“We write alone, but we do not write in isolation. No matter how fantastic a story line may be, it still comes out of our response to what is happening to us and to the world in which we live.” – Madeleine L’Engle
The process of writing is generally perceived as a solitary event. Mention that you’re a writer and most likely images erupt of a lonely soul locked away in a dark and quiet attic, furiously streaming thoughts onto a typewritten page. And yet writing is really a highly social activity.
Surprised? If you think about it, what exactly are you writing about? Your experiences. And you gained those moments…when? Out in the real world mingling among other people. Writing is truly a connected process, one that first requires deep exposure to the world and it’s inhabitants. Through these experiences we pay our first set of dues: time spent soaking in all we see as observers and through fully engaged participation. How can you write about a snow-kissed winter stream in a quiet forest unless you’ve been there? How can you write effective dialogue between a nefarious antagonist and the heroine unless you’ve listened to countless conversations noting the nuances of speech and witnessing body language? And how can you, through your voice, write about suffering unless you’ve held it’s bitter aftertaste too long? Some people may have the imagination to create these and other worlds without the experience, but for most of us mere mortals writing begins with experiential exposure. After absorbing everything, we are ready to earn our dues for the second part: time spent in intentional isolation to focus on the voices in our head recalling events and people from stored experiences.
Silence is a fickle master at best. There are times when I’ve written underneath silence so expansive I could hear my heartbeat. Such moments require supreme concentration since the distracting ones can easily break through and disrupt the process. At other times I’ve sat at coffee shops where the ideas have come so furiously that even fast typing cannot keep up with the avalanche of ideas. During these moments the enveloping cacophony becomes a white noise, blanketing me warmly from the cold intentions of the distracting ones, yet allowing a conscious flow of thoughts onto paper or screen. Each environment serves different purposes, and I’m never quite sure which one will be conducive to a good writing session until I’m well into the process.
When working out a perplexing personal problem through reflection, you can follow a three-step approach of meditation, journaling, and walking. The meditation clears away the fog, the journaling serves as a pressure-relief valve to spew forth what’s exposed after the fog lifts, and walking clears out the residuals and prepares you to repeat the process or move gracefully back into the day. In writing we can benefit from a similar process of mixing writing sessions with walks and social encounters, which should help your focus when you’re ready to translate those voices in your head into ever-improving prose. You could think of this as a balanced approach to writing, as opposed to an obsessive approach requiring sequestered retreats away from everyone and everything.
One of the college dorms at UT had a special room we lovingly called the “frustration room.” Aptly named, it consisted of nothing bounded by mat-covered floor, walls, and ceiling. The concept was a simple one: you entered the room, shut the door, and proceeded to mimic a ping-pong ball in a shoe box shaken violently. It wasn’t long before you were totally spent, yet released of any stresses, frustrations, or anger. In later years when I heard about pillow bashing as a therapy to release anger, I wryly thought back to moments spent bashing about in our frustration room, always a better choice that venting on fellow students, friends, or occasionally an unsuspecting teaching assistant.
I like to envision writing time as moments when I slip into a special room that only I have a key for and whose location only I know. Open all hours, my secret room is always clean, available, and automatically changes size if I need it bigger to pace my thoughts or cozier to focus on running that beloved streak when everything works and sentences seem to write themselves. But my special room’s best attribute is that I have this wall-less room with me at all times. I can even slip in and out as needed to visit with a friend or observe life in the world around me. You may have the best laptop, enough spare batteries, or a state-of-the-art PDA with which to write anywhere, but no mobile tool matches the value of being able to step into your private room when it’s time to let the voices loose. Mats on the wall are optional, but probably a good idea.