Monday, April 21, 2014

What Do You Need?

It’s a question every writer asks, and one we’re all constantly striving to answer: what do you need to be able to write?


What I need to be able to write:

1. Ten to twelve square feet to myself.

2. A comfortable seat and someplace to put my feet up. Not sure why the feet being up matters so much, but it does. I find it almost impossible to work at a desk or table. Comfortable didn't used to matter as much, but my back isn't as forgiving as it was when I was thirty.

3. Relative quiet. White noise or instrumental music is fine, but interesting conversation or lyrics kill me dead.

4. One and one-half or more hours when I know I can just write.

Those are the necessities. It also helps if I have:

A. Power, though the longer battery life on each new laptop has made that less of an issue.

B. Caffeine readily available, tea or diet soda by preference, something that I can sip when I pause to think.

C. A nice view, preferably of green space or nature, though a college campus is fine too. A little bit of visual distraction that I can watch but don't have to.

That's really about it.


What do I need to be able to write?

Absolutely nothing.

Thing is, I used to think I needed ALL THE THINGS. I had to have a new notebook for each new project, or I had to have just the right pen or the perfect spot in the sun (or shade), the right coffee, the right mood music, the right amount of time (not too much, not too little) ... everything.

Then my wife and I had a baby. Suddenly, I was really constrained. All the things I thought I needed, I realized I really didn't. If I had my computer and five minutes, I'd use it. If I had a half hour and a pen and paper, I'd use it. In a way, having this intense sort of restriction freed me. All those things I thought I needed fell away. I learned I could write anywhere, anytime, and under almost any circumstance.

I still really like fancy notebooks, though.

I might still need one of those to write. Just sayin'.


I started to line up all the usual suspects here—money; time; the right people in my life, the ones who understand and are supportive of the commitments the writing life demands; the camaraderie and feedback of a writers’ group; my home office, full of essential books, comics, artwork, collectibles—but in the end all those things, important as they may be, pale beside the need for a project: a project that feels truly worth committing the next however many years of my life to, a story that comes from a place so personal that it compells me to tell it until it’s told, a fully imagined world to live in and explore, with characters whose heads I’ll gladly inhabit every hour of the day, both waking and dreaming alike ... Because if I have that, there’s not a whole lot that’s going to get in my way.


You know, it's hard to really answer this question because I haven't been in a truly bare-bones situation for such a long time. I'm used to having a computer, but I remember being a child and doing all my writing by hand. But in terms of what I feel like I need these days:

1. Time. It doesn't necessarily have to be in huge chunks, but I do have to be able to find it somewhere.

2. Self-discipline. So that I use that time for writing instead of checking Facebook over and over and over. (There is always something new and interesting to read on the Internet.)

3. A computer with an ergonomic keyboard. I type a lot faster than I write, and my hands and wrists are a little fussy about keyboards and so on.

4. A project. Which is a little more complicated than just "an idea"—I have a ton of ideas that are setups without enough oomph to actually turn them into a story.


In the past, I would have said time and money. In many ways, they are the same. Money gives you the free time to write. Many writers find themselves in a bind. Because they aren’t making a living at writing, they need a day job; and the day job sucks their time, so they are not able to establish a writing career. This was my problem for many years. Though, to be honest, I have always written slowly and taken many breaks from writing—because I felt I had nothing to say at the moment, or because I couldn’t figure out what came next in a story, or because I was really interested in some other aspect of my life, such as my day job.

However, I was forcibly retired after the 2008 financial crash. After looking for work for a year and a half, I gave up and applied for Social Security. So now I have time and enough money to get by. SS is key, but I do make a little income from writing.

What do I need to write now?

A computer, a printer, paper, notebooks, pens, mechanical pencils, and erasers. Books and magazines also help. I subscribe to New Scientist. My sub to MIT’s Technology Review has lapsed. I need to think about renewing it. For the most part, the books I read are either nonfiction, often popular science, or science fiction and fantasy. Nonfiction provides information. Fiction by other writers provides inspiration.

I have a desk that is my at-home workspace, but it’s usually covered with paper. Either I work at the desktop computer in the living room, or I take my little netbook out to a coffee shop. I love to write in coffee shops. They are full of people working at computers. The staff leaves you alone. If I want to take a break, I can people watch or get myself something to eat or drink.

My favorite coffee shop plays good and interesting CDs: blues, folk music, French chanteurs ... At home, I listen to classical music on Minnesota Public Radio or put on a classical music CD.

I go back and forth between the computer and pen and paper. Often I begin on paper, then move to the computer. As I input what I’ve written on paper, I make changes and then continue the story on the computer. I always print out stories and revise on the hard copy. I can’t see mistakes on the computer.

What else do I need? Friends and writing groups. I belong to two groups: the Wyrdsmiths and an s.f. poetry group. Both provide support and criticism. At this point, I can’t imagine writing entirely on my own.

But I do still need time to myself, a lot of it, to write and read and think. I find walking the track at the gym is very helpful. I work out plot problems and even compose dialogue while walking. The track is usually quiet and almost empty. A walk by the river is less useful, since nature is distracting, and I have to watch out for other people.

That’s about it: time, money, equipment, reading material, a workspace, friends, and silence …

No comments: