Monday, October 3, 2011

This is Your Brain on Ibuprofen

What are your ideal writing conditions? Virginia Woolf advocated for having a room of one’s own. Some people prefer writing in a coffee shop. Other writers have an office in their home. Some people like to go to a residency away from the distractions of their day-to-day lives. I know a woman who rents a hotel room. Ideally, we would feel rested and refreshed as we sat down with our laptops or our notebooks. Nothing would interfere with the free flowing of the muse. But life so rarely gives us the ideal.

My ideal writing situation would be two or three hours of writing by hand in the morning after a good 8-hours of sleep, and then the afternoon would be spent rewriting what I’d written that morning as I typed it into my computer. But it’s been a few years since I’ve had the ideal. Between teaching full time, traveling to give workshops or readings, working on my house, and having something resembling a social life, I have discovered that if I want to write, I better not wait around for the ideal conditions.

In fact, writing sometimes happens for me when I’m sick, when I haven’t slept more than three or four hours, when it feels as if my brain is that frying egg from the anti-drug commercial a few years back. I’ll wake up tired and feeling wretched, dismayed that what I had planned to be a productive day will be wasted lying around, trying to recover from whatever bug has attacked me this time, or from my latest bout of insomnia, or from the sheer exhaustion of the life I lead.

And yet somehow these periods of forced inactivity give my mind just enough room to latch onto an idea and wrestle with it for a while. Finally, I’ll whip open the laptop and lurch through a few paragraphs. Then I have to shut it and rest for a while. But the idea bubbles in the swamp of virus and antibodies or sleep-deprived reverie, and soon I’m back on the computer wrestling again with the thoughts that come stumbling out of the murk. Much to my own surprise, quite often what I write in these anti-ideal conditions turns out to be something worthwhile, something I needed to write.

As I write this, it’s 4:25 in the morning. I’ve had some sort of virus for two days, and I’m not feeling that great right now. But I did manage to get an essay about my mother written in between naps yesterday. So while I would much prefer to write in a nice little cabin in the mountains with time stretching before me so that I could walk after a writing session and ponder the great ideas, my reality is that I’m gonna need to somehow squeeze in a little sleep before I take some ibuprofen and go teach a class full of freshman who aren’t always sure where a sentence should end. But at least I’ve written something today.

WIY: Don’t wait for the ideal conditions to write. Write when you can, write what you can. Maybe you can’t get to that novel right now. That’s okay. Write a poem, write a page, write anything. Write now. Give yourself ten minutes. You might surprise yourself.

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