23
Sep
09

Not-so-required for writing

Writers tend to have weird habits when it comes to their work.  Most of them make sense, like writing early in the morning before work begins/the kids wake up/the highway traffic outside gets heavy and your writing soundtrack consists solely of honk honk HEY JACKASS LEARN TO DRIVE honk. Or writing longhand so that you can work on the subway and transcribe everything later. Or going into the one room where the wireless internet can’t reach and closing the door. All of those habits are, ultimately, pretty rational and obviously the sort of thing that needs to be done in order to get any writing done.

However, there are the habits that seem to make no sense. The ones that don’t have anything to do with practical considerations, but have somehow become such a part of the writing process that it’s hard to extricate them.  The notebooks that have to be spiral-bound and exactly the right shade of blue (college-ruled; wide-ruled pages are anathema to the muse).  That one evocative song that has to be playing as you start work.  The particular brand of chocolate that has to be on hand after finishing a chapter.  Or the lack of any of these — and the lack of pants while writing.  Yes, they’re part of the stereotype of the Weird Writer — and I’m probably contributing to that stereotype right now — but they’ve got some faint basis in reality.

For me it’s the coffee. A big cup of hot coffee (or, more often, a cup of “what’s-the-point”; one-serving bad coffee with skim and artificial sweetener) is what I need to start work in the mornings.

Obviously, it’s the caffeine, right?  I need the coffee to function in the mornings, therefore this actually makes some sense, right? No. I can write just as well with a cup of hot cocoa, hot tea, hot Tang — hell, even plain hot water is fine. The caffeine content of whatever I’m drinking makes no difference, so long as it’s warm.  And it doesn’t matter what the temperature is outside. It can be 97 degrees with a humidity of ohgodmakeitstop, and I’ll still have my cup of hot coffee, even as my body curses its exothermic nature. Sadly, the reverse effect doesn’t quite work, though I’ve occasionally had some luck sparking ideas just by sitting down with a notebook and a cup of cocoa.

One of the things that I learned at Viable Paradise was that this can easily happen by accident — you associate a certain tic or action with writing, and your brain seizes on the connection. The trouble is when you want to quit the habit but keep writing; say you have a cigarette before sitting down to write. What happens when you quit smoking?  I’m not sure if this works as a way around that particular dilemma, but I’ve found that it helps to write in all kinds of situations — outside, inside, around lots of people, on my own, with or (sigh) without coffee. I can still write, and there’s no discernible difference in the result. But I still feel more comfortable with that hot mug of something close to hand.  Which makes me careful about what other habits I start to fall into when working.

I suppose that at some level, every superficially nonsensical habit does have some reason behind it. Nabokov’s method of writing on index cards seems completely bonkers to me, but it helped him think non-sequentially, and that was vital to his work.  Maybe the blue college-ruled spiral-bound notebooks act as a mnemonic jumpstart, same as that one song.  And there’s no real point in quibbling over what gets someone working, because so long as it does, it’s ultimately useful.

What are your writing tics? Papers all lined up first? Sparkly gel pens in six different colors for revising? Turn round three times before writing while singing the theme song to Tongan Ninja? (Actually, I might have to try that one.)

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6 Responses to “Not-so-required for writing”


  1. September 23, 2009 at 7:06 am

    Hmmmm, I’m not a writer, so I really can’t answer. I look forward to hearing other people’s responses though. I would state that the no internet access thing would be (and is) critical for increasing my productivity.

    I’d just like to ask: No Pants? Does that help? Maybe I should try that at work… I might not get things done, but maybe people would arrange for that nice long vacation I’ve been needing.

    Oh and I agree that wide rule paper is the worst…

  2. 2 mlronald
    September 23, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    The few times that I’ve needed internet access in the middle of writing almost always turn out to be bad ideas. I can tell myself that it’ll only take 30 seconds to check Google Maps to see if this street actually goes where I think it does, but then I end up checking five other things, and before I know it I’ve gone on a full wiki trawl. Bah.

    And you know, I was about to say that the status of pants doesn’t matter, but come to think of it, I’m often writing early in the morning and in my bathrobe. So maybe that flip remark was a little more revealing than I’d like. Hm. Maybe it’s just that I find the word “pants” inherently funny.

  3. 3 Terri-Lynne
    September 24, 2009 at 6:10 am

    I know the exact example Teresa gave you at VP–she used to smoke. Smoking was one of her rituals before she could begin writing, and she never realized it until she wanted to quit. She gave us the same stern lecture at VPX: “Don’t make your writing depend on any one thing!” I listened, and I’ve so far been able to avoid this pithole.

    One thing I can’t seem to break into is writing where I can hear a lot of chatter, whether it’s the TV, song lyrics or conversation in a coffee bar. I keep a CD or my shuffle, and headphones handy. I can listen to movie soundtracks and classical stuff (no words!) while I write without consequence (and, in fact, it sometimes helps keep the momentum going.) Words. I hear them and my mind follows. I can usually block them out on and off, but it’s a Sysyphian effort.

  4. September 24, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    Copious amounts of alcohol. All of my best stuff happens after five o’clock in the afternoon and sometime before four in the morning. All involve beer and tequila.

  5. 5 mlronald
    September 27, 2009 at 7:15 am

    Terri-Lynne, you’ve caught me. That was exactly the talk I had in mind, and it’s one that’s stuck with me since (she says, drinking her coffee and preparing to work).

    I prefer writing with a soundtrack, but only really obtrusive songs can break my concentration. I’m trying to teach myself to write while there’s chatter going on around me.

    And refriedgringo, I have terrible luck with beer-fueled writing. All of my brilliant ideas turned out to have been, well, the equivalent of ideas seen through beer goggles.


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