Calling the Muse, Achieving the Zone
Writing is an art form. Like all art forms, it is difficult and requires great concentration to do well. The trick with writing, though, is achieving this level of concentration. To this end, I am sometimes jealous of my brethren in the performing arts. When a person is rehearsing their guitar or dancing in a studio, there is something of a tacit assumption among the laity (i.e. non-artists) that they ought not interrupt. There is clearly something important happening – this artist is concentrating – and they know they should wait until they are through. We writers enjoy no such social bulwark between their art and interruption. The basic assumption made by many when I say I am “writing” is, basically, that I am doing nothing important and may be interrupted whenever for whatever reason. This is probably because a substantial portion of writing involves staring at the wall and occasionally mumbling to yourself, doodling in notebooks, and googling weird things.
Now I guess I could make this post into a stern admonishment of those who would dare intrude upon a writer’s daydreaming, but that isn’t where I’m going with this. Those who know me well – my family and friends – understand the importance of this concentration and everybody else probably doesn’t care enough to listen anyway. I cannot assume the world will bend over to make sure I can sit in my office undisturbed for hours a day – I am not so lucky as that. Nor is, I’d wager, the vast majority of writers out there, professional or otherwise.
The challenge, then, becomes how one can cope with or avoid such interruptions. Everybody’s tolerance is different, too, and everybody’s ideal writing state differs. Some concentrate well out in the world, surrounded by the white noise of a café, an espresso within reach. Some throw on the headphones, crank up the music, and drown out the world. Me? I prefer solitude and silence. I need this quiet so I can hear the words. I need solitude so, when I pace around and mime swordfights or recite snippets of dialogue to myself, I don’t have to explain or justify myself. I am free to wholly inhabit the world of the story or novel – body, mind, and soul.
My day job is that of a college English professor. During the semester, in addition to incredible piles of student work to grade (~2400 pages per semester), I also have meetings to attend, e-mail to keep up with, and students popping into my office, knocking on my door, asking me questions. Now, this is part of my job – no complaints – but it interferes with my ability to produce. At home I have two small children, a wife, and a dog who all deserve my attention. Optimistically, I could perhaps secure for myself a half hour to maybe an hour a day to write, usually late at night.
The persistent advice given new writers is “write every day.” You’ve got to put your ass in a chair and produce, dammit! Do it! NO EXCUSES, SLACKER!
This is a pernicious lie. I attempted to adhere to it for a number of years (when I was single and had no kids or dog or anything) and the attempt was a miserable failure. An hour a day just wasn’t enough time for me to be truly productive. I had to spend at least half that time getting myself into the zone. Then I wrote for the other half and, often, about half of that was terrible. Then I’d have another day to wipe away that zone and I’d have to sit down and do it again. It was, frankly, a bit demoralizing and my work suffered.
See, getting into that zone – that state of concentration where you inhabit the world of your writing – can take time. There are few people who can plant before a computer and BAM – the words flow. Sure, it happens. More often there is a process, a ritual. For me, it takes about half an hour assuming my writing engines are already primed. At the end of a semester (such as the one that just ended for me yesterday), it takes me a day or two to prime the engines. Then, though, I can produce like crazy–I get whole days basically to myself where I can focus and devote myself to my craft. In the eight years I tried writing a little each day, I produced 2 novels. In the eight years since I’ve been a professor and been granted the blessed Semester Breaks, I’ve written 4 novels and twenty short stories, many of which have been through several revisions, many of which have been published. I really don’t think I would have been able to do that with an hour a night.
Everybody is different, though. I know people who are able to juggle their lives and sink right into that zone each night and produce consistently. The point is that writing, just like any art, requires us to be able to sit down and unpack the coils of ideas that have glommed up our brain, sort them out, and wait for them to start building something. In my silent cube in my empty office suite, I stare at the wall and feel something coming – something emerging from the clouds, like an alien vessel descending towards Earth. With practice, I hope I can get better at doing that, more flexible, more versatile. I hope someday I will find a lifestyle even better suited to my authorial needs. The wages of my years of effort, though, is that at least now I know what I’m looking for.
Find your own zone. Mark it. Remember how to return. That, I think, is one of the greatest skills a writer can possess.
- I’m going to be on the radio! Tune into AM Ocala Live at 9:35am EST on Monday, 12/14 on WOCA to hear me talk with hosts Larry Whitler and Robin MacBlane about the Writers of the Future Contest and my own upcoming work. If you are in North Central Florida, you can listen in on either 96.3 FM or 1370 AM. It should be fun!
- The Iron Ring is still on sale for a mere 0.99 on Amazon, but not for long! A great holiday read! Go and get it now, before they raise the price back to a daunting $1.99!