by Jim Denney
Mark Twain retreated to a shed at Quarry Farm in New York, where he wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne used to write his books in a high tower of his château in France.
The creator of Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling, isolates herself from society when she writes, completely avoiding social media. When an assistant created a Twitter account in her name in 2009, she posted a single tweet during the first year and a half: “This is the real me, but you won’t be hearing from me often, I am afraid, as pen and paper are my priority at the moment.”
If you dream of being a writer, you probably envision a quiet, distraction-free environment. You may even picture a future time when you can wall yourself off from the world to pen your magnum opus.
But here’s the reality for most writers, including me: Few of us can afford the luxury of physically isolating ourselves while we write. Most writers have families, jobs, and responsibilities, and we have to write where we can, when we can, often under conditions that are far from ideal.
E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, described his writing environment this way:
“My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me. A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy. My wife has never been protective of me, as, I am told, the wives of some writers are. In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
A writer doesn’t need an “ideal” writing environment. A writer just needs the will and the drive to write. Stephen King produced his first few novels in a tiny laundry room, little more than a closet, in a rented mobile home. And speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison wrote some of his most famous short stories in bookstore windows, as crowds looked over his shoulder — how’s that for a distraction?
Ray Bradbury wrote his earliest stories surrounded by noise and conversation. He reflected, “I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time.”
Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov kept his typewriter behind the counter of his father’s candy store in Brooklyn, and he pounded out his early stories between interruptions by customers. “I doubt if I ever had fifteen straight minutes of peace. . . . [I] learned to withstand incredible noise and interruption. . . . I was undistractible.”
Our goal as writers should not be to shut ourselves off from humanity, but to simply become undistractible. This means that when we write, we write. We don’t do anything else. We don’t think about anything else. We don’t take phone calls. We don’t answer the doorbell. We don’t check our email or social media. We don’t play games on our computer or phone. We write, period.
I have written books in the front seat of my car, while waiting to pick up my kids at elementary school. I have written in the mountains and at the seashore, sitting cross-legged on the floor at LAX, and aboard a jetliner at 40,000 feet. I can write anywhere. And so can you. It just takes desire — and practice. If you learn the art of being undistractible, of going deep within yourself and shutting out the world as you write, you can write anytime, anyplace.
“If you are a writer,” said Joyce Carol Oates, “you locate yourself behind a wall of silence and no matter what you are doing, driving a car or doing housework . . . you can still be writing, because you have that space.” And Nathan Englander said, “Turn off your cell phone. . . . Unplug. No texting, no email, no Facebook, no Instagram. Whatever it is you’re doing, it needs to stop while you write.”
How can you settle into a focused, undistracted mental space when you are surrounded by distractions? Here are a few suggestions: Promise yourself a reward — a favorite food or beverage, a call to a friend, some entertainment or relaxation time — after you reach your quota of words or pages.
Remind yourself: “My writing is all-important to me. Momentary distractions are of no importance. I will focus on what truly matters.”
It may help to have a ritual to get you focused and prepared to enter a state of focus and concentration. Some writers find that an exercise ritual — running, walking, or swimming — prepares their minds. Some relax and breathe deeply.
My ritual of preparation for writing is prayer. I ask God to empower me, to make me sensitive to his leading, to help me listen for his voice and his creative inspiration. Then I plunge into the work.
I’ve always found the writing process to be the supreme solution to distractions. When writing, you’re in an altered state of mind. You’re mentally sealed off from your present life, with its problems, cares, and concerns, and you are in a state of focus.
So quiet your thoughts, ask for divine inspiration, devote yourself to absolute focus on the work at hand.
Then get down to business and write.
And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.