Look closely at the picture. The floor is not level; it has randomly-placed bumps. The poles are there to grab when the imbalance gets too extreme. There are no railings around the depressed central area. The colors are glaring and intended to distract. There are no chairs and definitely no overstuffed couches. There is no place to get ‘comfortable.’
The designers of this space–Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa, believed that comfort and inaction was a means to a quick end–death. Discomfort and action, however, was the ticket to longevity; the more a building challenged people to use their bodies, the longer they would live. Arakawa and Gins named their design the Bioscleave House (or Life Extending Villa) and expected that living in it would make people live longer.
Now before your crazy-meter goes off, this has a point, and that point has to do with writing. It’s a reminder not to let yourself get too comfortable–either in the act of writing or in what you write.
I have been a big fan of having my little corner of the world completely under my control when I am writing. No distractions, no nuisances. When I am a writer, it’s just me, a keyboard, and a computer screen sitting in a bounded, artificial little world—steady temperature, controllable light, identifiable noises, unchanging view. That is the world I ‘know’ for hours every day. It is not the world that anyone would ever want to read about.
I guard my hours in that boring room jealously, hoard away time off, bribe family members to watch my kid, and neglect my husband because I know he’ll forgive me, all so I can get some ‘quality’ writing time in. I even try to regulate my emotional state before I enter. I aim for peacefulness, calmness, focus–comfort. Then I sit in my interior space and stare at an annoying screen and the words won’t come.
The times when I’ve been the most productive–had the ideas literally coming so fast I could not keep up–are when my life has been the most chaotic. When life events have put me through the wringer or when I have so much darn work that I will never get it all done, then the characters of my neglected fiction work jump up and down and tell me their secrets. And if I’m smart, I make really detailed notes, or even neglect the paying job to get some of the secrets down. I ride the wave of discomfort into a creative nirvana.
There’s something numbing about comfort (even when it’s not the drug-induced state Pink Floyd described so well). And numb is not what makes good writing.
I’m wondering if maybe Arakawa and Gins might be onto some secret formula for how to get there. I’ve often wondered if what the writer experiences physiologically during the process of writing translates somehow into the words on the page. Could embracing a little discomfort in this world make for an easier access to the big-emotion writing that we all dream of?
Of course writers have to ‘forget’ their surroundings to some extent in order to enter the fictional world, to inhabit it, and to live it as if it were real. But maybe we forget too much and live just a little too fully in our thoughts, not our perceptions. For example, a huge building is under construction two blocks from my office, and the endless noise, beeping, and construction activity is tiresome and annoying. When I have edited ‘angry’ scenes of my WIP during the noise, I’ve drastically improved them, adding in tension and conflict where before there was small stakes. Conversely, when I have edited a few quieter scenes during the noise, I have hit a wall. Nothing sounded right. The takeaway from this oh-so-inconclusive single experiment: physical experience can translate directly into writerly focus and mood.
If your comfortable writing space is working for you, great, but if you’re hitting roadblocks, maybe, just maybe, the best thing for your writing would be to put the world, and all its discomforts, back into your space.
In that case, here’s a proposal for the ‘office of longevity.’ Don’t worry, it’s not about making the floor unlevel or taking down railings. My proposal is about changing your mental furniture. Stop ‘protecting’ your writing space and open it up. Give up the comfy chair and hand-warming teacup. Bring your emotions, your pain, your chaos in with you, and channel them into the words. If you don’t feel while you’re writing, then how can you expect your characters to?
When you’re stuck, take yourself where your characters need to go–even if it’s uncomfortable. To prepare yourself to write a scene where the characters are angry, do something that is guaranteed to push all your buttons, like reading an article written by someone with opposite opinions. If your characters are suffering through gruesome environmental conditions, let yourself (briefly) get too cold, or too warm. Or, simply go to the local coffee shop or nearby park and write through the conversations, the movement, the butt-numbing seats, and hope that the life of that space transfers to your WIP.
In the end, discomfort may not lead to longevity, but comfort just might lead to unemotional, uneventful writing that affects no one. So embrace the extremes, give up control, surrender to your emotions and live the writerly life to its fullest. Walk on an uneven surface and feel every step of the way with your whole being. Then write about it.