Volume 2 of the Something in the Water series arrives Tuesday, January 30!

Writer’s Insights: The Importance of Writing Space

Writer’s Insights: The Importance of Writing Space

Space … the final frontier.

Er, no, not the kind of space I’m talking about. I mean “space” as in literal, physical spaces.

Oh, okay, I’m talking about the importance of settings and really constructing the physical world of the story. You know, painting pictures and all that jazz. Really grounding the reader, making them feel the breeze, smell the grass, feel the concrete.

No? Spaces … as in the blank space in the book? Spaces around periods? No? What then?

Workspaces

Yeah, I know. This is considerably less exciting than writing about the final frontier or even fantasy worlds or the importance of setting in a book. In this week’s Writer’s Insights, though, I wanted to give you a sneak peek into how writers work. One of the most important things a writer can do is set aside a workspace.

Some writers don’t really think much about workspace as all that important. I didn’t for a very long time, actually. I wrote wherever, whenever. You could find little notepads here, there, everywhere. I wrote while I was at my desk at school, scrawling in the margins of my notebooks. I wrote in a little notepad while I was at my till or my work station at the grocery store. Later, as an editor working in a publishing house, I’d scribble down my story on the scrap printer paper I was taking notes on. I’d even write during meetings where I was supposed to be paying attention.

I do this to a much lesser extent now, partially because I’m almost always in my designated workspace. Since I work from home (and writing is now officially part of my work!), I have a designated office area with my computer, my desk, and all the bits and bobs I need to effectually do my job.

If I’m travelling, however, I’m often writing in a notepad. I’ll write during road trips, provided I’m not driving, and I write while I’m on planes (sometimes in notebooks, sometimes on tablets). I’ve even explored voice-to-text apps for my phone so I can dictate stories while I’m driving my boyfriend to and from the airport across the treacherous stretch of highway known as “the fucking 401.”

 

Work Any Time, Anywhere

When I was student, I could do work almost anywhere. I also often had to do work “anywhere”: classrooms weren’t always available, and a desk wasn’t always nearby. Sitting on the bus, you might have caught me frantically finishing my homework. It was just as likely I was jotting out a new story.

As I moved into the professional world, I become more acquainted with and accustomed to having designated work spaces. As someone who worked first as a freelancer, then as a freelancer and a full-time employee, it became a more and more pressing need to physically separate places of leisure and places of work. For a very long time, my bedroom doubled as my home office. That often meant I worked until 2 am at the desk, then tumbled over a few feet to the bed.

Also in the bedroom were vestiges of my childhood: stuffies, toys, and so on. Make-up was in there, as were my clothes. This one room became where I spent ninety-nine percent of the time I was home. I did everything there.

I also tended to sleep like crap. I’d work until 2, go to bed, get up at 8, work until 10, then jaunt off to the office to work some more.

Kind of a hellish existence. It’s only marginally better now that I’ve transitioned back to being my own boss. I also moved my office, first from my bedroom to a room in my parents’ basement, and then into an entirely separate room in my new house when I moved out last year. So now my bedroom and my office are two separate places. This has done wonders for my sleep, if not for the length of my workday.

 

Lessons from Insomnia

One of the things sleep experts tell insomniacs is that you need to train your brain. If you go to bed and toss and turn for hours, allowing yourself to think about whatever, get frustrated, or even click on the light and start reading, you’re sending your brain a message: Things other than sleep happen in this space.

Instead, they recommend you get up and leave the room if you’re having trouble sleeping. Go read your book on the couch. Go stretch it out on the floor. Make yourself a snack, watch TV, take a bath, do whatever you need to do to get ready for bed. But don’t do it in the bedroom.

This, they argue, tells your brain that the bedroom is a space for sleeping. When you are in that space, you are supposed to be asleep. Following behavioral psychology theories, they argue this association becomes primed and easily accessible for the brain: We go into the bedroom, it’s time to sleep.

You’re not necessarily going to cure your insomnia this way, and it’s not like you can train your brain to knock yourself out every time you so much as set foot in the bedroom. But the idea does seem to have some merit: If you use your bedroom for all sorts of wakeful activities, you may find you have a harder time falling asleep.

If this is true of sleeping and bedrooms, what about work and workspaces?

Workspace/Headspace

The argument about associations is actually a fairly strong one. For example, students who were taught some information about diving while underwater had excellent recall of the information while underwater and crap recall while standing on dry land.

Apparently, our brains learn to associate information with circumstances and places. If you’re having a hard time thinking of something, go back to the place where you first thought of it or learned about it. The association could spark your memory. (If that doesn’t work, try getting into the same mental state you were in: If you were drunk when you learned something, you’ll have better recall of the information while you’re drunk!)

A workspace, which appears to be someone's kitchen table.

If you study at the kitchen table, you’re going to do better on your exam if you can write it at the kitchen table.

Our brains are kind of weird like that.

So, the idea of physical locations becoming associated with certain types of activities or feelings and emotions isn’t too far-fetched. If you walk into your favorite teacher’s classroom, chances are you’ll feel fondness. Maybe excitement. Maybe even a little nostalgia.

If you walk into the principal’s office and you were always in trouble, it will likely evoke feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear.

Similarly, if you walk into a place where you always do work, you’re probably going to feel like you should be working. If the work environment was a positive one, you’ll probably feel motivated and ready to tackle anything. If the work environment wasn’t so pleasant, you may feel demotivated, distracted, or even anxious.

What becomes clear is physical spaces help us form attachments, memories, and associations. Workspaces become intimately tied to headspaces.

Why Writers Need Workspaces

One of the best tips I’ve heard for writers is to find a place where you work well. Then visit that place frequently.

Writing can often be a struggle for people. If you’re a writer (and even if you’re not), you probably know the feeling of being uninspired. Everything seems a little lackluster. Maybe you’re restless. You look for distractions, and you are easily distracted. Every time you turn back to the blank page and see it’s still blank, you get a little more aggravated. When you do manage to scribble down a few words, they’re all crap!

Finally, you throw up your hands and stalk out of the room. Writing just isn’t coming today. You’ll try again tomorrow.

Tomorrow comes. The same thing happens. Over time, this becomes habitual. You can never seem to jot down more than just a few words. Yet, when you’re in other spaces, it’s like a dam’s been opened: the words flow with such ease and grace, you’re utterly astounded.

What’s happened? Your workspace has become negatively associated with writing, much the same way the bedroom became associated with anything but sleeping for the insomniac. Our insomniac friend became increasingly frustrated with the bedroom over time. Eventually, they couldn’t sleep in the bedroom because it was so associated with feelings of frustration about not being able to fall asleep.

Same thing with the writer and the workspace.

The Need to Set Up a Workspace

Part of the trouble is few writers think about actively setting up a workspace. Suppose I’m a writer who likes to go to a café. I go about the same time, once a week, on Friday mornings. Usually, the café’s not too busy and I can score a great table near one of the windows, but not too near the door. (I live in Canada and the icy cold likes to follow people in the door.) Maybe there’s a comfy couch I can curl up on with my laptop and my latte. I turn on my tunes, and the words flow like magic.

People working on laptops in a cafe, a common space for writing.

If you own a Macbook, you’re legally required to sit down and work on a novel every time you enter a Starbucks.

I have relatively little control over this space, however. Suppose one week I arrive during my usual time, only to find the café crowded and noises. My usual spot has been snagged. I have to sit near the door, so I’m freezing every time someone walks in or out. Even over my music, I can hear the hustle and bustle of the place. People keep bumping into me.

Frustrated, I leave. I haven’t written much at all. If the café’s the same way when I come back next week, I may find the same consequences. A negative pattern begins to set in.

Of course, a workspace doesn’t have to be quite so negative as I’ve just described. It could be an uncomfortable chair or your cat lying down on your keyboard. The space could be too warm or too cold. It could be too loud or too quiet or any number of things.

The problem is it’s not supporting you as you try to work. If this becomes a pattern, you begin to associate the space less with positivity, work ethic, and creativity, and more with negative feelings of frustration.

How to Set Up Your Workspace

It should be clear by now why writers need their own designated writing space, one they can control. Creativity happens when we’re in a good headspace for it. Negative feelings of anxiety or fear or even just mild discomfort can block the creative flow.

While it’s great to be able to write almost anywhere, your designated workspace can help you bust writer’s block should it ever rear its ugly head. In this case, we’re training ourselves to work in a particular space. Once we’ve mastered that, we can begin to work on learning to operate creatively anywhere, anytime.

So, how should a writer set up their workspace? It depends a bit on the writer, but the ultimate goal should be to create a comfortable space (but not too comfortable).

My Workspace

As mentioned, I work from home, so I have a designated workspace in my house anyway. My office has a nice, big window in it so I get natural light during my workday. It’s also the only carpeted room in the house, which designates it as both “special” and somewhat “comfortable.”

I have my bookcases in here, easy access to a couple of chairs, and an L-shaped desk (L-shapes are great if you’re dealing with paper proofs). There are a couple of plants as well. I have calendars, a whiteboard, and my printer, in addition to my tablet, office supplies, notebooks, and an office chair. I have access to a few sweaters and a couple of pillows, and I keep water (and often coffee) on hand.

In short, I have what I need to work, and I’m comfortable. I’m not too comfortable, so that I fall asleep or get distracted, but I’m also not going to be uncomfortable.

I do like to be neat(er), so I find when my office gets messy, I may feel out of sorts, stressed, or unfocused. I might become frustrated more easily. If things start getting messy or disorganized, I stop and tidy up because it becomes distracting for me otherwise.

Do you have a designated workspace? If so, what do you keep in it? If not, what would you want in your ideal workspace?


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