Writing from the Discomfort Zone

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.

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About Jeanne Kisacky

Jeanne Kisacky trained to be an architect before going back to her first love--writing. She studied the history of architecture, has written and published nonfiction, and has taught college courses. She currently fights valiantly to keep her writing time despite the demands of a day-job, a family, and a very particular cat.

Comments

  1. says

    Jeanne ,
    This is useful counterintuitive advice. Though I’m stickler for a controlled writing environment I do my best work when I’m filled with anxiety. I love your advice about doing something to push your buttons when preparing to write a scene where characters are angry. State of mind is important when we sit down to write. Thanks for this unique perspective.

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      Thanks CG. For me this post is about just what you said–the disjunction between being a stickler for a controlled work environment, but doing the best work when “filled with anxiety.” I’ve been trying to figure out how to make that disjunction more productive.

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  2. Aimee says

    Interesting concept. I can’t seem to write anything when I’m filled with anxiety or sadness about something because at those times I feel shell-shocked and stunned; too stunned to do anything. But I do agree that staying busy and having a little chaos around always helps. I always have my best ideas when I’m *too busy* to sit down and write.

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  3. says

    It makes perfect sense. I’m not big on trying to control my environment. When you live right on a busy street, you learn very quickly to deal with the traffic noises, and even a crazy town that sets off an air raid siren every time the fire engines go out. I also have a very short attention span, so the “distractions” of the internet work very well for me. Brain burnout is relieved by surfing the sites that are most likely to offer bits of unexpected inspiration. It can be a random word, a picture, someone’s attitude. The internet is my source of writing serendipity. And my way of getting away from the blank page.

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  4. says

    What you say is so true. Sometimes the chaos and great ideas feel like a cruel joke, though! I am working, like you, to make the chaos work for me. Good luck!

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  5. says

    Interesting article, Jeanne,
    We all spend so much time ensuring our ‘state of mind’ is right for writing yet challening the physical space in which we write is most thought provoking!
    Thanks!
    Happiness Comes from Nowhere

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  6. Todd S. says

    I’ve long been cognizant that the busier I am, the busier I become. I don’t know that it spurs my creativity necessarily, but I do get more productive in general. While I don’t seek out busyness to write, I do stand. I find that when I stand my thinking is much more lucid. Not only that, it’s easier to walk away and do something else for a few minutes when I get stuck.

    And I don’t think Gins and Arakawa are crazy. I recently read that people who sit more than 3 hours a day (regardless of their activity level the other 21) have shorter average lifespans. And I think from a physiological standpoint (notice it isn’t ‘sitpoint’) the human body isn’t really designed for prolonged sitting.

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      I’ve tried standing, but find that I walk away from the work too often. I’m happier bouncing on one of those big exercise yoga balls while I type. But it still adds a little chaos (and movement) into the writing.

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    • says

      Hi Todd, I recently heard this same bit of news about the three hours of sitting. It spurred me to put together a treadmill desk, which I had been thinking about for the last six months. I’ve been using it for about a week and still getting used to it. But it’s been exciting.

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  7. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Amy and Anne: If only there was a pause button during the chaos, where the great ideas could have their time, then life could resume.
    Catana: I think writers in less ‘controlled’ surroundings learn to create their own space by tuning out the noises.

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  8. says

    My head is a chaotic place, full of jittery and zippity do dah day synapses firing off randomly–even in sleep my brain won’t shut off, so my “quiet space” has to occur in my head along with my environment – only when I sit down and actually am completely absorbed in the story does my brain focus on that one thing and forget the world in it and around it — so I do, too, try to control the world around me so it doesn’t join in with my brain in doing whatever it can to distract me from my work . . . lawd!

    I agree that sometimes shaking things up does worlds for our writing. And whether that means a different environment, or trying something new in the writing, or whatever it is to turn our manuscripts upside down and inside out, it could mean an light shining on the previously unknown!

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      I guess the magic is in knowing what things to shake up to try to get rid of the blah. Love your zippity do dah day description of thought process. I think I’m one of those, as well.

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  9. says

    Interesting post for sure.
    I live in a bird cage of 59 stairs. Uneven ground is what nature has. There are no straight lines in nature or in our nature.

    Thx.

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      You just might live forever if you’re constantly going up and down stairs!

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  10. says

    Interesting. I wonder if there’s a kind of bell curve distribution where too much comfort and too much chaos/discomfort both disrupt creativity. The trick is finding that sweet spot in the middle where each of us works best.

    Interesting post. I think that house would make me nauseated!

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      Balance is a good goal, but I’ve never been able to do better than oscillate between too much going on and too little.

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  11. says

    Wow, what an interesting perspective. But you are so right – it seems like my best ideas come at the worst times.

    But maybe that means those are really the best times. Hmmmm – food for thought…

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      You know you’re in trouble, though, when your worst ideas come at your best times.

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  12. says

    There’s definitely something to this. But I think there’s a window, you know? A range. TOO much order, and we become stagnant. TOO much chaos, and we’re just overwhelmed. But to your point, I think our tolerance for chaos is probably much greater than we think. Yes, the idea might make us uncomfortable, but as you said, a little discomfort can be stimulating.

    I think that’s part of why so many writers go out to coffee shops or libraries — whether that’s a conscious reason or not. It’s the unpredictability, the chaos, the randomness of the noise and the interactions. (Not to mention the socialization and the caffeine, I suppose.)

    I know I’m always surprised by how productive I am when I’m at the airport, or working in a strange environment where the chair’s at the wrong height or the desk is covered in clutter. These are things I couldn’t tolerate at home, and yet they don’t bother me in other settings.

    Contradictions. We writers are full of them. Inherently, I think. ;)

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      Yeah, the whole “life is change” vs. “I need to control everything” (which usually means minimize change) conundrum drives me crazy. I figured out that I needed to tone down the control freak tendencies when I watched my daughter mimicking my behavior. That’s a whole different kind of mirror.

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  13. says

    I love the photo and this idea is intriguing. I have recently introduced a big change in my writing space by constructing a homemade treadmill desk. It has certainly introduced a bit of chaos to my typing as for the first few days it was hard to keep my fingers on the reight keys. See? I am still having a bit of trouble with that. :)

    One of my gurus is Pema Chodron who talks a lot about how life is like shifting sand, always changing. But part of human nature, I think, is to deny that to a certain extent and try to keep things the same, in control, away from the edge. To be most alive, and for our writing to be most alive, we need to be fearless and step into that shifting sand. Thanks, Jeanne, for giving us some concrete examples of how to do that.

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      A treadmill desk? That would be worth a picture or two or three. I’m amazed you can get anything done, let alone a few typos. But more power to you!

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  14. says

    Clever and perceptive analogy, Jeanne. Need instant anger and aggravation to spice things up? Just tune in to the current TV political ads. Oye! I’m suddenly needing to write a tense scene.

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      Those political ads are overkill for me–they usually get me so riled up I can’t concentrate on writing.

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  15. says

    Some of my best stuff has been birthed in chaos. I once wrote a blog post while crouched in mud, holding the gate for an equestrian event. Of necessity, the words that punched through were more visceral, economic. That post went on to become one of my most popular and a personal favorite.

    I think it helped that I was in a da**it-I’m-going-to-get-this-done-somehow mood. Thanks for the prompt, Jeanne. Think you’re onto something here.

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      Oh Jan, I love the d**n-it-I’m-Going-to-get-this-done-somehow mindset. It’s the most productive of prose with a point! If only I could recreate that mood on command in the office.

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  16. says

    Strange enough, some of my best scenes come to me as I’m waking up, or falling asleep. It’s why I keep a notebook by my bed. Or when I’m cleaning house, folding laundry, chopping vegetables, my mind is free from the post-it notes covering the edges of my monitor. Great post! Got me to thinking I need to get away from my desk more than I do.

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      Sometimes getting away from the desk removes all the internal pressure, and lets the writing muse free. I can’t tell you how many plot holes I’ve fixed while doing simple chores.

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  17. says

    I don’t usually seek out chaos in my environment when I’m writing— I get distracted far too easily by anything shiny— but I often seek out something which might stir up some emotional chaos before I dive into any piece of a story. I find I’m much better at creating the necessary tension in a scene if I’m angry about something. Without it, the scenes often feel flat or else any emotion in the scene feels the same as it does in every other part of the story. But once you make me mad, suddenly everything I’m writing feels much more real. As such, I often begin my writing process by scribbling in a journal about something which pushes my buttons until I’m positively fuming about it. It’s probably not great for my blood pressure, but at least I get some decent writing out of it. :)

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  18. says

    This makes sense. So much of writing is channeling emotion and experience, even if they are just imagined on our part. Numbness is the state of not feeling any of those emotions. When we’re numb, of course we can’t tap into anything that would make our writing come alive!

    So I don’t even think it’s discomfort that is necessary, but putting ourselves in any situation, mental or physical, that is going to make us feel. In some cases, yes, this will involve discomfort! I especially liked your suggestions about making yourself too warm or too cold if your scene is going to take place in one of those climates. Those would be great ways to understand what your characters feel and more authentically translate those experiences to the page. I liked the idea of reading an article that would make you angry if you have to write a scene in which a character is mad, too. That’d be a great way to raise your own emotions without (in most cases) letting them run away from you because they’re too personal. But there are other situations where discomfort might not be necessary, but doing something that would induce euphoria or excitement. Maybe listening to music that would get you pumped up before writing an exciting scene, or doing an activity to get your adrenaline flowing. The key is to get yourself out of a comfortable, numb state.

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  19. says

    There’s a lot of uneven in my life! My typical writing session usually involves a messy desk with too much clutter, two children asking for snacks or an umpire, and a dog who will chew through socks, stuffed animals, or electric cords, depending on what’s most readily available. Oh, and I’m getting over a concussion, so there’s no telling if my brain will show up for work. Still, with all of that, I sit down and write. If I waited for the ideal, I’d never get anywhere. It works, mostly. Though I draw the line when the dog starts barking at stuff no one else can see. Yeah, uneven.

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    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      Yeah, I tend to lose the train of thought when the cat drops a not quite dead chipmunk on my toes. More power to you for working through the chaos!

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  20. says

    I honestly can’t imagine how some people write fiction while they’re emotions are entirely in check. If I’m writing something funny, I’m laughing. If I’m writing something romantic, my knees get weak. The only time I don’t have mood swings is when I’m writing advertising copy… no, scratch that, I have to get excited about the product to be convincing. Guess I’m never level.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] 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.  […]

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