Writer Beware: Speed Bumps Ahead

There are moments when a writer feels blocked. No words come. The story stalls. You’re staring at a brick wall. Every writer needs their own bag of tricks for overcoming Writer’s Block. (One of the best: a deadline.)

Speed Bumps

You might not have heard of another writer condition, one similar to Writer’s Block, but it differs in a significant way. I call it Writer’s Speed Bump, and knowing how to treat it is critical. Continue reading

Silence—a Hostile Work Environment?

I find it nearly impossible to write in total silence.

I was still in high school when I discovered I was most productive in environments that weren’t absolutely quiet. Back then, I would take a portable typewriter to the university snack bar to pound out prose. Years later, when I was writing my master’s thesis, I would park in a booth at Taco Bell with my laptop. A friend of mine was the manager there, so I’d buy a drink and he’d bring me free food.

For a while I thought I was just quirky—or even defective. Then I read David Mamet’s book, Writing in Restaurants, in which the award-winning playwright and screenwriter equates public writing with performance art. A writer in a restaurant is, in many ways, similar to the sidewalk chalk artist who draws both pictures and crowds. The act of public writing includes an unspoken obligation to your “audience.” I know from my own experience that the pressure to “perform” helps keep me on task … even if the pressure is all in my head.

When writing in public, Mamet says, “Joy and sorrow can be displayed and observed ‘unwittingly,’ the writer scowling naively and the diners wondering, What the hell is he doing? Then, again, the writer may be truly unobserved, which affects not a jot the scourge of popular opinion on his overactive mind.”

I wrote most of my first NaNoWriMo novel at a McDonalds in Draper, Utah, where the dining room technically closed at midnight but the staff didn’t mind if I hung around longer. For 99¢ (plus tax) I got unlimited Diet Coke, free WiFi and just enough background noise to get my creative juices flowing. I also got words of encouragement from the cashiers who rooted for me from behind the counter. When I hit 50,000 words and “won” at about 11:45 p.m. on November 30, the restaurant’s employees joined me in my victory dance. It felt like a standing ovation.

Recently, I came across an article that refined my thinking somewhat. The Harvard Business Review piece, “Why You Can Focus in a Coffee Shop but Not in Your Open Office,” reviewed new research on “open office” environments, where office walls doors and even cubicle partitions are dumped with the intent of creating a more collaborative, collegial atmosphere. Anyone who’s ever worked in an open office knows that the model tends to stifle productivity rather than fostering it. The key question is why.

One of the studies mentioned in the article, this one conducted at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, found that “the right level of background noise—not too loud and not total silence—may actually boost one’s creative thinking ability.” Obviously, the “right level” for one person might not be right for the next. But there is some pretty good research to give us general numbers. According to an article in the Journal of Consumer Research, “… [A] moderate (70 dB) versus low (50 dB) level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks…. A high level of noise (85 dB), on the other hand, hurts creativity.”

A separate study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology suggested it’s the lack of privacy as much as noise levels that can torpedo productivity in an open office setting.

Which makes perfect sense. While a moderately busy restaurant or coffee shop provides plenty of background chatter to drown out the silence, it also provides a level of relative anonymity you don’t get around your co-workers. Unless you live in a very small town, most people you encounter in public are strangers. When you write in a restaurant, you’re alone in a crowd.

Or as Mamet puts it, “In a restaurant one is both observed and unobserved.”

Obviously, sitting in a restaurant or coffee shop puts you in the crosshairs of the Chatty Cathys of the world. This can pose a real threat to productivity. “What are you writing?” “A novel! What’s it about?” “I’ve always wanted to write a novel. Let me spend the next 40 minutes telling you about it….” This happened to me a number of times until I learned the number one rule of writing in restaurants: don’t make eye contact.

This finding is borne out by a paper presented at the annual conference of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which found “that face-to-face interaction, [and] conversation … may disrupt the the creative process.” Interestingly, the creativity factors these authors tested for include “originality, elaboration, flexibility and fluency”—exactly what you want when you sit down to a writing session. You just have to find a way to keep the kibitzers at bay.

All of this goes to say that where you work—and especially where you write—may have a profound impact on how much and how well you produce. I get it; there are people who require complete silence to get their creative juices flowing. Others need music. The key, of course, is experimenting with different environments to find out what works best for you. If you’re having trouble getting your creative on at home, try trading the silence for some anonymous chatter.

Incidentally, if you find that you’re one of those people who thrives on background chatter, but you can’t always head to the nearest Starbucks to write, there’s a solution for that. Download the Coffitivity app (available for Android and Apple devices) and take your coffee-shop noise with you wherever you go.

You’ll just have to provide your own caffeine.

Silence - a hostile work environment

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Trudging Through Sludge

It creeps under doorways, rises through vents, incorporating everything and everyone in its path, zapping them of energy, physical and mental. It’s a destroyer of focus and productivity, causing its victims to write at a snail’s pace, stare at blank screens, and abandon projects. I call it the Sludge, and I’ve been trying to wade through it for ages now.

Sludge

I briefly escaped it when I traveled across the country to write in a cabin with a bunch of other writers (several of whom were also traveling to escape the Sludge.) I hoped that maybe while I was away, the Sludge would get bored and move somewhere else. But no, it had waited patiently back at home, and was there to greet me again when I returned.

I tried to convince it to go with threats of Camp NaNoWriMo word counts, but it laughed in my face and gave me the flu. It knows I can’t write when I have the flu. Then the dreaded Spring Break arrived and the two teamed up. There’s no wading through a combo of Sludge and Spring Break—what was originally the thickness of molasses hardened into clay. I’ve written very, very little during the last three weeks.

There’s a trick to fighting the Sludge though, if you’re patient. You know how in old movies, the protagonist would fall into quick sand, and the more they struggled, the deeper they would sink? Eventually they would realize that if they stopped struggling, they’d float back up to the top where they could reach a vine or outstretched hand that would bring them back to safety. The Sludge is kind of like that. The more you stress about how little you’re writing, the harder it becomes to write, until eventually, you’re not writing at all.

I’ve found that I do better if I stop thinking about it much. If I just ride along on the surface of the Sludge and let it carry me to wherever it’s trying to go, it will eventually float me to a branch that I can use to pull myself out. I stop worrying about word counts, and just ask myself if I’ve written at all that day. Or heck, if I’ve even opened up my document and looked at it, if I’ve thought about it at all while showering or doing the dishes—if I haven’t abandoned it completely, that’s good enough for now. And eventually, if I keep at it in just such a way, the Sludge will slink away for a while and let me get back to work.

Have you ever been taken over by the Sludge? How did you handle it? Or, if you’re currently trudging through it, I hope this has helped you to know you’re not alone, and eventually, you’ll find your way back out.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

The Truth About Writer’s Block

I’ve heard people say that claiming you have writer’s block is akin to a plumber saying he’s got plumber’s block. To me, that comparison is ridiculous.

Plumber's Block - 2
A plumber has the exact same wrenches and other tools he uses every day on the job. He has a clear-cut list of skills he needs and issues he’ll face, and he’ll use the same tools to fix them. Chances are he’d better make use the same fitting he did on a similar job yesterday, or the connection will leak.  Continue reading

How to Write When You Just Don’t Wanna

Can we all just agree that the last two weeks have been the worst? I mean it. No matter what side of the political debate you fall on, the aftermath of this election has taken a toll on all of us.

I’m not here to get political, but I do want to address this toll and the effect it has had on our writing. Many—MANY—of my friends and colleagues have expressed how hard it has been for them to write lately. Many haven’t been able to write at all. I’ve seen several posts over social media bemoaning the looming end of NaNoWriMo and how behind everyone is because the election stress threw such a wrench in their ability to focus.

I’m one of them. At 22,000 words, I’m over 10k behind where I should be right now. I have massive amounts of writing to do if I’m going to hit 50k by the end of the month. I could just give up. I mean, it’s just an arbitrary contest. It’s not like my career is hinging on whether I can write 50k in 30 days. And everything else going on in the world right now feels much more important to me than finishing my draft.

Besides, I’ve failed NaNo before. Several times before. It’s not a big deal. But here’s the thing: at the beginning of this month, I made a promise to myself that I was going to REALLY DO THIS this time. I was going to finish this novel this month, come Hell or high water. Well . . . some might argue that Hell and high water are here, and now I’m struggling to keep my promise. I do still want to reach my goal, but when it comes to actually sitting down to write? I . . . don’t wanna.

I. Just. Don’t. Wanna. I mean, I do, logically. But I don’t have the mental energy for it. I’d rather take a nap, thank you very much, and hopefully not wake up until the year 2020 has come around.

Despite this, however, I’ve been managing to push myself through this writing slump, and so I thought I’d share some tips for how to get words down, even when you just don’t wanna.

donwannawrite

1) Allow yourself a few day’s break

This seems counter-intuitive. “Wait, so in order to get yourself to write, you . . . didn’t write?” Yup, I didn’t write. I gave my brain and emotions some time to try and work themselves out, with the promise that after a certain amount of time, even if I still didn’t feel like I was in a place where I could write, I would try to write anyway. That day came, and I turned off all social media, and told myself I couldn’t get back on until I’d written 4k. And amazingly, I wrote 4k. I’m still not sure how, but I did. And you probably can too if you really set your mind to it. But first allow yourself that break.

2) Break it down into small chunks of time

Not words. Time. You’ll probably surprise yourself by how much you’ll get written in that small amount of time. One thing I’ve done on days when I’m especially having trouble focusing, is I’ve set my alarm to go off once every hour. When it goes off, I drop whatever I’m doing (or not doing, as the case has been lately) and write for five minutes. If I hit flow, I’ll keep going. Sometimes that’s all it takes. It’s like a little shove on the back of the sled to get you to the start of the slope. Once you’re there, your sled will tip, and gravity will carry you the rest of the way down.

3) Multitask

I’ve become quite the fan of writing via dictation, and the bulk of my NaNo draft has actually been written via this method while I’m doing other boring tasks, such as folding laundry, picking up clutter, and waiting in the carpool lane to pick up the kids from school. Somehow, for me, I’ve been finding it easier to break through the I-don’t-wannas this way. It’s not for everyone, but if you haven’t tried it yet, I recommend you do.

4) Find a second creative outlet

Set aside some time every day to work on something else creative and/or relaxing that has nothing to do with your draft. Adult coloring books are great for this. Also crafts, such as knitting, crochet, or other needlework—basically anything that relaxes you but also stimulates the creative side of your brain. Sometimes when I do this, I’ll find my mind wandering off to work on my story without me, solving plot problems, coming up with new characters, all while in a nice, relaxed, state of mind rather than while stressing out over a blank page.

5) Don’t panic

If none of this works for you, and you just can’t do it, don’t beat yourself up about it. Stress is a nasty beast that sometimes takes longer to defeat than we would like. Allow yourself the extra time you need. Take care of yourself. Eat healthy, go to bed at a decent hour, and take lots of bubble baths. Your ability to write has not left you forever. It will come back when it’s ready.

I do hope these strategies help you as much as they’ve been helping me. I will point out that they don’t work one-hundred percent of the time. Some days I just have to throw in the towel and admit that writing isn’t going to happen. But even if it works only a third of the time, that’s better than not at all. Also, if you have any tips of your own, please do share them in the comments. I’d love to give them a try.

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Speak Your Mind: A Real-Time Dictation Experiment

This . . . is going to be an interesting post to write. I need you, Reader, to bear witness to a little experiment.

Here’s the background: I’ve been playing around with Dragon Dictation for my iPhone lately, mostly to record quick ideas that I come up with while I’m in the car and can’t safely type. I’ve found that it picks up on my speech very well. So today, with this year’s upcoming NaNoWriMo in mind, I decided to go ahead and purchase the Home version for my PC Laptop. It’s a bit of a splurge, but I feel like it will be worth it to keep my writing flow going. I could just go ahead and keep using the mobile version, but the problem, I’ve found, is that the mobile version will randomly stop recording (maybe because I’ve paused for too long? I’m not sure), and I won’t realize it until I pull my phone out of my pocket to see where I’m at. The PC version isn’t supposed to do that. So far, I’m finding this is true. The mic hasn’t turned off unless I’ve told it to.

Anyway, I mentioned an experiment. This is it. This post that you’re reading right now . . . is the experiment. I’m using Dragon on my laptop for the first time while “writing” this, and I will now tell you, in real time, what’s working for me and what’s not. I know. Meta.

speakyourmind

So here’s the first thing I’m noticing: remembering to add in punctuation as I speak is really slowing me down. It’s tripping up the flow of my thoughts. In fact, remembering to say “comma,” “period,” and “new line” means my dictation is actually much slower than my typing. This may change as I get used to it, but . . . hmm . . . how about I try something else? How about I just ignore all punctuation, and speak, not as if I’m dictating, but as if I’m casually talking to another person in the room? I can go back and edit in the punctuation and paragraph breaks afterward. (Obviously, most of the punctuation that you’re seeing right now has been added post stream-of-consciousness word vomit.)

The main purpose of writing via dictation for me is to get my thoughts out of my head and onto the screen. Sometimes (not all the time) I have trouble doing that while typing, as if somewhere along the journey between my neural pathways and the muscles in my fingers, my thoughts run out of gas and have to pull over—a bit ironic seeing that I’m writing this post for a blog called Thinking Through Our Fingers.

This occasional brain-to-page disconnect is why editing and revising is so much more pleasant for me than drafting. Once I have my thoughts down, I have something tangible to work with. It’s easier to replace and move around words that are already there.

A way that I’ve sometimes been able to get past this is to switch back and forth between typing and handwriting. And now I have dictation as a third option. And that makes me think of another way in which I will surely be using dictation to assist me with my writing—dictating handwritten pages into my word processor will be so much faster (and easier on my joints) than typing it in.

And here’s something else I’m enjoying about dictating this post. I can get up and move around. I’m not tied to my keyboard. Sometimes pacing and other forms of movement can help get my thoughts flowing, and I know this is true for a lot of other people as well. I may, (dare I even think it?) even find myself dictating my novel while exercising, or doing the dishes, or knitting, or even soaking in the tub. Yes! While taking a bath! With my laptop out of harm’s way, if I speak loudly enough for the mic to pick up my voice, I’m sure it could work. This also means I have no more excuses not to write. Hmm . . . maybe that isn’t such a bonus after all (says the chronic procrastinator.)

Now let’s pause for an update. Remember how in the beginning of this post, I observed that having to dictate punctuation was slowing me down, so I decided to stop? It has now been about five minutes, and I’ve written about 600 words. That would normally take me a half an hour on a REALLY good day—and hour or more on a bad one. Granted, here’s a screenshot of those words:

dragonunedited.JPG

Ugh. It’s one huge run-on-sentence, stream-of-consciousness paragraph. The editing may take me at least three times as long as the initial dictation took. Not only will I need to add in punctuation and paragraph breaks, but it looks like I’ll also need to remove or rewrite garbled sentences that I swear sounded much better out loud than they look on the page. But as I said earlier, I’m fine with that. I’m just thrilled to have so many words down so quickly; so many words to work with that would never have made it onto the page before.

Overall, I’d say that for me, this experiment has been a success. I am going to dictate the heck out of my NaNoWriMo novel. It’s going to be so great. I’m am so very, very excited. I may change my tune in December when I’m faced with gargantuan revisions, but for now, I think this is going to work.

Do you use dictation for writing? If so, please tell us in the comments what you think of it, and if you have any good tips!

(Note: I forgot to keep track of how long it actually took me to edit this, but I’d say it was probably around fifteen minutes, for those of you who are interested.)

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.