In 1911, Mary Heaton Vorse told Sinclair Lewis that the “art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” As an absolute basic bottom (heh) line, the statement is the truest advice a writer can receive. I personally think often that I should be indenting a seat—when I’m teaching, when I’m eating, when I’m washing clothes, and when I’m falling asleep. Oh, and when I’m in the shower, prior to running out the door to some meeting. My pants don’t contact the chair as often as they should, and it’s not because I write naked.
If I were the only writer with this problem, I would not burden you with more detailed advice than Ms. Vorse’s. But while a gratifying number of my writer friends have gotten recent book deals or have written something short that has been published or at least read live, some of you are still waiting for the stars to align, perhaps in the shape of a chair with a human form sitting on it.
There’s no such constellation. You have to align the stars yourself.
I’m sure no one among my writer friends is surprised that I am going to suggest my usual cure for Failure to Sit Down and Write (FSDW). I recommend a Write Out. I’ll give you a brief look at how I decided that Writing Out was valuable for getting stuff done, then I’ll give you good reasons why it will probably work better for you than you think it will.
I grew up the oldest of eight children. In our chaotic household, I never sat to write. I still have pages I hand-wrote on my lunch hours in high school. The controlled murmur in the cafeteria served as a wall between me and other students, and no one called to me to take out the garbage or find the sibling who was supposed to be in the custody of another sibling. For me, the problem was not constant noise, but distractions of an acute sort. That includes such self-made excuses as deciding to go for a bike ride because the words weren’t flowing.
In college at Indiana University, I did some fiction-writing in the floor lounge in my dorm. I did more, however, at the Runcible Spoon Café, an iconic coffee house where many writers did their thing. Just feeling like a writer made me write more and, perhaps, better.
In every city where I lived after I left Indiana, I sought a replacement Spoon. In Bellingham, I find my best writing vibe at the Black Drop, but I have learned to make just about any venue work for a good round of productive writing.
In order to begin to build a platform, I decided that my blogging shtick would be to rate venues on their Write Out worthiness (and that’s when I decided on the term for the practice). I developed a set of metrics important to the would-be writing patron, and I started going everywhere for blog material. And I wrote a lot.
Cami Ostman, a renowned writer who co-founded a writing organization called Red Wheelbarrow Writers, suggested that I translate my enthusiasm for sharing data on venues into creating field trips to venues with other writers. She was right (of course); a number of writers who joined me at some point have become fans of the practice.
Here’s why I write better in the “isolation” of a public venue: As Cami noted in her WhaMemWriMo class last week, your inner critic works hard to get your pants off the seat. You have to wash those pants, you know. Or you have to get the knees dirty in the garden. Or you have to take them off so you can nap more comfortably. Or you have to go buy more pants because the ones you’re wearing are too loose. Or you forgot that you can’t write in jeans, just linen pants. Or, or, or.
At home, you can take care of all of that. You don’t have to stay glued to your notepad or keyboard. You are free to roam, free to eat, free to drink a bottle or three of wine, free, free, free! Freedom is what the writing life is all about. No boss, no pressure.
Nope. You are your own boss. You’re running a small business. You’re flying by the seat of your pants, but that seat needs to stay on the pilot’s seat. What happens to me when I Write Out? I settle in at a coffee shop, I sip my drink a couple of times, I start writing, and then I hit a moment when nothing is coming. Time to do laundry—except that I’m three miles from home. Time to pee—except someone will steal my computer or, heaven forfend, swipe my story idea. If I lean back in my seat and close my eyes, I just know everyone in the café is thinking “There’s a wannabe writer who has no self-discipline.”
So I don’t think about laundry, I don’t close my eyes, and I don’t pee. Even not peeing doesn’t keep me from getting back to work when another chunk of words presents itself to my grateful fingers. I write, and I write some more, and when I have met my wimpy goal of five pages, about 1,500 words, I’ve done my duty to my cottage industry. I’m free then to pack up, pee, and head home. Then I do laundry and walk and drink tea, relaxed because my daily quota is done.
I have written two 400-page novels this way, the first in three months. I finished the second one in the food court of the mall in Saint Cloud on the last day of the second month of writing. When I stick to my routine, I’m as prolific as Stephen King’s kid. When I don’t make time to hang out somewhere, and especially when I don’t make Write Out dates with my peers, less of my writing gets done.
“Ah, but Mr. Dwyer, I didn’t have a seven-sibling dystopia to delay my development as a teen writer. My parents built me a writing cottage and piped in Mozart, and they hired a scribe to take my dictation, and I learned to write with just the peeps of distant birds to slow my stream of consciousness a titch. But my dad shooed the birds away so I could write unhindered. And so, I write best in utter silence.”
How nice. For the other seven billion of us, let me toss some science your way. Let’s start with Hemingway. He liked to write in cafés and bars, with a murmur of conversation surrounding him. You don’t want to be like him? Check out the new scientific explanation for why your brain works well on coffee (shop noise) from Dr. Ravi Mehta. When your brain is slightly distracted for a moment by ambient noise, you stop obsessing on your inability to solve a problem in your writing (my paraphrase). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZAZtqISS10 I’ll also refer you to an article he co-wrote with Julie Zhu and Amar Cheema: “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition,” Journal of Marketing Research, 2012 (R. Mehta, J. R. Zhu, and A. Cheema).
I should note that not all ambient noise works for me. You might say you can work at home if you throw on some tunes. Not so for me. I’m hyperaware of music in my world, so if I write at home and I hear nothing but music, I become engrossed in the melody and shut down my writing brain altogether. I’m even worse off if my music has words; I stop listening to the voices in my head and start engaging with the lyrics. In a café, though, I hear clinks and slurps and laughter and music as one big white noise, and I find myself cocooned in that ambience.
If I have gotten you a bit interested in trying out the café scene, you may still resist because you don’t want to shed your PJs and don your yoga pants to go buy a coffee. In that case, you can test your response by heading over to https://coffitivity.com/ from your own home workspace and trying out three different coffee-shop backgrounds. Don’t blame me if you walk away from your writing to do laundry. I told you to Write Out.
If you’re dead set on staying home but don’t want dead silence, another option is to soothe your brain via this binaural music that is supposed to make you creative: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1PNKPBg9uE
And finally, for those of you who really believe you need utter silence to create, fly to Minnesota and let the quietest room in the world persuade you that you’re wrong: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/worlds-quietest-place I do hope to do a solo Write Out there and report my findings, if I survive with my current level of sanity intact.
I have used my experiences and prejudices as examples in this essay, but I’m not really thinking about me when I write these words. More than anything, I love to see my friends’ work see the light of day. If you’re struggling at all with productivity, what harm is there in trying my Write Out model? If you’re thinking you’ll never get around to trying it because you don’t have someone to push you, ask me to bug you. If you’re afraid that going alone will put your materials at risk for theft when you need to pee (that’s a common worry of mine when I drink caffeine or wine, or especially shots at the Trainwreck Bar in Burlington), let’s go Write Out together!
If doing so will encourage you to get the seat of your pants on the seat of the chair, ring me up at 818-4-SDWYER, or drop me a line at email@example.com, and let’s join forces. If you prefer to go with your favorite writing pal, check out my woefully behind-schedule blog at www.dwyercafe.com for a few venues you can use to your benefit.
More than anything, find a way to plant yourself in the perfect writing space for you, and write. Then bring it to the RWB Happy Hour and share it with us.