Monday, October 28, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part II (Your Writing Space)

Last time, in part one of our multi-part series, I talked about the basic tools that you need to be a writer. This time, I'm going to talk about where you write. Keep in mind, there is no right answer for this. There is what works for you. I'm going to be talking about what works for me, sharing a few glimpses into my writer's lifestyle, and what works for a few of my contemporaries (with their names redacted so you won't think I'm name-dropping anyone).

So what do you look for in a writing space? Well, if you're like me, you look for a few things. Darkness, few windows (I'm easily distracted), and a frickin' door, to start with. For me, a writing space becomes holy ground. When I'm in that space, I am not to be disturbed, and everyone in my life, in theory, knows that. It's not as pretentious as it sounds, really. The thing is, I have to be in a certain mindset when I write. When I hit that point, I can type for hours on end without a single break and not even realize the time has passed. But the thing is, it takes me a while to get there, and only an instant to pull me out of it. So, before we look at some different type of writing spaces, let's talk about the whole "sacred space" thing.

A Sacred Space is a place in the home that is used to unplug from everything else in your life so you can focus on one thing and one thing only (whatever that is). In most cases, when people talk about sacred spaces, they're talking about focusing on their spirituality, loving the world, or some other aspect of spiritual growth. Now take that concept and apply it to your writing room. Your writing room/space/garage/nook/ironing board should be that sort of place for you: A place where you can tune out the rest of the world and focus on what truly matters. In this case, it's your writing (and let's be honest here... Writing is a form of spirituality. And therapy.). It should be filled with things that help your writing, not distract you from it. Let me explain.

My writing room is an ode to chaos. Contained therein, you will find dozens of occult curios, reference books, novels, books by friends and former students. You'll find Captain America's shield hanging on the wall and my pug's bed in the corner. You will find my guitar behind my desk and paintings by my wife around my desk. In short, the room is me. It's everything that I need to feel comfort. It's everything that I need so I won't worry, look around, and find excuses not to write. One thing you will not find: Bills on my keyboard. See, nothing goes into my writing space that causes me anxiety because, well, that's not how I work. When I write, I write in silence with only ambient noise from the house around me.

But that's not how everyone works. One author I know finds his creative juices in a booth an the local Starbucks, surrounded by people and with noise all around. That's his sacred space. That's the space he goes to when it's time to go to work. Ernest Hemmingway wrote standing up with his typewriter on his dresser. That was his sacred space.  Some people write with music. Some write in silence. I know at least one writer whose typewriter used to sit on an ironing board in a very small cubby.

The point I'm trying to make is this: Find yourself a space that, when you are there, it's time to work. Why? Because you are training your brain to get into its creative state. It's a trigger. Think of it like a Pavlovian response. We ring the bell, you drool. You sit in your writing chair, you start thinking like a writer. Then comes the tricky part: EVERYONE ELSE.

I got lucky. I married an artist who understands that, when I'm working, I need to be left alone. She needs the same thing when she works. When we bought our house, we each created a space that was uniquely ours. I have my writing room downstairs, she has her art studio upstairs. And we both know when the other is in their sacred space, we leave them the hell alone.  And, yes, I'm aware that this makes us sound unbearable to live with, but that's what it is to live with creative people. We complement each other, and we deal with it.

But most folks aren't that lucky. The key to dealing with this? Ground rules. Communication. You can't just assume your partner(s) will understand what's going on in this room if you don't tell them. So you need to very carefully and explicitly set some ground rules for how you would like the world to operate if you're in your writing space. And then be expected to make compromises. For example: "I'd like to not be disturbed if I'm in this place, because I'm working on a novel." "Okay, but if we haven't seen you in eight hours, I'm breaking the door down." "Fair." Remember, a temperamental creative type you may be, but you're not allowed to be 100% asshole. Your partner's feelings are just as valid as yours, so you need to respect them. But you also need time to do what you need to do. Communication is the only way to solve this problem.

The point I'm trying to make is this: Find your space. Whether it's in a coffee shop, an office, your back porch, or even in your kitchen, find what works for you. Find the place that, when you sit there, your brain knows it's time to go into a creative cycle. And if you're one of those people who can work anywhere and anytime, more power to you. I wish I could, but I can't. And that's okay too.

Oh, and just in case you're wondering, here are some photos of my indoor and outdoor writing rooms.  Yes, I write on my back porch some times.

Next time, we're going to talk about one of the most important, and often ignored, aspects of actually being a writer in part three of our three-part series.

Until next time, write on!


Wednesday, October 23, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part I (Tools of the Trade)

As writers, we spend a lot of time dealing with mechanics. Punctuation, grammar, spelling, storytelling, plot, etc. We spend so much time learning the craft of being a writer, but no one ever really tells us how to be a writer. I get it, sure, if you don't have the tools, you're not going to get very far. But let's say, just for the sake of argument, that you've finished your MFA, you have a head full of ideas, and you're raring to go. So then what? I mean, writing a story is one thing, but how does one actually be a writer? What are the pitfalls of the writing lifestyle that people don't talk about? For the life of me, I don't think a single person ever said "hey, yes you can write, but do you know about...?" concerning the lifestyle of a writer? How do relationships work? What equipment do you need? Where do you write? How do you support yourself while you write? Do you have a day job? How long before a publisher offers me a suitcase full of cash and lewd promises of questionable morality?

I'm going to attempt to answer those questions. At least, I'll give you the insight that my experience has taught me. I don't pretend to be the end-all-be-all expert on all of this, but if you let me, I think maybe I can help. So let's start with Part I - What tools do you need to be a writer?

This is not going to be some esoteric discussion that ends with "all you need is imagination and gumption." Sure, those are nice, but let's start with the obvious: A computer. Laptop, desktop, iPad, Windows, Mac, Linux, it doesn't really matter what the specifics are. You just need some sort of word-processing apparatus that facilitates the recording of your story/novel/play. Before you get your shorts in a knot, let me explain. Nothing against the people who prefer to write longhand, but I have yet to meet or even see an editor or agent that accepts hand-written submissions, no matter how pretty the handwriting. I use a combination of my desktop (older 27" iMac), laptop (Macbook Air, provided by one of the universities for whom I work) and an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard, depending on where I am. None of that matters, however. Go ahead and draft on a yellow legal pad. But before you get ready to submit your stuff, you're going to have to enter it into the word processing software (or pay someone else to). Which brings me to my second point: Software.
Trust me... No one cares what you use. 
If you walk into a room full of writers and loudly ask what writing software they use, you will get as many different answers as there are people in the room. What's more, each one will extol the virtues of the software they use, and try to convince you that theirs is the OMGBEST for writing. And it's all bullshit. Look, every writing software out there does basically the same thing. Some help you keep track of plot points, others help you keep track of characters. Some are free, others are quite expensive. But the absolute truth of the matter is this: It doesn't matter. Whatever software you choose, choose it because you like it, not because some over-caffeinated lunatic told you to. Try a few. They all have trial versions, and chances are you'll find one you'll like. Me? I use good-old Microsoft Word for two reasons. First, every publisher I've come across requests manuscripts in one of three formats: .rtf (Rich Text Format), .doc (Word Document), or .docx (updated Word Document). Most word processors will have these formats listed under their "save as" menu, but I figure I'm just cutting out another step, and eliminating the chance for the formatting to be off. The second reason? Both the colleges I work for provide the Microsoft Office Suite for free to faculty and staff members, as well as students. So... Yeah. I use it because it's powerful, does what I want it to do, and I don't have to pay for it.

So what else do you need? Well, obviously, a place to write. We'll go more into the details of your writing space in a later episode of Strange Words, but suffice to say you need a place where you can sit with your thoughts and put your words down. It can be an empty room, the middle of your kitchen, or even a crowded coffee shop. What matters isn't the trappings themselves. What matters is that you are comfortable there. What matters is that the place is conducive to your creative process. Wherever that place is, don't let anyone tell you that it's wrong. A very dear friend of mine (who is incredibly well accomplished and published) writes at Starbucks. Trying to do such a thing would drive me insane, because I would keep getting distracted. But it works for him, and that's all that matters. So you need to find a place where you can gather your thoughts and lay them out.
I love office supplies...
Everything else is just window dressing and props. There are things that are useful to have, sure, but not necessary. For example, I carry around a composition book and a pen everywhere I go, even though hand-writing stuff out drives me up a wall. Why? Because I don't know when I'm going to see something that will spark an idea. I don't know when I'll need to make a note. And flipping open a notebook takes way less time than unloading my laptop, firing up the word processor, creating a new document....blah blah blah. I also use composition books to keep track of things in my books so I don't have to keep going back thirty or so pages to figure out what a certain character's middle name is (it's Irving, by the way).

There are a few things I would suggest you have, but none of it is necessary. Pens, reams of paper, stickies, a cork-board, all help make the job easier, but they're never necessary. I also suggest that every writer should have a good quality laser printer. Why? Because they last a good long time, and editing is easier on paper than it is on the screen.

Next time, we'll talk about your sacred writing space.

Until then, write on!