Old schoolBy Dorian Box

A friend asked where and how I like to write.

“Let me guess,” she said. “With all the insanity in Psycho-Tropics, an asylum!”

“Nope. Tried while I was there, but it was too noisy.” Just kidding.

A wealth of articles and blog posts discuss how to create the best creative writing atmosphere. They offer great ideas, but some commentators go too far in giving definitive answers (“do it this way”) to what is a subjective question answerable only by the individual writer.

For every writer touting the writing benefits of silence and isolation, another suggests cranking up the music or writing in a public place. The only opinion that matters, of course, is yours—the writer. What works for you?

My friend laughed when I gave her my real answer. For creative writing, such as fiction, I often write with incense burning and Indian sitar ragas playing (create a Ravi Shankar station on Pandora and give it a test).  I find the Eastern vibe to be soothing, sometimes even transcendental, without being distracting. The music also filters out background noise, such as traffic or a barking dog.

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Wherever I happen to be living, I set up my computer close to a window with the best possible view, even if it’s just the street. Staring at a blank wall is the worst for me, a literal version of writer’s block, I suppose.

My friend still laughs about the sitar music. Familiar with the darkness and mayhem in Psycho-Tropics, she was sure I listened to Norwegian death metal all the way through.

Public Places and Music vs. Solitude and Silence

Two of the biggest differences in preferred writing atmospheres involve public spaces versus private spaces and silence versus background music.

Some writers enjoy writing in Starbucks or other public places, even airports and train stations. The stimulation and interaction helps them find their muse.  Like everything, works for some, not for others.  The stimulation and interaction may also prevent you from connecting deep within those all-important thoughts at the fringe of consciousness, where the best ideas often lurk.

One of the most repeated suggestions for creating a good writing atmosphere is to play music. No doubt, music can move us and open doors in our minds.  Depending on the music, it can evoke any emotion or mood known, or even unknown, to humans.

But what kind of music?

I teach graduate school. The student reading assignments are demanding: long and complex. I frequently encounter students with their heads buried in one of their thick books, wearing earbuds, music blasting. Being a music fan and also curious, sometimes I ask what they’re listening to. It’s never sitar ragas or Vivaldi or any other type of soothing music, but usually something like Nine Inch Nails or hip hop.

Many creative writers also listen to pumped-up music while writing. Some writers have writing playlists, often different ones for different writing sessions.  A commenter to a good blog post on the subject boasted that she has more than 22,000 songs dedicated to every mood.

I love music.  I sing and play in a rock band. But the idea of predictable playlists seems a bit antithetical to creativity.  Meanwhile, playing any music with lyrics inevitably leads to listening to or even singing along them, which means brain-capacity is being diverted from the writing.

Contrary to popular belief that we are a society of effective multitaskers, scientific studies are unanimous that brain processing power decreases when multitasking. Here’s a Forbes article about a Stanford study, but there are many others.  The human brain is simply incapable of focusing on more than one task at a time, certainly complex tasks such as writing. Something has to give.

But whatever works for the individual writer is the point of the post.  If a particular atmosphere works for you, go with it!  There are no rules.  But be sure to experiment with alternatives to make sure it really is the best choice for you.

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