Thursday, February 3, 2011

Hey, chaos works for me

I work best with the TV on.

I know that's weird, possibly even illegal. But it's true.

Everyone tells you to avoid distractions while you're writing, to make your desk area or office or wherever you work a haven, a little island of solitude where you can commune with your muse. That doesn't work for me. My muse apparently has different tastes.

I worked more than 30 years in a newsroom. Those are not quiet places. No private space, no privacy, no walls or cubicles or anything. There's always a dozen people, typing away, talking on the phone, having conversations from across the room or while standing at your elbow. You've got a deadline, usually in 27 minutes, so you learn to focus like a very tight beam and get done whatever it is that has to get done while bedlam reigns all around you.

About 10 years ago I left the newsroom and got a university job as a "science writer" for an on-campus agency. I had my own office. Even without a window and with an ancient desk that came out of the university's storage, it was the Taj Mahal to me.

And I found it really hard to work the two years I was there. Especially in the afternoon. By about 2 p.m. I'd be doing the nod-off/head jerk, where you tilt back in your chair, then suddenly snap forward with a lurch as you find yourself fading out. Or you find yourself with your head stuck to the desk by the little dried pool of drool where you fell asleep. I wasn't used to solitude. By that time I'd been in newsrooms for 20 years. Silence wasn't good for me. I thrived on the energy of those around me, sucked it up and used it to get my work done. Even leaving the door open (my own office door – what a luxury!) didn't help, because – academia, you know – it was always hushed, with people walking quietly and talking in low, serious tones. And it didn't help that my boss was always talking about projects that I might want to plan on by next summer or the next fiscal year, something like that. I was used to being told to get on it and get it done by tomorrow. A week from now was a long-range plan and next summer was impossible to think about.

It wasn't a good fit.

So now I'm technically a freelancer, a private contractor who works for the Source. We have no office. We're spread out over three islands. I do 99 percent of my work, both the reporting and the novel writing, at the dining room table, about halfway between the television (16 paces away) and the kitchen, and it's all open space and hard surfaces (tile and plaster) between the two. If you know my family you know it's never quiet. Between the discussions and the television and Max practicing his clarinet or his electric guitar and someone in the kitchen "rattlin' those pots and pans," there's enough chaos and confusion that I can really focus on what I'm working on. I know it's odd, it's just the way I've been conditioned. Chaos is the signal to my brain to get writing, and quiet is nap time.

And in the mornings, with Max and Tori at school and Kate and Millie not up, when I'm usually doing my novel writing, I compensate by turning on the TV, usually on one of those "true crime" channels, where the voice of the narrator sort of simulates the drone of a conversation going on that my brain has to filter out to get the day's work done.

It's weird. but it works for me. What works for you, what kind of conditions do you need to write?

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