Writing is not a 9-5 job so it can be tough to actually sit down and get started. There’s no one standing over you to supervise all those hours you spend online for “research” or yell at you for ogling your Instagram feed when you should be writing. Being able to manage your own time and motivate yourself to work is essential, but creativity doesn’t just turn on like a switch.
Or does it?
The Write Space
If you’ve been around as a writer for a while, you’ve probably heard this advice already from a thousand different sources:
You need a dedicated space for writing.
If you know how a dog is trained to sit, then you already know the basic theory behind the advice. You teach a dog to sit by pushing on his butt while saying “sit” and giving him treats when he does what you want. You repeat this training until he can sit all by himself on command, and then you repeat it some more until he does it without the treat at the end.
Update (23rd February, 2016): You can read a more detailed explanation of the dog-training analogy on Bane of Your Existence.
The dog learns to associate sitting with treats and that it’s generally a good idea to do as he’s told.
You can teach your brain in a similar fashion. If you only ever write when you’re in your office, and you only ever do research when you’re at your favourite café, then your brain will eventually associate that space with a particular mode of work. It will learn that it’s time to “switch on” as soon as you enter that space.
You can even train your brain to follow a daily and weekly routine so that it knows that your morning commute is for brainstorming and your pre-bed reading is for revision. Soon enough, you’ll be writing every day because your brain smells the coffee and knows it’s time to sit down and get wordy.
Having a dedicated space can also teach your family or roommates to leave you alone while you’re writing. It might take a while, and some people will just never get it, but most will eventually learn not to disturb you while you’re in that dedicated space (whatever it might be).
What is a writing space?
When most people talk about creating a dedicated writing space for themselves, they’re talking about an actual room outfitted as an office, with shelves lining the walls and a big desk under a big window to let in plenty of light.
This is obviously the ideal kind of space because you can put a lock on the door to keep people out, and unplug the phone whenever you’re in “session”. George R. R. Martin once revealed that he has two computers: one for the internet and research while he writes on a completely unconnected DOS machine. (I’m not sure you need to go that far to keep distractions at bay — there’s a whole bunch of programmes designed to give you a distraction-free writing environment much easier than switching computers — but whatever helps you write.)
If you Google “writing spaces”, you’ll get a lot of image results in the same vein: dedicated office space, big white desk, shelves, computer or typewriter — and, weirdly, a couple of cute little buildings that look like they’re straight out of The Hobbit. You can even find advice on how to create a better writing space with a neat little writing studio, and this inspiring list of 11 writing centres. There are all kinds of articles on how to create an inspirational workspace and even how to create a writing space on budget.
Why do you need one?
I’ve been told repeatedly by my university tutors and by online forums and experts that we shouldn’t work in bed (or from the couch while watching TV). Bending over a laptop or keyboard is terrible for your posture. It’s also bad for your concentration because we’re all far more likely to get distracted by Pinterest or pictures of cats if we’re in the relaxed environment of our own bedrooms.
There’s something else, too: It’s just as important to turn off as it is to turn on.
Even if you can concentrate well enough with your little brother bolting in and out with the dog, it’s much harder to shut your brain down to sleep if you’ve been on the computer right up to bedtime. Sleep is essential for your physical and mental well-being, but it also improves your creativity. The less sleep you get, the less likely you are to finish that draft.
(My G.P. once told me that if I wanted to sleep by 10PM, I should turn off all electronic devices by 6PM. I’m not sure how much of that 4-hour “off” period applies to regular folk and how much was a margin for my ME/CFS but I have slept better since I stopped using the computer after 8PM.)
Having a dedicated space means you can set regular working hours and “turn off” (by leaving the work space) in time to relax and get plenty of rest.
Be patient and persistent
Brain training doesn’t happen overnight and habits can be hard to break or change, so be patient with yourself. Don’t get frustrated if your first or tenth sessions in your new dedicated space doesn’t net you anything but a still-blank screen. Just chalk it up to a “training” session and focus on something else for a while. Like any habit, you’ll soon find yourself brimming with ideas the minute you “enter” your writing space, even if it’s just an armchair in a corner of the lounge.