories compete, and music wins. Why do the hard work of fleshing out my narrative when I can listen to someone who has already finished theirs? So I turn the music off. There is a flip side, though; when I drive or run or do my hair, I listen to music that inspires me to write. Music is powerful; try making it through the massive biography of our ten-dollar founding father, and then go listen to Hamilton. It may pain me to admit it, but words alone will never capture the deep currents of song. In that spirit, sometimes I make a playlist to go along with whatever I am trying to capture. The teen mystery gets Taylor Swift as well as some tracks from Bridge of Spies and Harry Potter. The spy story is a little more nuanced: some Adele and 007. I take what I hear and add it to what I’m writing. I just can’t listen to it while I write.

Scene. And then the actual space: my desk. I tried writing on the couch at first, but not only does it keep me from taking writing seriously, most of the time I end up falling asleep. So I write at a desk. The challenge for me has been keeping that space sacred. My desk is in between the living room and the kitchen and seems to be the gathering place for anything without a home. Organizing all those lost things is a convenient excuse to avoid writing. So part of my writing process has now become keeping it neat. I’ve found what stays on my desk matters too. A pad of paper beside the keyboard keeps distractions quick; I write down whatever I just remembered I forgot and move on. A mug of coffee or tea sits on the other side of the keyboard. It provides a quick break; a two second interval to sit back and refocus. For longer breaks, I bring over toast with jam, which reminds me of how much I love to read (all my favorite authors are British—I feel like a Loyalist sometimes). A friend ahead of me on the crooked, dimly-lit path to writing success told me she keeps two curios on her desk. One is the word “perfect,” missing the “p”: perfection is not the goal. The other is a rather wanton paperweight that both weighs down her rejected writing and lifts her frustrations. I haven’t found any anchors like these yet, but when I do, I want them in my scene. I take off my engagement ring while I type. I started doing this because it slips around on my finger and makes typing aggravating, but now it has become a sort of ritual. Taking it off means it’s time to get to work. I’m not sure how to explain this to my husband (my wedding band stays on, so hopefully there’s a symbol in there somewhere), but it helps me focus.

Rituals and atmosphere have been part of the human experience since the beginning. Creating my own and adding them to my writing practice has made me—and my stories—richer. They give me gravity, reason, and inspiration. So, here’s to the peaks and valleys of creating stories, and the spaces we call our own.

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