The Write Space: How You Can Improve Your Writing By Improving Where You Write

When authors take us on light speed journeys through hyperspace and the stars melt away to streaks of white, when they send us deep into the dank, subterranean caverns of malevolent lizard-men, when they drag us through the dusty streets of a post-apocalyptic world where every man and woman must claw for survival, when they do this while wrapping us tightly in the belief that the characters we are reading about are living, breathing people who feel fear or bravery or love or malice it’s often hard to remember that an author sat somewhere in our world and brought that world to life.

Recently fellow Australian author Zena Shapter has been running a series of blog posts called ‘Where Writers Write’ in which she’s been posting photos and descriptions of the desks/writing spaces of a number of authors including Kate Forsyth, Michael Pryor, Terry Dowling, Greg Barron and many, many others.

I’ve found these posts interesting as there’s always something wonderful about peeking into the creative lives of others and seeing the small, white haired man that pulls the levers and presses the buttons despite the booming voice that tells you to: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

More than just some voyeuristic enjoyment though, Zena’s series of posts have got me thinking about the places we write and the effect these places have on the writing itself.

Here then is a photo of my writing space:

Pretty standard stuff really, desk, computer, books, in-progress manuscripts on the shelves, a half-deflated Spider-man, clutter that I wish would fit somewhere else in the house, but beyond that what’s important about this space is that it’s mine. No one else uses it and I don’t use it for anything other than writing. There’s something sacred in that, an altar of words existing solely for me to carry out this act of creation. However, I don’t think it’s as mystical as that sounds, I don’t pray to my deflated Spider-man idol for the God of Inspiration to enter my earthly dominion and deliver me my muse – it’s just the combination of two things, a physical space and a mental one.

The physical writing space is an often under-considered aspect of your ability to generate good writing, particularly by newer writers. Note the very important part of that last sentence, good writing. We can write anywhere and are often forced to, I’m proof of that, there’s many times I’ve written outside my sanctuary, on the train, in a café, on a plane, at my desk at work, on my phone while out for dinner with friends when the conversation sparks an idea that I just can’t shake. That’s all well and good, but in this post I’m not simply talking about getting words down, I’m talking about having the clarity of mind to dig deeper and get quality words down.

Good writing requires concentration. We want to achieve that feeling of being in the zone and writing well, the place you find yourself when the world sinks away behind you and disappears into oblivion so that the entirety of existence is you and your keyboard or notebook. In order to reach this level of concentration you need what I believe is the most important aspect of a writing space, isolation.

Isolation is the dominion of the writer. When you sit down to write you must exit reality for a time. You must give yourself permission to sink into that place where the rest of the world doesn’t exist. To accomplish this you need a place you can go and be uninterrupted, no phone calls, no children tugging at your pants for food or whatever else they need to continue their small human existence, no friends pinging you with chat messages on Facebook, no interruptions at all. In many of our lives this isn’t easy. If you’re a single parent or live in a busy house it’s understandably a challenge. If this is the case consider this, attempt to produce your isolation not just through space but also through time. Write early in the morning or late at night when the world, including your all-demanding family, is asleep.

When in your writing space you need to be safe in the knowledge that you will not be disturbed. The isolation you need as a writer is just as much a state of mind as a place and it’s difficult to let go of the world around you and sink down into your inner zone when you could be interrupted at anytime.

I don’t write at my best with anyone else in the room, and I suspect the same is true of most people. Isolation means being alone. Basically I’m just going to come straight out and say it: Don’t write in a coffee shop.

I know a few professional writers and numerous serious semi-professionals and none of them write in a cafe. None. I don't care what J.K. Rowling did. Go ahead and write in a cafe if you want but try and tell me you don't feel a little self-conscious after sitting at a table alone for an hour between each of your skinny lattes and I won't believe you. Cafes are loaded with distractions and you will be interrupted. Also there's this reason: 

Having an isolated space where you know you won’t be interrupted allows you to drop the walls we all keep up and sink into your work. It's like your instinctual need to be ready to fight off a bear (or bothersome coffee shop waiter) disappears.

Even within your space you should try and minimise distractions. You can see from the photo of my writing space that I have a pure white wall behind my desk, I don’t face the window and I sometimes even shut the blinds. This all helps to keep me focused. Blandness of surroundings makes what you are writing the focal point.

I hinted at this earlier when I said my desk is used for nothing but writing but it’s my firm belief that your space should be dedicated to writing. If that’s not possible at least use the same space each time, don’t write on the couch one morning, in bed the next and then at a desk the day after that. I talked about routine in a previous post on time management for writers but routine based around a physical space promotes the development of the mental space. Using the same space to write, at the same time each day assists us in dropping into the mental zone we aim to be in.

When you’re taking a break from your writing (perhaps you’re employing the Pomodoro Method as I talked about in my time management post) and you’re going to check your email or make a phone call or watch five minutes of Game of Thrones because you’re so absolutely obsessed you can't stand to be away from Daenerys Stormborn (What? Just me?), step away from your writing space and do it somewhere else. I like the concept Jack Cheng talks about of Habit Fields, the way we associate certain environments with certain activities. In particular I like the idea of the distraction chair. You reserve your desk solely for writing and then, when you’re going to do something else, even if it’s just for five minutes; you get up and move to your distraction chair, a place you associate with doing things other than writing keeping your writing space linked to productivity.

Having a writing space you can control allows you to control your state of mind. The benefit of creating a writing space as perfect as you can means you will practise falling into the right state of mind. As you continue to do this you’ll find that state of mind comes easier and easier even when you're away from your writing space. You can train yourself into having mental space so that like Joyce Carol Oates said, “If you are a writer you locate yourself behind a wall of silence and no matter what you are doing, driving a car or walking or doing housework you can still be writing, because you have that space.”

Sometimes you’ll succeed in writing in the coffee shop or under the table at your Aunt Martha’s birthday dinner, because you’ve found that mental space. The problem is you can't always find it. You should always have your writing space as the centre of your writing life, keep coming back to it and you'll find that when you're there your writing will be the best it can be. What you’re doing when you set up a dedicated, uninterrupted writing space is giving yourself ongoing permission to sink into the writing zone where you can build the hyperspace starship, the subterranean caverns, or the post-apocalyptic world where others can lose themselves too.

If you don’t get enough writing done or are continually complaining of being uninspired answer the question: Do you have a writing space where you give yourself permission to be inspired?

Let me know your experiences with writing spaces. Where do you write? Maybe you think I'm completely wrong. Leave a comment and let me know, and to stay up to date with my blog posts enter your email address in the email subscription box or follow me on Twitter: @Woollz.