Friday, March 19, 2010

Sanctuary: Where Does a Writer Write Best?

When was the last time you wrote in silence?

In a fully-wired, online all the time world, calm has become a rare luxury. Stepping out to a quiet little place in order to collect your thoughts or to begin the first draft of a project has become almost impossible. You don't believe me? Please try it - and if you succeed please remember to e-mail me with your good news! In recent weeks I've discovered just how rare it is for a writer to find sanctuary in a noisy world.

Half way into the first young adult novel I've ever attempted to write I realized I'd written myself hopelessly into a corner. I had two choices: push forward toward an original and ambitious angle on the story that would take me into unknown territory or retreat to the "write what you know best" zone. What resulted was writer's gridlock that I assumed I could resolve by finding a new setting in which to work.

I tried my favorite cafe. Thirty minutes of pleasant conversation with friendly neighbors and a knowledgeable barista were accompanied by noisy blasts from an espresso machine and music videos blaring on a flatscreen TV. A lively morning but not a productive one. I moved between two more cafes but like Hemingway's character, I just couldn't find a "clean, well-lighted place" to just "be" without hubbub and interruption.

A second attempt took me to that ultimate sanctuary for lovers of the written word - the local library. I settled into a table in the "Quiet Please" area removed from the busy computer and multi-media sections of the library and enjoyed ten whole minutes of calm before I was spotted by an agitated, muscle-bound proselytizer in head-to-toe white. He launched into an aggressive religious tirade that continued to grow more intense as I slowly, smilingly re-packed my computer bag and calmly walked out of the building suddenly eager to get back to a sunny table in my noisy coffee place. The kind of meditative silence that surrounded Thoreau as he wrote each day on Walden Pond had eluded me yet again.

A few days later I decided to try to seek out silence away from my home office one more time. At a picnic table under a shady tree by a windswept lake I prepared to make serious headway with a chapter of my novel. I had found my own Walden Pond afterall, right? Not at all. It took only minutes for a park security officer to meander over to inquire if I had my local resident's identification handy. I had neglected to bring it along even though our local parks are rigorous about the rules. So much for lakeside serenity. It was time to head back to friendly coffee chatter at my favorite cafe or to simply go home to enjoy the indispensible peace of what Virginia Wolf described for women writer's as a "room of one's own"- the home office.

If you're wondering if I ever did find a quiet nook away from home in which to write the answer is yes. A beautiful campus library at a local college provided me with several days of delightful sanctuary in a clock tower study area featuring only 360 degree woodland views, enormous bean bag chairs and absolute silence save for the scratching of pens and pencils on paper and the whisper of students turning of textbook pages. I wrote fluently and without any interruption there feeling incredibly grateful for the privilege of enjoying the kind of silence I now recognized as a rare commodity.

So yes, I found silence but in my quest for quiet I discovered that when you can't find a place to write in peace you might as well switch to looking for the right kind of noise for your writing. If you're writing a raucous scene for a play, for example, do you really need total quiet? You might find that commotion will set the right rhythm and tone for the mood you're trying to convey. What if you're writing a press release, a funny radio ad, or a thank you speech for a client? Again, the natural rhythms of conversation nearby could add an ease and flow to your writing that you might have missed in a more subdued setting.

I've learned that you can use noise and ambiance to your advantage as a writer. If I'm writing a travel brochure I'll write poolside with a drink at a resort to fully enter into my audience's mindset. If there's a restaurant scene in my story, I'll make a reservation and go get some lunch. I've also been able to write lyrics in loud, music-filled environments when the mood of the location matched the emotion of what I was writing. So enjoy your peace and quiet. Seek out and maintain your personal sanctuary but don't let your surroundings determine if you'll write well - only what and how you'll write.

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