Monthly Archives: September 2013

The F.E.W. (Friends and Enemies of Writing) #3: Bed and Breakfasts and Phones

Are you a writer trying to improve your writing practices? Want to produce more writing and fewer excuses? Here is the third in a series of five posts about choosing the right Friends and ditching the Enemies.

Friend of Writing #3: Bed and Breakfasts

If you were going to travel to a new place, you would probably sleep in a hotel (or a bus station, depending on your writing career). Hotels are nice because they’re all the same. Every check-in, every bed, every pool, every smell, every continental breakfast. The sameness of hotels makes them feel safe and predictable.

And boring! Kristin and I always seek out bed and breakfasts. We like the variety and unpredictability. There are opulent ones and simple ones. There are city ones (our first B&B was in Boston) and rural ones. There are lavish rooms and cramped ones. I can’t remember most of the hotels I’ve stayed in, but I remember each B&B.

And the people. Owners love to talk about their house, and always have new people in and out, sharing stories. Writers should gobble that up. I’ve met some characters over breakfast. In Boston, we met a young Irish couple, recently pregnant, who wanted to finally visit the U.S. before the baby. In upstate New York we met an uptight couple, but when I learned the old gentleman was an English professor, we both opened up. I can’t remember anyone interesting I’ve met at a hotel.

Hostels follow the same rule. When we traveled in Europe in 2011, we avoided hotels (mainly for cost reasons) and stayed in youth hostels. Sure, at 28 we were older than most of the other guests. But we met some incredible people and made some of our best memories with them. We’re still in touch today with a few.

Damn it, if he's Tweeting about this sweet B&B during our honeymoon, I'll chop him to pieces in the bathtub. Good thing Stephen King is staying here, too...

Damn it, if he’s Tweeting about this sweet B&B during our honeymoon, I’ll chop him to pieces in the bathtub. Good thing Stephen King is staying here, too…

Really, “Bed and Breakfast” is synecdoche for “rich experiences.” Read books. Take the bus. Go talk to the weird guy standing alone in the corner (but keep the pepper spray handy). Look for the things that everyone else is doing, and avoid them. It’s the life experience version of avoiding clichés.

Enemy of Writing #3: Phones

Oh, Alex G. Bell. If you could only see what your telephones can do now. Now, nearly every person has in their pocket a device that is a library, video database, camera, phonograph, arcade, and notepad all in one. Calling other people is an afterthought at this point. Cool, huh?

But if you want to be a productive writer, you need to cultivate the skill of shutting out distraction. Phones prop the door open and invite distractions in for a house party. It’s hard to be creative when the little phone is keeping your mind distracted from deep concentration. Jonathan Franzen recently wrote a lengthy but enlightening piece about this.

What’s the solution? Change your routine. Start little. If you check your phone as soon as you wake up, wait until after breakfast. You may survive.

Louis C.K., comic and philosopher, says deep shit about why cell phones make us not be people any more.

Keep the phone off when you write. If you need it in case of an emergency, fine, leave it on, but put it in another room.

Don’t be afraid to let it roll over to voicemail. That’s why you have that feature, anyway.

Or turn your enemy into your friend. Get the Kindle app and always have an e-book. As I mentioned in my first post, try to squeeze reading into every wasted moment, if you can. This way, when you have your phone on you at all times, you also have a book on you at all times.

The point is to make the phones just a little less convenient. You’ll find the craving for constant updating will soon disappear.

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The F.E.W. (Friends and Enemies of Writing) #2: Family and Cleaning

Writers aren’t alone. They have a lot of Friends (many of them not people). They also have to contend with a number of Enemies (some of them people).

In my last post, I talked about one Friend of Writing, Reading. I also discussed one Enemy, and that is Waiting.

Today, we look at two more.

Friend of Writing #2: Family

My family takes more time and energy from my writing than anything else, save school. My wife loves hosting people at our house and going on trips. My son is on an unending cycle of change-feed-spitup-play-sleep. My neurotic dog and my cat have their demands. My parents and in-laws live all over the mid-Atlantic. So how is family a writer’s friend?

Most writers face insecurity. For some, it’s crippling. For others, it’s nagging. But going at this alone, with no support, is lonely. It’s great to have family cheering and anticipating your work. Kristin is super– she respects my writing time and urges me to work beyond my comfort zone. My parents and in-laws eagerly await news of a new publication. And my son, at fivemonths old, is a great motivation. I want him to grow up seeing his dad work hard, pursuing his Calling.

Stick family

Woah! Someone needs a hobby. Writing, perhaps?

I was going to amend this to “Supportive Family.” Many writers have families that doubt, scorn, and mock them for writing. I’ve been blessed that no one has told me to “get a real job” or “give up the ghost.” Many writers are not so lucky.

That being said, you can’t change your family. You can, however, change how you respond to them. For every writer who has been discouraged into silence by a tough family, there’s another writer who uses that negativity to fuel productivity. Prove naysayers wrong. Adversity is an ally.

A lot of fellow writer/bloggers discuss the balance of family and writing a lot. I’ve seen Chuck Wendig do it. Shane Halbach writes about his family all the time, with great affection and honesty.  Catherine Green, too. I think there’s an archetypal (or stereotypical) image of the writer as Loner Hermit, shut off from Real Life and Domestic Matters. That ain’t real life, though.

Enemy of Writing #2: Cleaning

I wouldn’t describe myself as a neat freak, but I like a tidy house. Though I can live with some mess, my mind is calmer in a clean area.

But my God, whenever I sit down to write, suddenly the plate and coffee cup on the counter MUST BE WASHED, ASAP! I scoop cat litter once a day, but when I write, it demands instant attention. Every housework task, no matter how trivial, looks critical when I sit to write.

I have no idea why this is. Maybe it’s a desire to keep my environment tidy and calm. Maybe it’s some whining guilt about writing instead of doing something “useful.” But I feel it pulling at me, even now as I write this post.

A couple of years ago, Jill Barville wrote a terrific post about the daily life of a non-housecleaning writer.

There will always, always, always be housework to do. Between pets and baby, I can sweep the house from front to back, and when I’m done, the front is dusty again. Even a five-minute “tidy up” will break focus, shatter that creative state that writing requires, and pull the buttocks away from the writing chair.

What’s the solution?

cleaning

What a coincidence! Those are my cabinet-scrubbing shorts, too!

Prioritize. During writing time, writing comes first, always. Ask yourself if in an hour, you’d be prouder of a finished page or a clean load of underwear. If you answer the underwear, you’re not a writer.

Caught in a dry spell? Thinking the cure to writer’s block is Murphy’s Oil Soap? Forget it. Just write more.

Still itching to dust the bookshelves? Hire a cleaning service then. Will it cost you something? Yeah, sure. But not writing is costlier. Value your time. An hour writing is worth a lot more than an hour folding socks.

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The F.E.W. (Friends and Enemies of Writing). #1: Reading and Waiting

Sorry for the delay between posts. I’m involved in a big new writing project, which took a lot of my attention in August. And the new school year is beginning, which takes everything else I have left. Suddenly, the expansive summer hours of creative thought are gobbled up by teenagers and lesson planning, forcing me to scramble for every writing moment I can get. And this led me to think about life habits– the ones that help or hurt writing.

So for my next five blog posts, I’ll be discussing the F.E.W. That is, the Friends and Enemies of Writing. Each post will look at one of each.

Friend #1: Reading

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Comes in many flavors: Hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audiobook.

Duh. Reading is tops on each “Every Writer Should…” list. So I won’t belabor the critical importance of reading, and reading a lot.

So, read. Okay. But read what? Should a writer read extensively within his/her genre, or read a wide breadth of texts? The answer is yes. A writer needs to know the depth of his/her genre, and all the work that has been done before and is being done now. But a writer also needs to explore beyond the comfort zone. Way beyond it. And not just in terms of genre, but in terms of quality, format (traditionally and self-published), and in terms of the author’s gender, race, age, and epoch.

No time for reading? If reading isn’t your primary recreation (surpassing T.V., exercise, Web surfing, napping, cooking, playing music, anything), then you might be in the wrong field. Have other interests, sure. I do. But reading is the Primary Fun.

Enemy #1: Waiting

If you have a life that permits you numerous free hours to write and read at leisure, good for you. If you’re constantly busy and bemoaning the lack of time to read and write, read on.

Stephen King says in On Writing “I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.” I read on the train, in the grocery store, or while washing dishes (thanks Audible!). I typically spend an hour at the dentist, 45 minutes of which are spent in a book.

Shit. I left “Gravity’s Rainbow” at home. Guess it’s National Enquirer today.

When I tell people I commute an hour-plus each way, each day, the response is often pity. “That’s terrible,” they say. “Wouldn’t you rather drive?”

I would not. See, there’s nothing to do during a commute. It becomes my built-in reading/writing time, a guaranteed two hours of productivity per day. And since I don’t have endless idle hours, but a strict, limited work time, I work hard and strategically during the ride. Rather than being a burden, the commute has become one of my favorite parts of the day.

commuters

If these jokers are playing Angry Birds instead of reading on a Kindle app, I’m gonna go all sorts of book-ninja crazy on them.

A Cool Idea in London, Four Years Ago

So how can you beat that enemy, Waiting? Fill the tedious moments of the day with writing and reading. Ask yourself always: Could I be reading or writing while I do this?

If the answer is yes, get to it.

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Adam Knight

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