Your Writing Environment

Perhaps instead of writing today you're thinking about re-organizing your work space. If you postpone writing because you don’t have a good place to write, stop it!  Start writing. Now.
John Updike had rooms in his home for each of his different writing projects. He worked on a novel in one room with everything he needed for that project. When he stopped writing on his novel for the day, he simply moved to the next room and worked on an essay. Then to the next room to write a children’s book. Another room for working on a criticism piece or a play. This is my dream home. But I must stop fantasizing and start writing.
If you are writing every day and wondering about your environment's influence on your productivity, consider this:

    (1)  Silvia, in his book “How to Write a Lot” (2007), included a photo of his work space (Figure 2.1, “Where I wrote this book”). The photo shows the work space he used for eight years when he wrote one book and 20 journal articles: His writing chair was a metal folding chair. His desk was a $10 particleboard folding table covered with a $4 tablecloth – his “nod to fashion” (p. 20). His writing spaces have included the living room, bedroom, guest bedroom, and bathroom, “there’s always a free bathroom” (p. 21). Silvia has no Internet connection to the computer at home he uses for writing. “It’s a distraction….The best kind of self-control is to avoid situations that require self-control” (p. 22). [This may be the best piece of advice yet!]
    (2)  I recently read Stephen King’s book On Writing, in which he offers writing strategies and stories. King wrote Carrie and Salem’s Lot –   after teaching in a Hampden (Maine) high school all day – using a portable typewriter and sitting with a child’s desk on his lap wedged into the laundry room of his doublewide trailer. He was earning $6,400 a year, his wife worked at Dunkin’ Donuts, and they had no telephone because they could not afford one. He developed his idea for the novel Carrie while he spent his summers off from teaching working at a laundry – where he handled bloody sheets from a local hospital. (Remember that scene in Carrie? A nasty job but a successful story and movie.) King advises finding a room with a door you can shut and then writing at least 1,000 words a day before you open the door. Write everyday; if you must, take one day a week off. (King, 2000, p. 151). King himself tries to write 10 pages, about 2,000 words, a day. “Eliminate every possible distraction” (p. 152). King suggests no TV, no telephone, no video games.
    (3)  Kendall-Tackett (2007) recommends you find a piece of music you can write to, not the same as listening to, but writing to. Then play that song every time you write because it can help signal that it’s time for you to write. King reports that he found this helpful, having one piece of music to write to, until the day his wife stormed into the room and shouted, “One more time, ONE MORE TIME, and I will kill you!”
    (4)  Here’s my organization system: Well in advance of beginning the writing (because organizing materials is so much easier than actually writing) I designate a box for the project. A shelf on the book case or any semi-protected space will do. (When I lived alone I used the couch and dining room table.  Now, my husband often wants to sit down or eat a meal at the table, and my project has to be re-located. So semi-protected space out of the way is good.) Then when I find an article or book, or create hand-written notes on index cards or pages, I put them in the box. Soon enough, as my ideas for organizing the writing start to take shape, I make individual folders for the chapters of the book or major sections of the paper and organize the notes and articles according to that scheme. Eventually what’s in the box will begin to resemble the outline of a paper or table of contents of a book. (At that point, it is less scary to start writing.) If you were to look at my box now for “my Head Start book,” (I taught in Head Start in 1975-78, then went back to school for a master’s and then a PhD in child development to figure out what the three- and four-years-olds in my class were trying to teach me about the way children learn and grow and develop), it’s just a stack of books, articles, newspaper clippings, and one folder with a typed preface, introduction, and table of contents. That project is a year or more away from being a top priority. If you look at the box for my “Catron and Allen, 5th edition textbook,” one year away from the next revision, there are already 16 folders labeled by chapter title, plus folders labeled contract, correspondence, photos, artwork, tables/charts, and permissions. A third project, a chapter I recently finished for a book on helping graduate students make the transition to graduate school, had a much smaller box --  a few folders labeled editor correspondence, articles, notes, and edited drafts.
    In (inadequate) defense about my contribution to the world’s deforestation, I keep electronic folders, too, and I am trying to reduce the paper involved in any of these projects. So whether your system is mostly paper or mostly electronic, figure out how to organize it so you can find and use things. Nothing elaborate. A few more things I do: Carry index cards (mine are color coded by project) for the times that ideas or sentences spring forth. Once you start writing regularly, ideas for good writing – like sentences or headings or solutions for problematic transitions – will occur to you, sometimes even when you’re not thinking about them. So be prepared – and grateful – for this inspired thinking and write it down. And realize that when a project is done, these files retain some usefulness for a myriad of reasons. Once, I was asked to join a project after the group of co-authors determined they would not finish it by the deadline. I was given some chapters badly in need of editing – really, re-writing – and for no purposeful reason, I copied the original draft I’d been given on blue paper. Then I began to write, occasionally cutting and pasting (no really, cutting with scissors and pasting with tape) the original blue sentences into my handwritten draft copy. Later, when there was discussion of order of authorship, I had a full draft version of the final paper…with three blue sentences. That was all we used of the original author’s contribution. In another joint writing project, one author began to hint that her work was being used without proper credit. We had kept all versions of the drafts through stages of the paper and could easily do the forensic work to sort it out. Even when I’m writing as sole author, I’m glad to have an organization system, a physical rather than mental system, to sort out which references, or quotes, or research goes where, particularly when a book manuscript begins to reach 1,500 pages.
    So figure out what works for you and what is possible for you, and then write. Because King also says that the two principle rules for writing are to write a lot and to read a lot. It’s that simple.
    I hope you’ve realized that it’s not about the writing space or how much time you have to devote to writing. Being a productive writer is about writing every day. It might not even be about talent.  Keyes (2003) suggests that the essential ingredient in writing success is drive, durability, tenacity. “…determination is rare…more rare than native ability” (p. 49). Writing the dissertation, with an exacting advisor and multiple readers, might be one of the most challenging tasks a writer can face. But you can do it. And maybe this last story will help you do it with some confidence: My favorite story in Stephen King’s book is his description of the writer James Joyce, clearly in despair about his writing and being comforted by a friend. Joyce explains that he had written only seven words that day. “Seven? But James…that’s good, at least for you!” Joyce’s agonized reply, “Yes…but I don’t know what order they go in!” (King, 2000, p. 146).
    I know you can write more than seven words today…and in the right order! Go to it.

Ailamaki, A., Gehrke, J. (2003). Time management for new faculty. SIGMOD Record, 32(2), 102-106

Kendall-Tackett. (2007). How to write for a general audience: A guide for academics who want to share their knowledge with the world and have fun doing it. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Keyes, R. (2003). The writer’s book of hope: Getting from frustration to publication. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

King, S. (2000). On writing: A memoir of the craft. New York: Pocket Books.

Silvia, P. (2007). How to write a lot. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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Some of the information in the BreakWriting postings is drawn from previously published work, and I have tried to properly attribute the ideas and work of others. If I fail to do so, please tell me so I can clarify and correct (Graduate Mentor).