Pumpkins For The Tiger... Carving Space for the Writing Process
By Kimberley Allen McNamara
Doing the same thing everyday or attempting to do the same thing (in my case) has made me a lot like a sad tiger in a zoo. What the tiger needs, what I need, is for someone to throw me some pumpkins to play with or something new be added to my environment. So I signed up for an online class taught by a phenomenal teacher, Annie Hartnett, of GrubStreet and author of Rabbit Cake.
In our class we received weekly video and written lectures from Annie on the aspects of novel writing process and novel plotting and we were able to workshop pieces of our fledgling novels. Additionally, Annie provided two or more weekly writing prompts (Pumpkins for my Tiger). The class was very helpful in shaking up my writing, but there was still the matter of the rut that I kept drifting back towards. My writing process was not working.
I determined my problem was inertia. Same set up every day = same trajectory or lack of one. My days were unfolding in a similar manner and if something new did enter it - a commitment: jury duty or an appointment, I jumped at the chance to forsake my writing. I began to find a myriad of reasons why the writing just wasn’t getting done.
With regard to the writing process, Stephen King advocates having a desk in a room with a door and goal of X amount of words which must be written before leaving that desk and walking through that door. But my issue seemed to be just that - being stuck in that room at that desk. Was my writing location the problem?
I began to search for a location to jostle my creative roadblocks askew. I asked writers I knew for suggestions and culled through the responses other writers had given during classes or lectures I had attended. I was taking stock, trying to find the right solution.
A good friend and fellow writer told me, her house, while charming and full of afternoon and morning light, depending on which room she drifted into, was not conducive to her writing process. She prefers coffee shops and she is not alone. Plenty of writers and telecommuters hit coffee shops (my daughter included) and turn out work - the familiar white noise of coffee grinders, the swirl of steamed milk, the clink of silverware offers a pattern and yet, when they look up, the clientele will have shifted and the scene will be different, refreshed.
I considered the other pieces of advice I have gathered with regard to establishing a writing space and habit. Kathy Fish, flash fiction writer extraordinaire, stated in a class taken with her, that she finds museums to be good places to write. And that makes sense to me, museums with great pieces of art or scientific wonder are clearly stimulating. I found notes from a 2015 book reading I attended that featured authors: Kate Walbert, Alice Hoffman and Celeste Ng. Hoffman believed in writing daily and Walbert offered advice on how to do quick research, but it was Ng’s writing process that stood out to me. Ng noted that before she became a mother she had to have everything lined up in order to write: her water bottle, a snack, favorite pen, keyboard, a research book… but then motherhood descended and she was suddenly writing during nap time or pre-school or after bedtime... writing time became precious and could not be squandered with meaningless set up details.
Yes, I thought, maybe to break the spell of my writing inertia I needed both: a location change and a time constraint (a deadline). Maybe I needed a change of scenery and accountability. Maybe the lack of pressure was my problem. Accountability was one of the reasons I took the class with Hartnett - accountability makes me produce work. Now I just needed a location.
What I have found is: one of my favorite places to write is a hotel lobby. This is much easier to do if you are actually staying at the hotel - but still there are hotels here in Boston with coffee shops attached and if I position myself just so, I am in the hotel lobby albeit through a window or near the entrance. Some might argue a lobby and a coffee shop are the same, but I generate more words in a lobby.
I also returned to an old study haunt that proved its worth during my undergraduate years. In college, one of my favorite places to study was the laundry room in my dorm (white noise). So while I don’t need to venture out to do laundry nor do I have the multitude of laundry I used to have in my collegiate years or years as a new mother or the mother of teenagers, I have found a you tube channel by Ambiance World which offers 12 hours of washing machine noise. Ambiance World also offers crackling fire places, windstorms, snow storms etc… Plus there is added advantage to listening to one of these storms or other sound setting as it can help you describe your novel’s setting by providing a sound backdrop to your scene.
In our final class, Hartnett reiterated that the thing that gets you to finish your novel is having a writing routine. This doesn’t mean having to write daily, it means giving your writing space. She strongly champions making the space for your writing (not forsaking it in lieu of something else). Yes, do your something else, but GIVE YOUR WRITING EQUAL SPACE within your life. And here’s the kicker - that much needed pumpkin - sometimes the writing process requires that you abandon it because it is no longer working. You need to find another routine that does work. This had been my problem- the routine wasn’t working, I was in a rut, I needed a pumpkin.
In her Grubstreet instructor statement, Hartnett states : “Too often novels are born in the dark – the writer writing alone, in a locked room with no windows, ….writing a novel can be more joyful and more playful than that – and that part of that joy can come from sharing the working draft earlier in the process, owning that it is still very much a thing in progress.” Very much a thing in progress. These words resonated with me.
The biggest stumbling block between being the writer who finishes the draft and the writer who doesn’t is being the writer who commits to the process and to the routine of Making Space for your writing according to Hartnett.
Sometimes you have to trick yourself into the routine. And sometimes, as in my case, you have to revamp your routine because it is NO Longer working. Understanding that this is Okay - to switch up your routine (find a Youtube channel with the right white noise, or the setting that works for you. Perhaps you need talismans around your work space to inspire you or a sound track to listen to get the blood pumping and those words churning. The point is to carve out space for your writing process in your daily life. Embrace, kick, or roll that pumpkin - shake up that routine and give your writing the space it deserves.
(For more inspiration check out the links below).
https://youtu.be/klz6C2ewXmo George Saunders Writing Process
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLGw339YSDU George Saunders Writing Tips
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_o9BGv6NYfE Big Cats and Pumpkins