During a phone conversation a couple of weeks ago, a fellow scribe recently asked me how I write. A fellow blogger sent me an email recently weekend asking me the same thing. And then Otis posted something about searching for a perfect place to write. I thought those were odd questions, but it made me examine the tiny minutia of the process to make sure I was doing everything right. Sometimes, I slip into bad habits.
This is not a How To Write guide or post or anything like that. This is more of a "email expanded into blog format" kinda of post that discusses the recent routine that I've fallen into which has provided me with more comfort to write.
To start off, for the first time in several years, I actually have a place to live and a place to write... in Los Angeles. The stability of the routine has done wonders for the quality of my writing. Prior to the apartment in the slums of Beverly Hills, the last home base that I had was back in New York City in a studio in North Riverdale just a couple of blocks from the city line. I wrote all of my unpublished novels and two screenplays in that out-of-the-way place. Since I got booted from the apartment, I had been homeless and shuffled between my mother's apartment and my brother's place before I fell into a job in the poker industry where I constantly lived in hotels and short-term apartments all over the world, when I wasn't crashing with at my girlfriend's pad.
Probably my favorite place in the last few years? The canal apartment in Amsterdam. When my roommates Benjo and Johnny Mushrooms were asleep, I had plenty of time to write in the kitchen overlooking one of the canals. I also liked Scheckytown this past summer in Summerlin. When everyone slept, I wrote out by the pool with the bong nearby.
But now, L.A. is the place for me and I'm able to get comfortable and when I hit a groove, I can stay in that groove without any disruptions. Lucky for me, my girlfriend worked with writers in Hollywood and had to deal with their unconventional means to an end. She's also currently a freelance writer herself juggling a career in poker writing along with trying to pen a screenplay. She respects and understands the quirks that I have to go through in order to achieve the best results. That's why it's important to have people in your life that understand there are very important moments when you need to be left alone to think and work.
The most difficult thing about working in a "open" environment such as a media room at a poker tournament is the endless amount of distractions and disruptions. You really have to hunker down and focus on your laptop and trying to squeeze all those words out to the empty page. Same thing goes for a crowded internet cafe or bookstore. Sure I miss exotic places like Budapest and miss seeing my friends on a daily basis, but what I don't miss are the complete jerkoffs that you have to deal with. They often taint the environment. I don't miss those assmunchers.
Thanks to a nifty birthday preset from my girlfriend, she redecorated the extra room in her apartment last fall. We turned the spare room into my office. The most important thing? A door. That's step one. Find a "closed" environment. The shut door is a symbol that it's time for me to go to work and it's a more important symbol for Nicky... if the door is closed, don't bother me unless there's an earthquake. And if there is an earthquake, it better be above a 5.0. And chances are if there's something that strong, I'm gonna feel it.
For you, finding a closed environment might be difficult. Not everyone has a den or office. But even then, those places can be distracting. Some writers flourish in an open environment and there are instances when I do as well, but for the maximum results, you need the minimum amount of people around and that's one. You. Anything and anyone else is a distraction. I knew one guy that wrote in a walk-in closet because it was sound-proofed and whenever he walked into that tiny area, he instantly switched into writing mode. A friend of mine in Seattle, his wife was a writer and she preferred writing in the car. She sat the back seat of the car (in the driveway in front of the house) and wrote with a pen and a spiral notebook as the Seattle rain outside slowly pelted the car.
Step two is the most challenging. Unplug. I shut off my cellphone. I used to hide it in a drawer so I didn't even see it to remind me that someone might have called. OMG, what if I missed a phone call? Not the end of the world. And if something horrific or tragic is going to happen, I'm sure it can wait until my writing session is over to find out if someone blew up a dirty bomb or if LeBron James got traded to the Knicks. It's not like I jump off the grid for weeks at a time my loved ones lose complete track of my whereabouts.
Unplugging also includes stepping away from email and addictive social networking sites. I had to shut off Twitter. The entire point of writing in a closed environment is to control your surroundings and eliminate any distractions. As much as I sit on the edge of my seat waiting for Daddy to post his next gem on Twitter, everything else (including my half-baked musings) is just static and that kills vital brain cells. And if your friends or relatives can't deal with you ignoring their constant pleas for attention, then tough shit. They're not real friends to begin with. Tell them to get a dog, or hire a hooker.
The avoidance of the internet and TV is crucial if you want to make vast leaps and bounds as a scribe. Especially avoiding everything mainstream media-based. That watered-down filth taints your vision as an artist. Anything commercialized like that needs to be avoided at all costs. And don't get me started on blogs. I stopped reading them and try to fill my mind with the giants. I prefer to re-read some of my favorite authors in order to remind myself what excellent writing looks like.
Recently? Thomas Pynchon and Gravity's Rainbow has been my late night insomnia reading material. Talk about an intimidating piece of work clocking in at over 750 words, but Pynchon is a constant reminder that you have to write well all the time when you're a novelist. With the blogs, I can get away with a throw-away post or I can phone it in every now and then for a poker-related assignment. But with a complete piece of defining work like Jack Tripper Stole My Dog or Project Z, every single chapter, page, paragraph, sentence, and word has to represent the best of me. Daunting? Fuck yeah. But I'm up for the challenge.
Whenever I hunker down and write, I need to have a 100% media blackout. That's a difficult undertaking so I make exceptions usually for sports to get some sort of fix. But even then, it becomes a major distraction. I purposely picked this time of year to work on the bulk of my book because it is a dead time for sports. Football is over and college basketball is still a few weeks away on the horizon. But if it weren't for sports related distractions, I'd probably would have written a few more books by now.
The next step is background music. I love having music on in the background for anything... eating, cooking, fucking, driving, playing poker, working out, and especially writing. These days, iPods and iTunes have shuffle functions which makes it so easy to just hit one button and have music play non-stop for hours, unlike years ago when I had to constantly get up and change the CD. And then finding a complete CD to play through that won't bother me was always a tough task.
I created different playlists with hundreds and thousands of songs on my iPod. Almost all of them were created with writing sessions in mind. Nicky always makes fun of my morning Jazz mix. She'll wake up and wander into the living room that's overflowing with melodies from Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane. The Miles Davis playlist is epic and I can write for a week straight before I hear a repeat. Most recently, I have a Bob Dylan playlist that has been in heavy rotation as I worked on Project Z. I also created something called the '303 All Stars' which includes a lot of Afro-Cuban jazz along with the New Mastersounds and Medeski Martin & Wood
The type of music is important as well. You don't want to be distracted by the music but inspired. Jambands and jazz make for perfect writing music. Phish. Dead. Panic. Thelonius. Charlie. Bechet. Obviously, the time of day is crucial as well. I'm conscious of our neighbors in the mornings and late at night. I try to listen to music via head phones or at a low volume. In the afternoons, I can crank it up.
The smoking aspect is important to me mostly because nothing beats the first high of the day. I actually preferring smoking on breaks or before I need to re-read something that I have been working on for hours in order to give me a different perspective on things. Maybe that's why I have so many grammatical errors... I'm writing sober and editing stoned.
If you are a habitual cigarette smoker and have to go outside or interrupt your process? You're totally fucked. Nothing trumps a nicotine addiction so you'd better have an ashtray right next to your laptop. Don't let that vice distract you from writing.
The most important thing to writing is eliminating all desires before you sit down to write. That way you can focus on one thing... creating something from nothing... connecting the dots inside your heads and stringing together words and sentences to convey your inner chatter into some sort of coherent dialogue. Desires are distractions and infect your brain. We have enough problems filtering out all the consumerist messages all around so it's even more difficult to clear the mind and create.
Sex can be a major distraction. Get it out of the way as soon as you can before you write. And if you don't have a partner nearby, rub one out. It relaxes you and you won't be thinking about lustful things when you should be hard at work.
And if you need food? Eat it before you write so you won't be hungry mid-way. During the lowest points of my starving artist days, I lived off of biscuits (crackers) and Snapple iced tea and that's all I ate all day while I wrote until I met up with my brother at night and he bought me dinner. The hunger pains forces you to write better. It drives you. If you want to be full the rest of your life, then write better and you'll have enough money to buy whatever food you need.
At the same time, your brain needs to be sharp and food is fuel. I have a couple of Clif bars nearby just in case to keep my energy levels up during marathon writing sessions.
A perfect start of the writing day is when I wake up, have a quick romp, close the door, shut off the phone, avoid the internet and email completely, put on some music, have a smoke, and start writing.
Now, I have two distinct writing sessions; day and night.
I sort of described the day session. I have chronic insomnia and I'm up before the dawn. I have several hours to myself before Nicky wakes up. I go out into the living room to write out there with the window open. When she wakes up, I retreat to my office and shut the door. She prefers to write and work sitting on the couch in the living room with incense burning and coffee brewing and a bong close by. The smells remind her of an Amsterdam coffeeshop and that inspires her to write.
The day sessions are usually plotted out before hand. If I have time to take a morning walk, I'll figure out what I'm going to write then. If not, I'll sit down for a few minutes and brain storm with pen and paper my writing goals for the day. Prior to Project Z, my morning sessions were stream of consciousness writing for up to two hours. Some instances, I published excerpts of my morning ramblings onto Tao of Pauly or Tao of Poker or even Truckin'. Most of the time I deleted those warm up words. Occasionally, I'll save some of those scribblings into my personal journal. For the most part, the writing was simply working out and training. Once I completed my warm up, I could focus on the real writing; either for my websites or freelance clients.
When I'm writing freelance stuff, the morning sessions are pointed towards meeting the deadline in a formula; research > write > edit > re-write > edit > re-write. That's my least favorite part of writing even though folks like Mean Gene and Nicky love that stage of the writing process.
Currently, the morning Project Z sessions have included research and writing, with the editing and re-writing stage happening in the late afternoons and early evenings. I lock myself in the office and I write anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 words. I cut it down and then I print up what I've written. I bust out the red pen and slash and burn and trim and cut and re-arrange sections.
Hemingway's daily goal was 500 words a day. And you knew by the end of the day that those words were gold and every single one mattered. Me? I'm a shotgun writer. I throw up 10,000 words and hope to get 500 decent ones.
My goal is to get as much writing done by dinner time.... 7pm. Once I take a dinner break, the bulk of my day is done and it's time to enjoy a meal with Nicky or catch up on the rest of my life... ergo, I plug back in and throw up witty one liners on my Twitter feed and I play online poker and see how much money I lost in the stock market and I shake my head at hundreds of back-logged email and give my two cents into the latest group email thread with my brother and friends who are Yankees fans about the latest A-Roid scandal.
And then there's the late night writing sessions. After Midnight, when I let it all hang out. Those are my favorite sessions because they are a part of what I consider "real writing." At least, those moments provide me with the most amount of joy and satisfaction. I write for the sake of writing. Because I can and nothing feels better than the music flowing and my fingers dancing on the keyboards. In short, that's heaven on Earth.
The majority of those late night sessions are fueled by inebriation and insomnia. It's 1 or 2am and I can't sleep. I'm super wasted after a day and evening of heaving smoking (especially in LA with everyone's favorite medicinal marijuana carrying Hollyweird blonde). Sometimes, I pop a pharmie late night when my back has been bothering me or I take it for the buzz and warm fuzzy feeling. I love to let loose and unleash the inner scribe. No rules. No boundaries. I let my mind wander. You never know what you're capabale of until you take your talents out for a test drive. That's when I let loose.
And I write.
For hours on end without stopping to edit errors and run on sentences and dangling modifiers or fix my egregious spelling mistakes and just embark on old school rambling session where I just go on and on and on in one super annoyingly long paragraph without even a hint of punctuation while my drenched mind races and I do everything in my immediate power to magically capture all those magnificent words as they flutter on by and I try to accurately paint those word pictures of random images inside the hallways of my mind before all those fleeting thoughts have disappeared into the black hole of my brain and I freak out when I hear strange sounds coming out from the alley and I never know if it is a hungry stray cat fighting with squirrels to the death or a disheveled homeless person rummaging through my dumpster looking for empty imported beer bottles that the guys upstairs tossed out or its an alien probe wandering about and peeking into my window and digging up recon information as I frantically peck away at the keys in the complete darkness of the apartment humming along to a cover of Watermelon Man by the faint glow of the screen on my laptop as my illuminated thoughts drifted in and out before they faded to black and it was time for me to take a break.
Sometimes, I come up with some coherent things that are blogworthy. I also pick up plenty of ideas during those late night sessions which evolve into freelance articles and future blog posts. Some of them have evolved into new blogs altogether.
Sometimes, I have a breakthrough with an area that I was stuck on earlier in the day. Nothing is more fun than taking a crack at something while totally crocked. A scene or a sentence. Sure, the majority of the time, I'm still stuck and my revision sucked llama buttocks, but every once in a while, I manage to unclog that drain with something clever and unique that I never would have come up with during the more sober and structured sessions. I managed to go so far off the reservation that I found my way home.
And then, sometimes, when I can't sleep at all, night turns into day and all of a sudden, my late night writing session slowly morphed into a early morning writing session and as I sober up, I also shift gears. The drugs wear off and the mind thinks differently during the day that it did at night.
Early morning writing sessions at the dining room table
When Nicky went to Chile (or last year when she went to Poland) and I was home alone in the apartment, I got on a weird schedule where I was up for 36-40 hours at a time. I would take a meal break at 7am and 7pm and write in between those times when I wasn't asleep. I began my late night sessions around Midnight. I went to Nick's coffeeshop at 7am for a break and took a walk through my neighborhood. I returned and was back to my writing chair by 9am where I'd blaze through the morning and afternoon until it was 7pm and time for another break.
The key is to figure out what makes you tick and what happens during the most productive times. Then try to replicate those same exact things. For now, it has been working. I have been fortunate that there's zero construction or crying babies or noisy neighbors to tilt me.
And the things that used to distract me? No longer affect me when I retreat into my office. Once the door shuts, it's shut to the world around me. Then and only then can I explore the internal creative world in an unfettered way that will give me the best opportunity to generate the best work possible.
Then again, as Johnny Hughes liked to remind me, good writers can write anywhere at anytime under any circumstances. That's 100% true, but just think how much better they could write under optimal circumstances when you controlled every single aspect of your surroundings?