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.