Friday, January 30, 2015

Unproductive January.

It's the end of January, and I've been reflecting on the past month. It feels singularly unproductive. Granted, I moved to England (temporarily) and have had a number of fairly legitimate interruptions to my work on my dissertation - like taking a one-week class in public health ethics - but the train feels like it's come to an unceremonious stop on the side-line.

I'm having a hard time finding a good space in which to work. In Toronto, I did a lot of work at home. During the writing of my MA thesis, I also wrote mostly at home. I have no trouble getting into the work headspace in my own apartment, with cats and coffee and sunlight and my computer. I find leaving the house allows all kinds of distractions and unproductivity, and prefer to get right to it without delay.

But here in England, the house is not a good space to work in. Like many English houses and apartments of a certain era, every room is separate and each has a closing door, and the house is essentially a collection of small cells. My room is bright but has no desk or table in it. The kitchen has a table but no radiator, and thus gets very cold. The living room has a radiator but not much light, and a bank of dark green couches along the wall that feels oppressive unless occupied. My 'office' is likewise uninspiring. My desk is at the back of a room that feels like a factory floor, facing a whitewashed windowless corner. No distractions, but no natural light either.

"A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper." - EB White
However, I'm probably just making excuses. As White points out, you can't just sit around and wait for everything to look or feel just right. You have to throw yourself into the non-ideal conditions and be productive anyway.
air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses
- Charles Bukowski
Ouch, Charles Bukowski.

A while ago, I read a post on Brain Pickings about the daily routines of great writers. It was interesting, because many of them, though on different daily timelines vis-a-vis waking up and going to sleep, had similar patterns in their work process. Jack Kerouac and Joan Didion both liked to have a drink at the end of the day to reflect on the writing they had done. Didion would sleep in the same room as the book she was working on, and Kerouac recommends having a desk in the bedroom, at home or wherever you happen to be. Working at home is a consistent theme; focusing energy in one space, and then taking time to leave the house to socialize or to get physical activity is something that almost all of the writers in the post mention directly.

"The desk in the room, near the bed, with a good light, midnight till dawn, a drink when you get tired, preferably at home, but if you have no home, make a home out of your hotel room or motel room or pad: peace." - Jack Kerouac

Susan Sontag sets out rules for herself, to get into a schedule. Not only does it look like a good way to get motivated for working, but it also looks like a great way to keep to a budget.

I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.) 
I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. (‘No, I don’t go out for lunch.’ Can break this rule once every two weeks.) 
I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone. 
I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.) 
  - Susan Sontag
I think Henry Miller is onto something with his flexible schedule for himself, too. If you're not feeling overly 'up and at 'em', you can give yourself a break by typing notes and allocating. However, in the afternoon it's time to get serious, following a plan and allowing no intrusions or distractions.

If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.
If in fine fettle, write.

Work of section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.
See friends. Read in cafés.
Explore unfamiliar sections — on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.
Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.
Paint if empty or tired.
Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.
Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week. - Henry Miller
Like Sontag, I try to get up at 8 a.m. every day. She and Miller have a similar kind of rule in restricting distractions from outside. Sontag restricts the use of the phone in the mornings, as Miller says 'no intrusions, no diversions' in the afternoon. A rule about not answering the phone would be challenging for me; I think that in the current day, this would need to extend to text messages and all other forms of immediate communication as well. Beside the temptation to look at the phone every time I hear it ding or vibrate, these messages make me feel connected to all the people I miss right now. However, could a few hours each day of not looking at my phone really harm me or my relationships? No, clearly. I use it as a distraction from what I ought to be doing.

I like Miller's schedule overall, though I write best in the morning and edit best in the afternoon, with time allotted for reading in cafes, exploring the city on bike or by foot, and allowing time during the day to visit museums. I couldn't ever cut the movies, but I never go to the library, so I think he and I can compromise there. 
Schedules are good, but what I really need to do is settle into a work space. I really want this to be a place in the apartment I'm living in, because I waste too much time getting ready to go out and then settling in once I get to where I was going. I may need to just buck up and deal with the green couches. I may need to find a table to put in my room. Whatever the solution, I need to get working at home, and to only leave the house in the afternoon or whenever I get tired, and go out and pretend to be sane, as Maya Angelou said, before continuing work in the evenings.
I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work.  - Maya Angelou


  1. Kate, my thoughts are with you. You might find some comfort in reading "How to write a lot" by Paul Sylvia. You two have similar approaches to studying other writers and sticking to a schedule. He's also pretty hilarious, so getting through the book is quite easy. It's available here, if interested:

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Steph! I'll check it out