On Writing

The Age of Aquarium

dorypicThere are two types of writers: Music-Playing-In-The-Background Writers and Shaddap!-I’m-Writing! Writers.

For most of my professional career, I fell squarely into the Shaddap camp.

That’s not to say I can’t write with background noise. When I was a newspaper reporter, I was surrounded by it. I don’t think that environment prompted great writing, exactly, but I was prolific, and, once in a while, I’d come up with a story I was proud of. (I still love the articles I wrote about the nutty lady who kept pigs in her house.)

But the Shaddap writing philosophy was what I had always sought out.

Last summer, my employer moved me to a new building and, in it, a modern, glass-walled office. Working in what could be described as an aquarium would not have been my first choice – or even my 20th – but I adapted. (The installation of shades aided the adaptation process considerably.)

I even found ways to have fun in the new space; for example, I grew particularly fond of writing little witticisms on my glass door in marker:

Please do not feed the Editor. He is on a special diet of bacon and wine.

Glass, however, isn’t very good at muffling sound. And, unlike my days at the newspaper, I had difficulty tuning the noise out.

The noise I experienced in the newsroom, though loud, was always the same type of noise – a constant, dull, indistinct rumble of a half-dozen people simultaneously saying what sounded like “rhubarb” into telephones.

The noise in my new office was not constant, dull, or indistinct – so it could never quite morph into white noise. Every word I heard was crystal clear. What’s worse was that most of the words I was hearing were being uttered by teenagers:

“Ohmigod, did you hear what Cathy said to Kennedy when she saw her in the Math center?”

“Oh, my Gawd, I know!”

“She goes, she goes…”

“I know! I was, like, there! I was, like, ‘Oh, my Gawd!’”

Being distracted is one thing. Being distracted by this can cause physical pain.

So I converted. I am a Music-Playing-In-The-Background Writer!

My only challenge was figuring out a good musical fit.

The music needed to be bright and appealing, but couldn’t call too much attention to itself. So lyrics were out. I tried polka and bluegrass, but they were too toe-tappy. I discovered that Enya should not be listened to while either writing or operating heavy machinery. The Penguin Café Orchestra, a group I love, was a near miss; its songs kept me bright eyed, but prompted more humming than writing.

And then, success!

SchroederGod bless the beautifully bombastic Beethoven. I’ve always been fond of the fellow, but never more than now. His tympani and brass cancels out every trace of teen angst loitering outside of my door. What’s more, his music keeps me more alert and energized. So that’s one less cup of coffee I need every day.

Thanks to this fine composer my new office suits me just fine.

So powerful was his impact, I now play my old Beethoven LPs when I write at home. The music hasn’t improved my productivity much there, but it has made me more polite. After all, when Beethoven is on, I no longer need to shout “Shaddap! I’m writing!” to my loved ones.

Do you listen to music when you write? If so, which artist gets your creative juices flowing? (Feel free to post YouTube links in the comments.)

On Writing

A Tale of Two Driveways

I used to live next door to a guy who owned a snowblower the size of a French automobile. His name was Russ and he thought I was an idiot.

“Woo! Look at all the snow,” he announced to the world at large as he stepped out onto his side porch. The neighborhood was empty, save for me wielding my blue plastic shovel. Russ figured I was a better audience than nobody.

“Mike. Mike. Mike. What do you think? Ten inches? Twelve?”

“Seven, maybe,” I replied as I paced back and forth pushing my shovel. Talking about the weather was no reason to pause in my work — especially if the person I was talking to was Russ.

“Seven? No! Ten. Probably 12 or 13,” he corrected me. “Hey. Once I’m done with my snowblower, you can use it.”

I kept shoveling. “No, thanks.”

“Really?! You’re gonna break your back doing…that…when my snowblower could do your whole driveway in five minutes?”

“I like to shovel.”

Russ snorted. “Suit yourself,” he said. The tone of his “suit yourself” could only be interpreted one way: “Suit yourself, you idiot.”

Then Russ went back inside his house. He still had to throw on a light jacket to prepare for his snowblowing adventure. Sure it was 20 degrees, but there’s no need to bundle up for  a job that takes only five minutes.

Although I would never have accepted anything from Russ, I was being honest with him. I enjoy shoveling. It’s quiet. Nothing is better at deadening noise than a fresh blanket of snow and, when I am out there, I hear little more than my shovel scraping along the asphalt. I’ve grown to find the sound lovely — not because it is an intrinsically appealing sound, but because I associate it with an appealing state of mind.

I also refuse the offers of well-meaning neighbors wielding leafblowers. Raking works for me in very much the same way shoveling does. Both tasks require a certain degree of focus but are freeing enough to let your mind wander or, in my case, go pleasantly, refreshingly blank.

That quiet mind, I’ve discovered, is often the lull before a creative storm; when I finish shoveling and get back to work, I am rarely more productive. My brain is rested and ready to go, my ideas flow with little effort, and my happiness is total.

On this particular snow shoveling day, however, my mind couldn’t get as blank as I would’ve liked. I was still delighted, however. For there, woefully underdressed and cursing under his breath, was Russ failing to get his snowblower started.

I couldn’t help myself.

“Want to borrow my shovel?”

“No!” Russ spat as he gave the cord its 20th white knuckled pull.

I wanted to say “suit yourself,” but I couldn’t do it. It is such a smug and jerky phrase, isn’t it? Regardless, I entered my house with a happy heart. I had just shoveled seven or maybe 13 inches of snow. I felt useful, rested, and vaguely fit. Better yet, I could see a pot of coffee and an afternoon of inspired writing in my immediate future.

On Writing

Creativity and the Commuter

The only way to travel.
The only way to travel.

Last Friday I rear-ended a truck while driving to work. I wasn’t going fast or being careless, the roads were just terrible. Long sheets of ice, really. All I could do was skid and brace myself for the collision.

After the impact, we pulled over to assess the damage.

“Wow!” Truck Guy exclaimed, looking at the nose of my car, which sported a grille cracked in several places and a flapping bumper. “I didn’t think that little hit would do so much damage!”

“It didn’t,” I replied. “I did that five minutes ago when I hit a telephone pole.”

Truck Guy laughed appreciatively.

Then there was a pause.

“Wait. You serious?”

I was.

My average speed for the rest of my journey was, I think, 3 mph – because when I hit that pole at 12 mph, and then the truck at 7 mph, I was being just too dang reckless.

As I puttered along, cursing my luck all the way, I reflected on the commute I had 20 years ago. I worked in New York City. It was a much longer haul than the one I have now (two plus hours, as opposed to an-hour-and-a-half) but it was by train. And, like the road less traveled, that had made all the difference.

A train is a perfect place for reading, so I delved into books that I probably should’ve read in high school.

I read about Trees Growing in Brooklyn and fell madly in love with the bookish, myopic Francie.

I read 1984, fruitlessly hoping that Orwell put a happy ending in there somewhere.

I read Kafka who, by comparison, made Orwell look like Dale Carnegie.

I wondered why Victor Frankenstein lacked the parental love so very evident in his comedic alter ego, Victor Frahnkensteen.

A good parent. Pay attention, Mary Shelly!
Pay attention, Mary Shelly. Your Victor should’ve been like this guy.

I fantasized about being the travel companion of Mark Twain, or better still, John Steinbeck.

And I read Nectar in a Sieve, a book that should’ve been titled Just One Damn Thing After Another.

It was a great way to get to work.

But that was only the New Jersey Transit part of my journey. I stopped reading once I got to Hoboken. After I hopped onto the PATH Train, which scooted me under the Hudson River and up to 33rd Street, I switched from reading to writing.

Back then my passion was theatre, and the PATH, with its herky-jerky motions, frequent stops, and Subway-ish vibe, seemed to be a fine place to come up with authentic dialogue.

From 33rd Street, I walked the 10 blocks to my office, where I could reflect on what I had written and/or read.

At the time I was a graphic designer. I hated the job. A lot. I was lousy at it, too. That decadent commute, however, made it all sort of OK. No matter how badly my day went, I knew it would end with me writing on the PATH and reading on the train.

Now the situation is reversed. I have a job I enjoy very much – one that allows me to stretch myself intellectually and creatively – but my day is book-ended by a hellish commute. To get to work I drive on both the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike. And then I motor down the side streets of hick towns – places where salt truck drivers are not considered Essential Personnel.

By the time I come home, I am exhausted and crabby and uneager to write and read. “I wrote and read during my entire workday,” I tell myself.Isn’t that enough?”

At this point I would love to write: “Well, no, it is NOT enough! Despite how tired and crabby I am, I continue to write and read! I am a writer and a reader! Writers and readers must always write and read!”

But I can’t, because, well, sometimes after getting home from work, I choose to sit on my butt and reach for a second glass of wine. One such day was Fender Bender Friday.

I think that’s OK.

My point is, don’t beat yourself up if you decide to get out that corkscrew once in a while. Your mind is not always going to be in the right place. Your schedule is not always going to be kind. We can’t all spend several hours a day on trains. If you truly love writing, you will find and make the time to write. The time might not be every single day, but the time will reveal itself.

As for me, I soon made up for my lazy Friday. I got in a whole lot of writing time the other day. I worked for hours and hours without a break. I was sitting in a molded plastic chair waiting for the nice man to replace my bumper.