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.)

Query Response #3: Mickey and More

The shelf above my desk. Good stuff.
The shelf above my desk. As you can see, it has a couple of Mickeys.

In a recent post I asked, “What do you want me to post about?

You responded — and your wish is my command. It might take me a while, but I will get to each and every one of your requests (even Sarah W’s).


This query comes from writer and waffle fan Laurel Leigh who writes: “I’d like to know if you play that banjo in the corner, whether you’ve ever tipped over backwards in your desk chair, if your office is truly always that tidy, and how come you have a Cat in the Hat but not Mickey Mouse?”

Jiminy! OK, let’s take your questions one at a time:

1. I do like to play my banjo, but I rarely play it in a corner. I prefer the center of the room.

2. I have not tipped over backwards in my desk chair. I have, however, repeatedly fallen up stairs. This degree of clumsiness never fails to astound my wife.

3. My office is always tidy. Would you like to know the secret to a truly tidy office space? OCD. You’re welcome.

4. You have jumped to conclusions, Laurel; believe me, my office is duly Mickified.

I even think of Mickey whenever I have to make a call.
I even think of Mickey whenever I have to make a call. Thanks, Aunt Elaine!

So, there you have it!

Sadly, I am going to have to temporarily postpone Query Responses for the next week or two. I have a Susanna Leonard Hill contest entry to post next week, which will be followed by the July installment of Waffles With Writers.

Don’t forget to check back soon for more fun!

Query Response #2: Telephone!

A work of art. Also, annoying.
A work of art. Also, annoying.

In a recent post I asked, “What do you want me to post about?

You responded — and your wish is my command. It might take me a while, but I will get to each and every one of your requests (even Sarah W’s).


Today I’ll reply to Eagle-Eyed-Editor, who wanted to know a bit more about the phone in my office:

My office.
See it?

That, my friend, is a gen-u-wine 1920 candlestick that I bought from Ring My Bell!, a telephone restoration company in Southern California. Don’t bother looking them up; they’re out of business. Apparently, no one wants 90-year-old technology anymore.

My candlestick works beautifully and I adore its retro charm.

But retro charm doesn’t amount to a bucket of warm spit when a computerized voice on the other end of a call asks you to “press” a number. Nothin’ to press here, I’m afraid.

Also it is impossible to cradle the oddly-shaped two-pound handset on your shoulder, so good luck taking a message.

In order to be heard, you have to speak into the 11-pound base. So if you want to move anywhere you have to carry it with you.  Fortunately, the phone cord is really, really short so you can’t go anywhere anyway.

To put it another way, my 1920 candlestick can be a big pain in the rumpus room.

So I have another phone in my office that I use for interviews and other business calls. This phone does not have retro charm, however, so when it is not in use, I hide it away in my desk drawer.

So there you have it! Be sure to check in again. Query Response #3 is coming soon!