When inspiration strikes, you need to be ready…
Emily Dickinson once wrote about how she’d sit on her porch, sipping away on a cold beverage and staring out across a field, when she would see a poem rolling at her. It would come across that field, and she’d run upstairs and grab a pen and paper and try to catch the poem and write it down before it disappeared. Sometimes she’d get to the page in time, or she’d miss the poem and resume her seat on the porch, gazing out into the distance hoping for another bolt of inspiration.
When I first heard that story, and I don’t know how true it is or where it came from, I thought it was quite romantic. It makes the act of writing dependent on the motion of the inspiration. And it makes inspiration seem like this spectral thing, something that swings across the earth, and as writers and creators, we’re the ones that have to grab it by the tail and wrangle it into being.
Carry Your Tools
As a writer, I think it’s a bunch of BS. First off, why didn’t Emily just keep a pen and paper on the porch with her? Why did she have to run upstairs to write the poem? If she saw it coming across the hill, shouldn’t she have been more prepared? Maybe there was something in her lemonade that dulled the idea that she could keep her tools handy.
Furthermore, I don’t write that way. Writing for me is like lifting weights…no amount of inspiration is ever going to just drop a decent piece of prose or poetry or journalism in my lap. I have to do the work. With non-fiction, that is even truer. No one throws research at us. By its very nature, we are tasked with reaching out, grabbing the facts, and turning them into a story. No one hands us that.
With a Pencil…
I heard another story once that when asked “how do you write”, Stephen King replied, “with a pencil.” I prefer a pen, but the brilliance of that statement stands in the face of the story about Dickinson. We all find our natural rhythms and times when we’re most productive, but the important thing is that we do write. I’ve kept a notebook in my pocket since I was a kid, and if you’re reading this, maybe you have too. Our phones are now powerful tools – we can take notes, whip out a dictaphone, and research anything, anywhere, anytime. The more we put pen to paper, the more we have to work with, and the easier the work becomes.
When it comes to physical space – I like a desk (not too high, not too low) with a chair that has a back. Yeah, I keep it simple. FastCompany examined 242 studies on work habits and noise and found that most people work better in silence than with any background noise. Many of us extol our dance beats while working, and I often enjoy the hum of a good cafe, but I can’t ignore the fact that I’m most in flow when there’s no background noise at all, just the sound of my fingers clacking away on some keys.
In short – don’t overthink it. Anyone who has ever dreamed of writing the next great American novel dreams of a log cabin in the wilderness with nothing but the crack of a fire to distract us from the masterwork. I’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work. Staying in the flow of life and then retreating to a quiet place where I can find that chair with a back works for me. Give us a shout on twitter or Facebook and tell us what works for you.