Inside the Box

Only in the last 12 months or so have I discovered how much I dislike writing outdoors. I’ve recently been thinking about this, but because of an art lesson rather than prose or poetry.

The task was to find leaves from trees and bushes, then draw them under natural daylight. It did not go well. I set up a table and chair on my balcony, which doesn’t see much sunlight until later in the day. It was freezing, it was windy, and at one point, my pen fell off the balcony. A sunny day can be just as bad, making it difficult to read a computer screen with the glare, and there’s still often a risk of rain.

But more than that, even under the most favourable of weather conditions, I only enjoy writing indoors. When I’m outside, I like to be standing up and moving about. It’s not an environment that puts me in a frame of mind for writing.

This knowledge helps me incredibly. I know if I want to finish – for example – a blog entry at lunchtime, it’s not worth the 20-minute round-trip to the park, and that I’d be more productive sitting on my couch.

Find your niche.

Where and how you write is as individual as the work you ultimately produce. There are many examples of writers who need a particular space, certain items on their desk or a strictly-observed time of day, and there are others who can churn out stories in the back of a taxi. Shortlist gives a few examples. I fall into the back-of-a-taxi category.

When I’m at home, I prefer to stand up while writing, normally using an ironing board to rest my materials. I sit all day in an office and it’s a relief to be on my feet, plus the health benefits have been known for some years. In February, for instance, Tom O’Donnell took a satirical look at the health dangers of sitting down all day.

Minimal modern writing desk
Minimal modern writing desk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, it’s also my least favourite place to write as there are many distractions around the house, such as tidying or loading the washing machine. To that end, I sometimes write in a cafe or a library. Unfortunately, I’m not often able to stand up there, but I find I concentrate better as I only have one desk, and there are no chores needing done.

The background noise is also a consideration, as there’s a fine balance to be sought. When I write in the University of Dundee library, I always choose the Group Study area. I find silence quite conducive to writing, but I’m also on edge because every rustle of paper or drink of water then stands out a mile, whereas a consistent ambience can more readily be tuned out. The opposite is also true. I’ve tried to write in Dundee Contemporary Arts, but the noise is loud then quieter as the audience enters and leaves the cinema, and this is just as distracting.

Of course, such distractions can be overcome with headphones. For the last year or two, I’ve written to the soundtrack from the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It’s an unwieldy title, but the Nick Cave music helps my writing along no end.

The need for writers to use their personal rituals makes me wonder whether there’s a market for a dedicated studio nearby. I have a few artist friends who rent individual rooms in a converted mill and can work undisturbed at their convenience.

Considering the average size of the studios, I reckon it would be possible to squeeze up to four soundproofed booths in one of them, allowing each writer to stay in his or her own customised bubble. An Internet search shows the nearest dedicated writers’ studio is in Nottingham, with a handful scattered around the US, and that’s a long way to travel from Dundee just to find the ideal environment.

However, if you are in the city of Discovery, Hotchpotch is taking place tonight at The Burgh Coffeehouse on Commercial Street. It’s an open mike night for writers, where you can read your own material or come along to listen. More information about Hotchpotch on the Facebook page.