I was watching my daughter (now a fourth-year med student—almost done, thank the LORD) write something for class, and I marveled, not for the first time, at how she listens to music while she writes. I just cannot do that—when I’m writing, it has to be absolutely, entirely silent. Not only can I not listen to music, I also cannot have the television on in the same room or be near any conversation at all. I become hypersensitive to sound—ticking, thumping, the silent buzz of the phone when a text comes in—all of it becomes as loud as a train whistle near the tracks. (Ironically, we live quite close to a train track and I rarely notice the whistle. But you get my point.)
This is not true of when I read. A bomb could go off in the room where I’m reading and I won’t notice until shrapnel hits me in the eye. My kids have, more than once, shaken me to get my attention after they’ve said, “Mom. Mom. MOM!” repeatedly and I haven’t responded because I honestly didn’t hear them. This has been the case since I was a child—I clearly remember being dragged back into the real world by my bemused parents or aggravated sister, who apparently had been trying to get my attention for awhile to no avail. When I am in a book, I am IN a book.
It’s the opposite when I write, though. John Gardner, in his fantastic book The Art of Fiction, speaks of the “fictional dream” a writer should create for the reader, and it’s a perfect explanation of where I go when I am reading a great story. When I am writing the story myself, though, I fall into a fictional hole rather than a dream. Once all distractions are eliminated (emails read/responded to, laundry folded or ignored, snacks eaten, phone off and away from my writing space) and I’m in “the zone,” it’s like slipping into a dark chasm. The chasm becomes a cave where I have to navigate around pits and slippery spots with my characters, and I only have a sentence at a time to light my way. If there is any sound in the outside world, my characters melt into the darkness and I’m yanked out of the hole, blinking against the harsh light of reality, sputtering with irritation at whoever or whatever pulled me out. It’s so hard to find my way back when I’ve been pulled out this way; if I come to a natural pause or am really stuck, then leaving the cave of my own accord is fine, but being disturbed when I’m in the groove—hoooo.
Not good for me; not good for the cause of the disturbance.
I tell my composition students to set themselves up for success when they write, to find the environment that works best for them. Many admit that writing propped up in their beds is a bad idea because they often fall asleep. So some need a busy coffee shop. Some listen to music on headphones; others, like me, need perfect quiet, and they retreat to the second floor of our university library. I try to take my own advice. If anyone is home, I announce, “I’m going to write, so don’t bug me unless it’s an emergency” before heading upstairs for writing time. I take my Westie, Jock, out so his bathroom needs won’t interrupt my cave time. I leave my phone downstairs so it won’t bother me. I settle myself in my favorite writing spot , sit on the edge of the hole for a minute, then drop into the cave. It takes a bit to find my character friends, but not too long—they’ve been waiting for me, after all, and I’m the only one who can unearth them. I shine the light of that next sentence in front of me, and together, we start moving again. If all goes well, the world outside is silent while the world inside is a mass of noise, and I plunge on like a dwarf in a fairy-tale, trying to pick gems out of the cavern walls.