By Gill Hoffs
Some writers function best in the hubbub of a coffee shop or the quiet companionship of a public library. Some grab minutes and hours as they travel by train or munch lunch at their desk. Many jot notes as they lie in bed at night, or text themselves lines from the toilets. A few have a dedicated workspace, and I am one of them.
There is a freedom in being comfortable writing anywhere, with anything, around anyone. If you are used to this or able to make yourself cope with this then I take my (hypothetical) hat off to you. If you’re a hearing person then headphones, especially the noise-cancelling kind, can make an enormous difference to how much writing can happen in a public space or chaotic home – even as a signal to other people (well, most other people…) that you’re working and they should Let You Be.
It’s easy to neglect your physical requirements when you live such an intense inner life – way too easy to ignore aches and pains, tingles and numbness, headaches and watering eyes, until they are Real Problems and actually prevent you putting words on the page. Learn from my mistakes so you don’t have to get a stronger prescription for your glasses with every book you produce or tie your wrists with old socks to support them when a (self-imposed or otherwise) deadline means shooting pains make every finger tap on a key or mouse-movement a distraction and a chore.
Make sure your working posture is conducive to standing up again if you’re usually able to, that you support your lower back with a cushion if needed, and wiggle your feet and jiggle your knees to increase circulation. Wear cotton or other natural fibres on your lower half (remember the writer dad in the film “Coraline”? Writer’s Rash is REAL, guys) and keep yourself hydrated and fed. I like to treat writing sessions as if they are dates with my subconscious and have delicious snacks and plenty of drinks to hand, pleasant smells around me (more on this later) and a “treat” mentality. Your bladder will remind you to move around from time to time if nothing else!
Have a lamp near your keyboard or notepad, even if you’re beside a window and usually have good light. When you’re concentrating for hours at a time it’s very, very easy to miss the signs that your eyes and brain are having to compensate for loss of light. It’s like boiling a frog: gradual, awful, and deeply harmful. On a similar note, if you have the option of adjusting the brightness of your screen then do so, and always regard the 100% setting on font size as a suggestion – there is no shame in enlarging your word doc or research pages online to 150% or more, especially scans of old documents, and saving yourself a headache that night and a change of prescription in your glasses (if you already have them) a little later.
My handwriting is horrific and as a primarily visual thinker I am lost without my laptop and Word – I won’t generally know what I’m putting on a page until my fingers type it out – and wherever in my house I settle, sheaves of notes and print-outs follow and fan out like petals from a daisy or the mane of a lion (depending on how well it’s going). Now my son’s at school, I can nest on the sofa or at the dining table and plough through chapters of shipwreck books on a schedule … except for disruptions from my super-needy thinks-she’s-a-dog cat. If you too have a cat (and from what I see on social media, for many writers they are indispensable) and said cat is a pain in the neck when you’re writing, put a box nearby. Seriously. An old shoebox or similar on your desk or dining table or wherever you’re working at home works like a cat magnet. Suddenly, your wrists/notes/keyboard are free to unleash your masterpiece or at least avoid accidentally favouriting a horrific tweet.
Back to smells. Smells can make your writing life a zillion times easier. You know how sometimes someone brushes past you in a crowd and their shampoo puts you back in high school? Your sense of smell has a powerful link with your memory and it’s really helpful to put that to work for you. If you’re struggling to stay connected to a longform piece of writing or a series, pick a scent you’re not exposed to daily. Something you like and can get plenty of, something that won’t permeate your whole writing space whether that’s your local coffee shop, a train carriage, or home. Keep it solely for this piece or kind of writing, and make a point of lighting that incense or scented candle, or anointing your notes with it every time you set yourself to work. It’s a signal to your brain to get into the right gear, and the more you do it, the easier it will be to switch from whatever else you’re doing to a Victorian shipwreck in the Bahamas (or whatever your ms might be). I used essential oils for my exam notes at Uni 15 years ago and even now if I smell lime oil I can picture those notes lying on my desk.
You’ll know yourself whether you find blank walls and a minimalistic area or a cluttered cubbyhole more conducive to creativity, or you soon will do. I find things – my things, to be specific, not just stuff left lying about like piles of laundry or old copies of New Scientist – stimulating and comforting, but many writers would find this a terrible distraction. Go with what works for you, not what you think should work for you. If there was one do-or-die way of writing then life would be very boring indeed. Wherever you’re writing, the important thing is: you’re writing! Very best of luck to you with it.
Gill Hoffs lives in Warrington, England, and can be found online and as @GillHoffs on twitter. She appeared on Series 10 of BBC’s “Coast” and is a regular presence on BBC Radio Merseyside. Gill is also the author of several hundred short stories and articles as well as “Wild: a collection” (Pure Slush, 2012), “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic‘” (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015), and the newly released “The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson” (Pen & Sword, 2016). She sniffs artefacts and books whenever she gets the chance.