By Susanne Marie Poulette
I read a Writers’ Digest article entitled Top 10 Essentials to a Writer’s Life. Zachary Petit wrote about New York Times bestselling author Erik Larson’s ten essentials. Yes, there’s a plethora of material out there on this topic, in writers’ websites, blogs, books, magazines and journals, but this one caught my eye. I think several of these essentials apply to accomplishing lots of other tasks besides writing.
First, Larson has some fun with us, listing coffee, then more coffee, and then Double Stuf Oreos as three of his essentials. (I, however, would substitute the Oreos with Chips Ahoy.)
Then on the serious side, Larson provides useful suggestions such as: access to a good library, trusted beta readers, physical diversions when finished, and the importance of reading. All pretty solid advice, eh? But the next three really tripped me up. They’re excellent recommendations, and if I could practice them, I’d probably finish my novel in under eight years. Regrettably, for me, they’re as doable as climbing Mt. Everest or K2 in flip-flops. Maybe that’s why I’m not on the bestseller list. Here we go:
“A Sense of Pace…Write for three hours straight, without interruption, then stop.”
“Knowing Where to Stop…My favorite ‘trick’ is to stop writing at a point where I know that I can pick up easily the next day.”
“Blocks of Undisturbed Time…I set aside a minimum of three hours every morning, seven days a week, during which no one is allowed to intrude except to report an approaching cruise missile.”
How I wish I could do anything I choose for three hours straight without stopping. Never mind seven days a week, or knowing exactly which paragraph closes up shop for the day. If only I could manage calling it quits at optimal points, and ignore the ringtones on my phone, the chirp of new texts arriving, and the sound of my cat sharpening her claws on the sofa. My water glass requires perpetual refills from the tap in direct proportion to the frequency of bathroom breaks. And on the best of days, my dusty furniture, thirsty plants, and cat-hair-flecked carpet beg for rescue when I look up from my keyboard. Oh, to resist these temptations and emulate Mr. Larson!
Why is it, then, that creativity and concentration often hit at the most inopportune times? Why doesn’t inspiration blaze like wildfire during dedicated writing time (à la Mr. Larson) with laptop powered up, shades drawn, and phone silenced—instead of times when I’m cruising along a highway, watching the clock in a waiting room, or shivering in a frozen food isle at the grocery store? Rather than mundane activities, these are sparklers for me. Everyday experiences spark new ideas, insights and stories. They’re real-life writing prompts. This is why my car’s glove compartment is stuffed with illegible notes that I’ve jotted while stopped at a traffic light, and why I can’t throw out a used shopping list because there might be pearls of brilliance scrawled on the back. If I were organized, I’d keep my voice recorder handy, or carry a small notebook so I don’t look like a refugee from a paper recycling center.
It’s all the fault of my novel’s main characters. They don’t respect my personal time; they just won’t quit. They hop around inside my head, talking up a storm and coming out with great stuff that I have to get down before it evaporates. The free flow is amazing! It’s the polar opposite of the blocks that come during those attempts at three-hour-without-stopping stretches.
As a case in point, I could have signed my life away at my Toyota dealership two years ago. There’s a lot of waiting involved, when you’re buying a car. After the big decision, you sit at the sales desk, passing chunks of time scratching your name on piles of papers like contracts, warranty forms, motor vehicle and insurance documents, while the salesperson rotates between you and some dealer inner sanctum. So midway through my purchase transaction, I was struck by a miraculous bolt of commentary by my novel’s protagonist. With the salesman off on his clandestine mission elsewhere in the building, I grabbed a paper from his desk, turned it over to find a clean side, borrowed a pen he had left behind, and started scribbling dictation from the narration taking place between my ears. Head down and absorbed in writing, I quickly turned aside and signed on the highlighted lines each time my sales fellow materialized and interrupted my concentration. And how annoying is that, just when you’re on a roll?
Later, and I have no idea how much time had actually passed—because I was in my writing mind, not my right mind—the salesman came back, clearly distressed. Somehow, he had lost my title and proof of ownership for the car I was trading in. Reluctantly and with an impatient sigh, I put down my pen and helped the poor guy who was spurting sweat like a sprinkler, despite the frigid blasts of air conditioning.
I felt really sorry once we found that I had been writing on the backside of my New York State Title Certificate, and hoped the employees at Motor Vehicles would enjoy the handwritten excerpt from my book. Anyway, thank goodness for photocopiers…I couldn’t afford to lose such inspired text.
This brings me to my essentials for getting the job done. I only have seven, but then again, I’m not a bestselling author…yet.
If you can’t manage to work for three-hour, non-stop stints, then just take advantage of any opportunity when it arises and be grateful for it.
Always carry either a notebook and pen, or a voice recorder for those unexpected visits from the characters inside your head.
Always check out the used side of a sheet of paper before you write on it.
Never compose your prose on the back of a legal document.
Clean your house, water the plants, silence your phone, and lock up your pets before you get started.
Keep lots of tea and chocolate chip cookies handy.
For the Writers’ Digest article: