Writing While Under Siege

Some writers can practice their craft in just about any environment. A Prarie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor said, “I can write anywhere. I write in airports. I write on airplanes. I’ve written in the back seats of taxis. I write in hotel rooms. I love hotel rooms. I just write wherever I am whenever I need to write.” Award-winner Jamaica Kincaid echoed, “I can write anywhere. I actually wrote more than I ever did when I had small children.” It doesn’t take much to dig up more accounts of authors who write irrespective of environment and condition.

We’re often advised to create a space exclusively for writing, a nest of comfort where we can put the rest of the world away and focus entirely on our craft, yet those who write in discomfort and distraction are elevated as examples. I suppose it shouldn’t seem odd. Humans are a contrary bunch, and writers particularly so.

Myself, I’ve always seen myself as firmly in the nest-of-comfort camp. I thought my best writing – at least when it comes to fiction and poetry – happened when I was tucked away from the world. Noise and interruption make me feel under siege when I’m trying to create. However, my circumstances are fluid, and I’m also a parent of elementary-aged children. I don’t have the luxury of carving out a time and place fully insulated from the outside world. My only option is to become a writer who can write anywhere.

To that end, I’ve spent the past month focusing on writing while under siege. Every location and every moment must be a potential arena for writing. The list of limits on where and when I write has become scant indeed. I won’t write if:

  • it would be unforgivably rude to those around me (e.g. in a theater or with friends or family at a restaurant),
  • my primary focus must be on my surroundings for safety or for my own edification (e.g. I’m watching over kids at a party or I’m attending a seminar), or
  • I completely lack the materials to write (including my phone, which can record both written text and audio).

My assumption was that I would struggle most with external factors, clawing out every word in defiance of the cacophony of the mad world around me. In reality, the greatest obstacle has been myself. Writing under siege has uncovered the vanities I’ve unconsciously cultured about my writing. The voices that interfere with my productivity can no longer whisper to me soundlessly. They must shout to be heard, and suddenly it’s no problem at all to recognize their presence.

“You’re not writing anything worthwhile. What do you have to say? Nothing.”

“This kind of drivel might interest you, but anyone else would be bored to tears.”

“Buddy! Hey, buddy! Put down your phone and get out of the road, numskull!”

“What is this unreadable mess? Edit it right now before you write another word.”

“This story has become a chore. You should put it on hold and start something new.”

Another piece of advice writers often get is to just write and worry about the edits later. Easier said than done. But writing under siege is teaching me how to treat editing like a luxury that I can’t afford in the moment. My job right now is to write. Those perfect spaces and times I used to reserve for writing are better spent on editing what I churn out while I’m in the waiting room with a laptop, or in my car with my audio recorder running, or in stolen moments at the Star Trek studio.

The greatest benefit is that, in the space of three weeks, my daily wordcount has tripled, and I know I can push that higher. An hour’s worth of work goes a lot farther now. That gives me more confidence about my future in this game. The decision to write under siege has resulted in the biggest breakthrough I’ve had in my development as a writer.

Are you a nest writer or a writer under siege? What’s your approach to distraction? I hope you’ll continue the conversation with me in the comments.

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