There’s a wonderful website out there called Brain Pickings which hits upon all kinds of weird and wonderful things, a true miscellany of ‘interestingness’. An article there set me thinking. About the psychology of writing, it poses the question: does the perfect environment optimise creativity?
The big issue is: can a creative person write anywhere, or do they need daily rituals and schedules?
We’ve all heard of novelists who say they write for 4-5 hours a day whether they want to or not. And equally some will aim to write a few thousand words a day, whatever the quality. I suspect that for a novelist, creating a rather lengthy whole product, then some kind of imperative that makes you just do it is needed.
For article writers, and people involved in a litany of projects like me, then writing is more ad hoc. What arises in the news or through one’s reading/emails to encourage a reaction? It must be said that personally, I love the flighty approach to article writing, dipping from one issue to another, throwing a variety of items out there for public consumption.
However, when writing books, that ad hoc approach is not terribly successful, as I realised how long it took me to reach 25,000 words for one of my books, despite visits to archives and some attempt at systematic research. No, to do that, I need to crack on, slog, and put the hours in, focused specifically on that project. You can switch off the outside world, digitally, to enable this to happen.
Back to Brain Pickings, which quotes (from The Psychology of Writing by Ronald T Kellogg, 1994):
“[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance… The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of a writer’s method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favourable motivational or emotional state. Moreover, in accordance with encoding specificity, each of these aspects of method may trigger retrieval of ideas, facts, plans, and other relevant knowledge associated with the place, time, or frame of mind selected by the writer for work”.
One of these issues is background noise. It seems that high intensity noise disrupts performance on complex tasks but improves it on simple boring tasks (maybe that’s why people have loud music on during routine work like cleaning, which is generally dull, repetitive and tedious. I’m not sure if age doesn’t also play a part. As a student, I could write essays through a ‘banging tune’ but now I’d have no chance. Silence is indeed golden!)
Really, it’s a highly individualistic issue. Kellogg mentions that Allen Ginsberg could write anywhere, but Proust and Carlyle almost needed their own padded cells to be creative.
I’m more of a Ginsberg but more for noting down ideas, swift paragraphs, etc., than knocking out a well thought out piece of prose. It also depends what the noise is. In another quote from Kellogg, Brain Pickings says:
For some writers, the dripping of a faucet may be more disruptive than the bustle of a cafe in the heart of a city.
How true. I can write while listening to the roar of the surf, but give me a dripping tap, or a ticking clock and I’ve had it. I’m on red alert, roused to the point of irritation, or even flight.
Kellogg also suggests that 1-3 hours at a time is enough. A good and dear friend of mine regularly exclaims loudly in the ‘alright for some’ vein, when she hears of my 9 am ish baths, saying she’s at work, stuck in her routine. I point out that I’ve usually been working 6 am if not earlier, so that is my break time. And she gets paid for her work. Mine is rather more haphazard!
So, we may not need a special room with a special desk and special equipment, though these are good cues to tell our brain to crack on. Conversely, some noise or interruption may be acceptable, others not. What is essential is that we don’t become sidetracked by other things: emails, Facebook, magazines, housework, thinking. Indeed, the best ideas often come when out and about, in the natural world.
Rather like Thomas Mann who wrote: For writing I must have a roof over my head, and since I enjoy working by the sea better than anywhere else, I need a tent or a wicker beach chair. Much of my composition, as I have said, has been conceived on walks; I also regard movement in the open air as the best means of reviving my energy for work.
I have been moved to write poems when by the sea or when overlooking amazing places like Sydney Harbour, that would never otherwise have happened.
I had the idea for my PhD thesis while walking round a reservoir (my head was buzzing, could not stop the thinking) though I had no intention of actually doing one.
But then the sheer hard graft, these days, involves a desk, a computer, lots of scribbled notes and some semblance of organised material. Once the inspiration has fired up, there’s the perspiration of getting it out there.
What works for you? Let me know.