Psychic Distance: not just long-shot, but wide-angle, not just close-up, but narrow-beam
Giving feedback: how to do it, how to make it really useful

Your words & your story live in your head: how to stay there

As with most writers, my income and my heating bill have an uneasy relationship, and a day which can start with me writing in bed is a good day. It's best of all if the current project is at a longhand stage: first-drafting, or revising and editing on hard copy. But although I don't like working on my laptop (flat keyboard, RSI, bad angle for head and neck, etc. etc.), and my dodgy back doesn't like me writing in bed, it's worth it to be away from my desk: overall I usually write 10% more words, and find that many more rich and gosh-didn't-see-that-coming things float up too. 

Then one day, getting up to make yet another cup of tea ready for another hour or two's work, I swerved into the study to switch on my main computer, ready for later. But as I reached for the switch, I had an intuitive, feeling-it-in-my-skin urge not to press it. I stayed where I was and tuned in to what had just happened: as I had touched the switch I'd felt my mind - my self - draining down my arm and away down the line, into the world out there - as mediated by the internet. And, intuitively, I didn't want that to happen.

This isn't a post about the evils of social media. I enjoy it, I need it professionally, and there are huge personal benefits to being able to keep up with people, not least because the writer's life is so solitary. There are also stages when it's infinitely easier to write something if you have quick access to information. But it is a post about how writing happens, or doesn't.

The thing is, to write anything you have to be inside your head: that's where both the words and the imagined reality of your story live, and so does the creative machinery for combining them. But the internet - the world outside your door, too - are outside your head. Sometimes that's great: what's better than talking to a friend, Google Street View-ing a setting for your story, having a tricky research question answered in ten seconds on Twitter, or finding a lovely blog review of your writing? Sometimes it's not so great. Much of the internet is the very embodiment of the Dark Playground of procrastinators: junk food for the consciousness, the cheapest, nastiest, most expertly applied dopamine hits for the human animal. It's also alarmingly potent fuel for the nasty, judging and self-judging super-ego. Even if you avoid that, when you're online you're likely to meet a stressy friend, a terrible review, gloom about the industry, or some minor quirk of your novel's setting which wrecks your scene; no one except you will know, but now you know it's hard to ignore it. 

There's a reason that Julia Cameron, in The Artist's Way, calls her free-writing, spilling-out, un-mediated, don't-read-back journalling stuff "Morning Pages", and tells you to do them before you even get out of bed. Your mind, your self, your spirit, if you like, hasn't yet moved outside your own consciousnees and started to engage with other people and other people's personalities, judgements, ideas and voices. Dorothea Brande's classic Becoming a Writer is also full of good advice on getting writing even though life always tries to get in the way.

Of course, in real life you (I) may very well not be able to stay in bed to write, whether because of the baby, the bakery or the boardroom. But I know more than one writer who gets back into bed, and pyjamas, during the day and with the curtains drawn, and others who write chiefly in the middle of the night for similar reasons: helping themselves to stay cocooned away from the normal distracting, energy-sapping clutter of real life. So here are some ideas of ways to climb back inside your head when you want to write, and then stay there.

  • Think about ways to get back inside your head and into the world of your story: 
    • Try some things that I suggested can help to get into creative writing mode.
    • Do a ten-minute meditation so as to climb back inside your head, then go straight into writing. Twenty minutes' yoga can also work well.
    • If you don't know how to meditate, learn here. It's nothing fancy or weird, just an incredibly valuable tool for life in general, and physical and mental health in particular.
    • Try a run or a brisk walk for this kind of head-clearing - perhaps focussing on the world and characters - and when you get home go straight into it.
  • Don't let the world out there drag your self out of your head and the story-world. 
    • Know when you're online, and when you aren't. Don't be online if you can avoid it, and don't keep news or social media up in a tab. Come on, grow up. Just shut it down.
    • Change your settings so what greets you when you put your computer on isn't a blast of headlines, nor notifications.
    • Don't have email, let alone social media notifications, pushed to your phone. If you normally do, set up an "I'm writing" mode, put your phone in another room, or set it so it only syncs when you ask it to.
    • Watch what you read while the kettle's boiling, or over lunch: pick something which will help you stay in the world of your story, not pull you out of it. 
    • Similarly, don't put the radio on, especially if it's words or something else designed to absorb a proportion of your attention, such as pop radio. Ditto the TV.
    • If it makes you nervous not to have Cloud backup on (it does me), then just add a hard-disk backup into your home network. (It happens that the wifi signal in my bedroom is very weak. This is a good thing: my Dropbox backups happen, but doing anything else online is too slow to be tempting.)
  • Work out at which time of day it's easiest for you to stay inside your head: some are lark-writers, some owl-writers. I know one for whom the post-lunch snooziness works best, but she's a rare bird. Ring-fence your best time as fiercely as you can, and fit other things round it.
  • Work out what helps and what hinder:
    • Use music if it helps (it does me, as long as it's familiar, and doesn't have words which I understand, because they snag my word-mind)
    • Use noise-cancelling headphones if they make you feel cocooned, with white noise or music, or nothing: on-ear may feel cosier than in-ear
    • You can even get an app to play soothing your-favourite-café noises
    • Notice if you have (small) habits or routines which help to triger Pavlovian response of working, and make use of then: a playlist, a specific place to work or type of clothes, working materials
  • Write somewhere where you feel tucked away, out of the stream of the world, and where the domestic to-do list doesn't thrust itself constantly under your nose
    • Write in bed - or I sometimes work in the kitchen, just because it's not my main desk with its smell of to-do lists and tax returns.
    • Draw the curtains against the light if it helps (but make sure you get enough daylight overall or you'll get depressed and vitamin-D deficient)
    • Some people find being away from home - a café, library or your best friend's granny's spare-room - works in a similar way.
  • Work longhand where possible: not only do you keep away from the other stuff on your computer, and the internet, there's an intuitive, physical connection between mind and page that even very good typists don't access.
    • Stop fussing about your messy handwriting - no one's looking, so who cares?. If you really can't read the result then either embrace the fact that trying to decipher it will be a creative stage in itself, or buy this excellent book and sort your handwriting out (it's also very good if handwriting makes your hand hurt).
    • Have crucial notes, plans and timelines actually on paper or printed out, so you don't need the computer on just for those.
    • Revise on hard copy: embrace how it means you don't fiddle, and how typing up your longhand revisions is the perfect way of revisiting each one before you commit to it.
    • Remember that small bits of research can wait: just make a note in the text. I used easily-searchable [square brackets] for small stuff, the Document Notes feature of Scrivener, and a file called Bits for anything bigger.

That's everything I can think of, but if you have a Top Tip for staying inside your head when you're writing, then feel free to post it in the comments; it might be exactly what someone else needs, but hadn't thought of.

Comments

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April

Thank you, Emma - I've gone back to writing longhand where I can since I'm incapable of staying away from the wonderful distractions on the internet... Slightly off to one side, but somebody gave me a wonderful tip once (when my children were very small). My main difficulty was getting more than 10 to 15 minute chunks of time in which to write - and it would take me a good 10-15 minutes to get myself back into the story in order to start writing. My writing had completely stalled. The tip was to try to hold the world of the story/the characters/the current scene, in the front of my mind as much as possible, that way even if I was getting on with childcare, cooking, ferrying people here and there, washing up, doing the laundry... if I had a spare moment I could be thinking about the story. And if I had more than a couple of moments I could scribble some notes down. It helped me to blur the lines between Time To Write and Time For Everything Else and enabled me to crack on with my projects. Of course, now the children are older and I'm back at work the distractions are different, but I still try to keep the story at the front of my mind.

Deborah Makarios

Thanks for the handwriting book recommendation! I like to work long-hand - the ideas flow better that way - but after about 6 pages my hand starts to seize up. I'm working on structural edits at the moment, which seems to involve a lot of messy back-and-forth between paper and screen.
I like to cocoon myself with a fountain pen and a pot of tea. Almost anywhere will do, as long as there isn't someone talking (or intelligible lyrics) and I'm not freezing cold.

Sandra Davies

Although I can't write in bed as soon as I wake (~3 hours before my husband does) I do know I need to train myself to stay in bed for thinking time, because plot problems or first sentences often come up then. As soon as I'm up and the computer is on, unless I'm very firm I'm immediately into checking other things. Discipline, innit?

Bella

Interesting thoughts.

Personally I can't bear to write longhand. It reminds me too much of exams. For me, my study, with the sound of my pugs snoring, is the best place to write, but I'm usually writing up what was in my head earlier, because the times when the story is most active in my head is when I'm at the gym or walking the dogs (and thus unable to write anything down).

Melissa Marsh

Emma, you are one of a very select group of writers whose posts resonate with me fully and completely. Every time I feel myself slipping with my writing motivation or think of giving up altogether, your posts get me back on track. This post is no exception. I love the ideas you have for staying in the world of your story and plan to try them.

Thanks for your work on this blog and thanks for taking the time to help other writers. It really does mean a lot!

Emma Darwin

April, you're welcome. I think you're absolutely right that one of the key things when you're short of writing time is to do whatever it takes to keep it fairly near the front of your mind. That's why "little and often" works so much better for most of us than the exactly equivalent number of hours, but in fewer, larger chunks - because you spend so much of the beginning of each chunk getting back up to speed.

Emma Darwin

You're welcome. The book's very good because it's aimed at adults - doesn't teach a particularly style of good-looking writing as we were taught at school or by our parents, but a way of working towards a handwriting which is personal and characteristic, as well as swift, sustainable and not painful!

Emma Darwin

Yes - thinking time of that sort is so valuable, and you need to keep the world out perhaps even more than you need to once you've got the momentum of some writing actually going: you can sustain the latter against interruptions, as one sentence leads fairly naturally, most of the time, to the next. Not so with the flow of the real creative thinking - that's too easily interrupted.

Emma Darwin

Interesting about exams - hadn't thought of that. But I do agree about things like walking and gymming being good: there's something about the rhythm of physical movement. I think it mops up the censor/left-brain thoughts (music does something similar for many of us) and then one's open to the creative thinking going wherever it will. I record ideas on my phone, if I'm out on a walk with no notebook.

I have a friend who has what she calls her "plotting walk" - nice and familiar, the dogs enjoy it, and the solutions have an uncanny way of showing up about 15 minutes in ... There's certainly a place on the far side of the pond in my local park which I associate very strongly with the idea/solution suddenly arriving in my mental lap.

Emma Darwin

Melissa, you're very welcome, and I'm so glad you go on finding the blog useful. Thank you very much for all the RTs and support.

Emily Connor

Emma, this post is so worth my time. I have bookmarked it and I am going to read it again when my conscious mind goes into procrastination-mode!

Never letting my conscious binge eat junk food!

Thanks for this lovely post. You have always been an inspiration! :)

Sophie Beal

This is a really interesting flip-side to my current experience where really enjoying being in the real world for once writing non-fiction. But it would completely explain my lack of progress on new novel.

Emma Darwin

Emily, great that it hits the spot with you! I'm all for a bit of junk food, but at the right moment ... And you're welcome!

Emma Darwin

Yes - non-fiction is different, isn't it. Though I guess there's an overlap in the research. (Although researching fiction works better when the fictional world is very alive, perhaps!)

Sorry the new novel's being slow - it's a tiresome patch, isn't it!

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