Friday, February 20, 2015

The Sounds of Silence

Simon and Garfunkel’s famous song, “Sounds of Silence,” sort of says it all. What role does silence play in your daily writing? In today’s maddening world, silence is often a precious commodity. Noise is all around us. Sometimes, it’s white noise that fills the background with steady soothing sounds like the whirr of a furnace motor on a cold day. At other times the sounds can be deafening like the sound of a T.V. in the den. Whatever sort of sounds you live with, you may find that the amount and volume can seriously affect your writing.

Younger people—those under 30—have grown up with lots of sounds all day long. Many do several things at the same time—listening to music on a set of earbuds, texting on a cell phone, watching a video on their computer, all while doing homework or work-related tasks. If they write, they carry on multitasking while writing, and their writing suffers because of it.

Highly successful writers surround themselves with silence if they can afford to. Some purchase  a house in the country and set up a study, often separate from the house, itself, in which to work.
Like many other writers of his day, playwright Eugene O’Neill need absolute quiet to work. He built a house on his ranch in California that had a study surrounded and cushioned by three empty rooms. It kept out all extraneous noise. And back then, O’Neill didn’t have the Internet and Email to distract him. Can you imagine how much more you can get finish if you banned all interruptions. But realistically, that may not be entirely possible.

For more writers, building a reclusive study away from their main residence is just a pipe dream. Most have to contend with disturbances from their spouses and children and perhaps from the family pet. Having your pet cat jump up on your lap may sound cozy, but it’s downright annoying when you’re writing a particularly difficult passage.

So what can you do to obtain silence in your writing workplace? For one thing, take a serious look at where you do your writing. If you’re writing at the kitchen or dining room table, then surely you’ll be hounded by distractions. For some writers who live in apartments, that may be the only place they can write.

Try to find a secluded place within your home in which to do your work—even if you write on a laptop. Using a laptop makes the whole process more portable, so you may be tempted to carry it to another location in the house that’s perhaps not as quiet.

Write when others aren’t around. Do your writing in the morning or late evening when everyone else is asleep. Or do it during the day when your spouse is at work and your kids are in school. It’s amazing how much easier it is to concentrate without continual distractions.

Set up a writing corner in a room in your home. This could be in a house, condo, or apartment. By doing so, you’ll have a place you can return to every day. It also allows you to stop writing and pick up where you left off the next day without having to pack everything up because dinner needs to be on the table.

During the warmer months, depending on where you live, you may want to take your laptop outdoors and write on the patio or perhaps take a ride to a nearby park and write on a picnic table, as long as there aren’t crowds of people around. The sounds of nature are particularly soothing, and the fresh air will help stimulate your mind.

Above all, learn to control distractions. Turn off Email announcements. Put your phone on an answering machine or voice mail. Refrain from watching T.V. or listening to music while you work. Encourage friends to call in your off hours. Tell them when you’ll be working and ask them to avoid calling you during that time. And gather your family for a meeting and politely explain to them that when you’re working, they should respect that and do their best not to disturb you. Studies have shown that even though people multitask, it’s seldom successful and whatever they’re working on suffers.

Yes, silence is golden. But the soothing ticking of a clock, for instance, gives a rhythm to background noise that can be quite soothing. So sit back and write and listen to your furnace hum and your clock tick.                                               


Friday, February 13, 2015

Develop Your Own Vision

“Develop your own vision, trust in it, and it will eventually reward you beyond your imagination.” Jeremy Horner

That quote is from a professional travel photographer. But it can also apply to you as a writer. Although with writing, depending on what type of writing you do, developing a vision all your own can be a challenge.

In the beginning, it’s hard to imagine where you want to go with your writing.  Perhaps you may get in a quandary over whether to write non-fiction or fiction. Most writers decide this early in their careers. It’s a natural passion that comes from deep inside you. Some writers start out writing non-fiction, for example—maybe working in the newsroom of their local paper—but soon tire of constantly having to dig up facts. For them, creating life on paper is more of a challenge.

It’s also possible that you may go in both directions. If you’re a good writer, you should be able to write just about anything, once you know the format of what you want to write. But in the beginning, it’s best to not to waffle back and forth. Pick one direction—fiction or non-fiction—and stick with it.

Beyond that general direction, developing a personal vision is tough. As it turns out, fiction writers have a better chance of doing that. Successful ones usually have a vision of what they want to produce and stick to that path.

But if you’re a non-fiction writer, your work is tied more to the style of each publication for which you’re writing. Each publication has its own reader demographics. To be a successful non-fiction writer, you have to target the readers of each publication, so your writing will constantly have to change to adapt to each group of readers.  While fiction writers also have to write for  their readers, they do so to a much broader group that’s enjoys reading a particular genre of writing—science fiction, mysteries, westerns, romance, etc.

Don’t confuse vision with style. Style is how you express yourself on a particular subject. It takes in not only vocabulary, but sentence structure, punctuation, and general form. As a writer, you will eventually develop your own style. It takes years of practice before that begins to appear. And besides practice, you’ll study other writers that you admire for technique.

Vision, on the other hand, is about how you want others to perceive you as a writer. It encompasses not only the type of writing you do, but how that writing affects your readers. For instance, let’s say you’re a natural teacher. Then your writing may seek to inform readers, in which case, you’ll probably become a successful non-fiction writer or journalist. But if you imagine that your writing will spark the imaginations of your readers, then fiction will probably be for you.

In the case of Jeremy Horner, the photographer quoted above who specializes in travel photography, vision is all about how he interprets the world he sees on his travels—it’s landscapes, its landmarks, its people. How you interpret the world through your writing is your vision. If you enjoy making the past come alive, then recreating history is your vision.

And just like style, vision takes a while to develop. It won’t come to you in an instant but will smolder in your work. But then the light bulb will flash on, and you’ll have an “ah ha” moment. That’s when you’ll begin to see how you want to make your mark on the writing world.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Seeking Illusive Inspiration

Beginning writers make the mistake of waiting around to be inspired. While inspiration plays an important part in writing, it isn’t the most important part of writing. Inspiration is the result of accidental stimuli. To be truly inspired, you need to be prepared for when that happens.

This preparation comes through experience and observations. Everything you’ve done up to the moment will prepare you to be inspired. At times you may feel as if you’ve fallen into a void. The world continues to spin around you, but nothing seems to grab you. Perhaps you’ve gone into sensual overload. You’ve absorbed so much using your senses, that you can’t seem to see how any particular thing can help you in your writing.  That’s the reason that many writers feel the need to get away—to go to some exotic place to find new ideas.

Did you ever wonder where the idea of a writer going to stay in a cabin in the woods came from?
Henry David Thoreau not only went to stay in one, he built it. This so impressed the reading public that beginning writers from then on thought that they needed to do something similar in order to be inspired.

Robert Louis Stevenson came over to America from Scotland, then traveled to Monterrey, California. While he was there, he didn’t write a word. Instead, he just took it all in—the magnificent coastal scenery, the Spanish missions, and the legends he heard while visiting local watering holes. And even though he didn’t make any notes, all this got his imagination going, enabling him to eventually write his now famous novel Treasure Island.

If you try to be inspired, nothing will happen.

And, no, you don’t have to go somewhere exotic to be inspired. Under the right circumstances, inspiration can strike you in your own backyard. California Writer Armistead Maupin used to go shopping at his local Safeway Supermarket on Thursday nights—singles’ night—and while there he met some unique people in the produce aisle. These became his characters in Tales of the City, first published as a newspaper serial starting on August 8, 1974, in a Marin County newspaper, The Pacific Sun, picked up in 1976 by the San Francisco Chronicle, and later reworked into the series of highly successful books about the 1970s in San Francisco. So something as commonplace as a weekly trip to the supermarket can provide fodder for future work.

This shows that inspiration can strike at the least likely of times and in the least likely of places. It will strike you when you least expect it, when your guard is down. As a writer, you need to be aware of when this happens so that you can take advantage of it. That doesn’t mean you must rush to your computer and start frantically writing before the inspiration disappears. Instead, you should get in the habit of writing down some snippets of ideas as they come to you in the moment of inspiration. Carry a small notebook with you or jot down some brief notes on a scrap of paper or a napkin. But get it down before you forget it.

To be inspired, you have to be in the right frame of mind. If you’re trying to come up with an idea, your mind will block up. But if you just observe and enjoy, the world around you will provide you with lots of ideas and your imagination will soar.