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It’s the Little Things: What Do you Do When you Write?

Hemingway writing in front of a mirror. I could never do this. Mirrors are very distracting.

The places where I get most of my ideas, where I’m most creative, are not very conducive to writing. The shower. In bed, in the middle of the night.  (No notepad on the nightstand for me–my husband sleeps next to the nightstand so I can’t turn the alarm off in my sleep.) In staff meetings. During movies. Sitting in traffic. And so on. Just like probably everyone else, my ideas flow best when my brain is drifting most.

When it comes to actually getting ideas down on paper, (or the computer, really) writing works just like everything else for me: I have my own insanely organized, insanely-unorganized-looking system that no one else could possibly understand. Think separate, single-spaced paragraphs that function in place in of the index cards I used years ago. Then think cryptic notes with no key, some consisting of sentences or words, some only of single letters or numbers.  Paras separated by dot dot dash lines mean something different than paras separated by dash dot dash lines.  I write full of nervous energy, and so it’s probably no surprise that I haven’t got any fingernails, as I bite them down to the quick while I write, rewrite, consider, edit, make more notes.

In short, I suppose the way I write is weird, but I suspect it’s not any weirder than any other writer’s ritual. Nabokov’s notecards? John Cheever’s underwear? None of these examples seems particularly strange to me.  I read somewhere that Nicholson Baker gets up before he’s fully awake, doesn’t turn on the light, just sits down at the computer and writes, to try to maintain the dreamlike state. I don’t know where I read that or if that’s really true, but I’d like to try it. Some of the best stuff I’ve written has happened when I’m dead tired and drifting in and out of sleep.

How do you write? What “weird” habits do you have? What little things have to be just right for you to be at your creative best?

  • Amber Sparks's work has been featured or is forthcoming in various places, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Annalemma and PANK. She is also the fiction editor at Emprise Review, and lives in Washington, DC with a husband and two beasts.

7 thoughts on “It’s the Little Things: What Do you Do When you Write?

  1. I write with music so loud I can’t hear anything else. I write at the same spot at the same kitchen table that I’ve been writing at for 5 years now. When my wife tries to get my attention, I pretend to be blind.

    1. I love that you pretend to be blind.

      I prefer silence, but I can also write to music as long as their are no lyrics or the lyrics are pretty hard to understand. Words distract me, I find.

  2. I don’t know if this is just me, but I need my surroundings to be pretty quiet—I mean, like, there cannot be any sound—and I mean any sound whatsoeveranywhere around me—when I’m writing. Music, people talking, cooks banging pots, children screaming, you name it—it all must go. Not even cars can be passing by. Which, living in a city as I do, is tough to come by—even in the libraries! Where they have these rattling exhaust fans, and noisy carpets, and people walking by, reshelving books while wearing corduroy pants. So, as you can probably imagine, I spend a lot of my precious writing time rushing here and there, shaking my head, rolling my eyes toward heaven, begging folks to shut up, waving my hands in wild gestures, imploring the college students to spread their legs a little farther apart when they walk (it’s not hard!)—not to mention piling roadblocks in the street so cars have to detour. As well as throwing away all my roommate’s stuff, her pots and pans and food, then blocking the doors to the apartment, then throwing her nonsense out again the following day when she somehow finds it and carts it back in, but stuffing it down deeper into the dumpster that time, so it takes her longer to retrieve it, and makes her break down sobbing in the alley, and flee to her boyfriend’s place for the weekend, thus earning me twenty minutes silence. If I’m lucky—before some bird flaps by and alights on the tree by my window—which reminds me, I really need to chop that thing down. Which will alas delay my new novel yet again; it all takes so much time! And I get much less writing done than I would like to. And is anyone else like this? Do you have to have total silence? Or am I the only one like that?

    1. Ha! You know, I need to have pretty close to silence–that or ambient noise. Music’s okay too, but it’s hard to write to it if it has lyrics.

      Sent from my iPhone

  3. The word for today is legs. Lets spread the word!

    Oh. Is this on?

    I go through different phases. I need it dead quiet one day. I need it loud the next. I write on a notepad on my knee, on the hydrant, when I walk. I write when I get there. What ever process will be most challenging, most cathartic, whatever specific challenge awaits my race that day, I need that.

    I might get the same challenge a few days in a row. I might strike a personal note, tap into something I need to evolve within myself, but that process is only involved when it is conducive to what words are making their long trek out from under the crusts of the earth.

    Block is curious. I run into block most often when I can’t decide if I’m blocked because of “it” or “me”. Solving everything for X usually gets me back on track, but then, finding the track produces some experience, and that, in the end, doesn’t hurt my ability to write.

    Key for me, I’ve learned, is to sit down and write every single day. Do my best, work as hard as is needed to get at what I am getting at, even if the only person at the end of the day who will read it, who can understand it, is me.

    It all comes out at the end of the “day”. Enough air quotes. Back to legs, please.

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