I usually don’t have a lot of trouble writing. I’m lucky I know, but my capacity to just get on with writing is also because I’ve got a lifetime writing habit. However, even the most hardy of habits can be disrupted. This year, the various stages of lockdown have combined with the onerous and time/energy consuming task of moving teaching and supervision online. I’m just not as able to settle into my usual morning writing pattern. As well, a colleague and I have had several rounds of book proofs and indexing to do and that has had to take priority – along with this blog.
Unremitting online work is exhausting. I’m certainly not finding new times in the afternoon or evening for writing and my mornings are just much less productive. What to do? Sounds familiar, I am sure.
Now I already know lots of ways to start writing when stuck. Timed writing? Tick. Prompts? Tick. Sort out my workspace? Tick. Make plans? Tick. Set goals? Tick. Do all the preparation? Tick. Just write anything as long as it’s writing? Tick. Social writing spaces? Nope. I know they are magic for lots of folks but they aren’t for me, I work best solo or in a live face to face co-writing situation. Writing rooms and retreats aren’t my magic bullet.
But alas, none of these worked. So I went looking for some new resources to help me through the difficulties of getting into the writing frame of mind. Happily, I’ve found quite a lot, which I’ll blog about slowly over the next few months. But I want to tell you about the one which has helped me to get going again. I took the hint from Joanne Harris’ book Ten things about writing. Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, and loads of other lovely books, often tweets a thread of ten things; this book brings various lists of ten things together, and elaborates on them.
The first section of her book is called Where do I start? It covers a range of topics from giving/getting permission to write, establishing habits, dealing with space and time, planning, getting ideas and doing research. Any of these lists of ten would be useful to someone wanting to build their writing practice. However the list of ten that spoke to me was one called headspace.
Harris wrote this piece thinking of the writer who travels, they are away from their usual workspace. However, I reckon it now applies equally to those whose usual writing space has become something else – now not just a place to write, but also to have meetings, teach, supervise and so on. The writing sanctum becomes the all-purpose multitasking location. This screen is now the everything work related. So there is a similar need, I’d now argue, to find ways to separate out writing time/space from the rest of the day/focus, even though the material location and office stuff remains absolutely the same.
Harris’ list of headspace ten are a set of exercises which help you get in the writing zone They work to help you to forget your surroundings and what ever else they are used for. Her exercises are sensory prompts and triggers. She says that they may seem a bit New-Agey, but it’s worth giving them a go to see if any of them do work for you.
Harris’ exercises range from choosing pleasurable objects that you handle and look at every time you turn to writing, to building a scent library, to visualising the perfect office. She also recommends choosing a writing unform to change into, reading aloud something you have written and like, in order to find your voice with its unique rhythms and cadences, and creating a memory book of important images that support you to focus and calm. She also lists strategies to remove intrusive noises, images and so on.
But it’s music that has worked for me. I always have music on when I work in my office. But in response to Harris I have changed what I do. I now only use music as an accompaniment to writing and turn it off at all other work times. I associate music now only with writing – yes just like Pavolov’s dog with treats and bells.
I begin writing time with the same playlist each time; the tracks start out pretty chilled and a bit classical but then become more subtly up beat. Because I subscribe to a streaming music service, the little music AI brain can then go on to offer a similar soundtrack for however long I am writing. Every now and then I change my starting tracks, although the genre of music doesn’t change that much. This repetition is important in supporting the writing habit.
I’ve discovered that separating out the aural time/space in which I’m writing does work to corral writing from other activities. The music sets the scene and maintains the writing mood. It tunes me in to writing.
Harris’ prompts cover sight, touch, smell and sound. As she says, we don’t all respond to the same sensory cues. I’d have tipped beforehand that I might respond more to the visual than I did, but it was actually disciplining the ways in which I used music that made the difference for me. I now know that when I play music, I can write. I do write. I am writing.
(And if you want to know, my latest opening tracks are Kjartan Sveinsson’s Volcano and Fljotavik and then a selection of Sigur Ros, starting with the very new Dvergmal. This music always reminds of the stunning vast Icelandic landscape, my second home away from home – I have really missed being and working there this year. Pics. from an Icelandic road trip a few years ago. So the visual is not entirely missing from the aural.)