Finding the Zone: a Writer’s Guide

Nothing is headier, to a writer, than being in the zone.  Words and thoughts flow in a steady torrent.  There are no doubts, and no fears about where it’s all going.  Nothing seems to matter but getting the words onto the page, tapping into that mysterious source of creativity.  It feels powerful.  The writer believes in the work at that moment, and has confidence that her story will unfold in the best possible way.

Sadly, like other intoxicating moods, this one is both rare and short-lived.  It really is a sort of high, and for most writers, it’s not easy to achieve.  The obstacles are legion.

What obstacles?  Oh, work, laundry, kids, television, dogs, the telephone, the internet, the radio, sunshine . . . in short, the elements of life.

Who doesn’t dream of the perfect work space tucked away in the woods, or at the bottom of the garden, or the edge of a cliff, where no one is allowed to go except you?  Mine—completely imaginary—overlooks the Pacific Ocean.  It has minimal furniture, but windows on all sides, and a steep stone path down to the beach.  In this dream space, I sit at my desk with my computer in front of me and my research books at hand, and I write by the hour while gazing out at the waves, undisturbed by anyone (who would dare come up that path?)

The reality for most writers is that bills have to be paid and messages have to be answered.  Groceries have to be obtained somehow.  There don’t seem to be any brownies popping up to fix what gets broken.  We get sick, or our partners or children or pets do.  Our work space may be, if we’re lucky, an actual study or den.  More likely, it’s similar to the one the late, great Erma Bombeck, author of The Grass is Always Greenest over the Septic Tank and other marvelous books, began her career on:  a board set across cardboard boxes in her garage.  Jean Kerr, writer of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, did all her writing on a notebook in the car while she waited for her kids to get out of school.  A friend of mine wrote most of a novel on a yellow pad while he rode the bus to and from work.

Every writer’s process is different.  Some listen to music while they’re working.  Some of us can’t.  (When I listen to music, I listen to music.)  Some work in coffee shops, where the bustle around them is nothing but white noise.  Some shut themselves into a room for hours, in a manner the late and much-missed Jay Lake called binge writing.  Some work in bursts, like a sprinter.  Others work on a meticulously organized schedule.

Whatever our process is, we need to find it, and find it regularly.  Practice, and practice on a regular basis, is key to every art form in existence.  (Please see “Five Music Lessons for Writers” for my thoughts on the virtues of regular practice.)

I’m revisiting this topic as much for myself as for any of the rest of you who might find something of worth here.  2014 was a year of enormous events for me and my family:  moving house, losing a family member—yes, he was a dog, but he absolutely was one of us—celebrating a wedding, taking an extensive overseas trip.  For the first time in my publishing life, I fell behind on my writing goals, and I know—as the veteran of two different careers in the arts—that I need to rediscover the zone in which I do my best work.

I’ve been thinking back on the times in my life I’ve been most productive, and about the projects which seemed to flow most smoothly.  There are some similarities.  There are some things I can do to put myself in the zone, and I think they’re worth noting, and noting in order of importance:

1.  Eliminate distractions.

Yup, that means turning off the wifi.  It means going where no one will talk to me, whether that’s in my study alone or a coffee shop where no one knows me.  It means letting the telephone go to voice mail.  It means—gulp—putting my cell phone out of sight and out of earshot.

I think turning off the television and the radio are fairly obvious, but the internet is insidious.  How many times do we break our train of thought just for a quick look at our email or Facebook or Pinterest or other lovely, entertaining, time-sucking creation?  I remember, in the midst of writing The Glass Harmonica, discovering eBay for the first time.  Talk about distraction!  It was irresistible.  I had to give up my membership, delightful though it was, for the good of my Art.

2.  Prioritize projects.

Most writers, despite what many in the nonwriting public seem to think, have brains teeming with ideas.  We don’t need folks to tell us theirs!  We have plenty of our own, needing only the time and the energy to develop them.  As an example, I have two sequels in different series simmering in the back of my brain.  Boiling along next to those is an idea for a cozy mystery, something I’ve wanted to write for a long time.  I also have a brand-new book, two-thirds finished, which my agent is eager to see, and a short story due in a terrifyingly small amount of time.  The problem, as each day’s writing begins, is choosing which of these possibilities to work on.

Some writers excel at compartmentalization, and can work on more than one project at a time.  Others can’t.  Every writer has to find what works best for her.  The important thing is to be able to focus fully on the project in hand at any given moment.  Jumping from one story to another, or spinning in circles because we can’t decide which should come first, doesn’t get the work done.

Deadlines are great for prioritizing the list of ideas.  If there doesn’t happen to be one, however, there are other ways of determining the order of importance.  The best is when a story is burning inside you, demanding to be explored.  Another is when you feel the need to take a break from, say, a long-running series, and play in another space for a time.  It can be energizing to spend time with different characters, different scenery, different plot lines.

I keep files of ideas on my laptop.  If a great line of dialogue or twist of plot occurs to me that’s not in the current project, I make a note in the appropriate file (having learned long ago that otherwise it could be lost forever) and then put it out of mind.  If something occurs to me when I’m out walking, or shopping, or riding in the car, I make a note on whatever comes to hand, and transcribe it later.  I keep a notebook beside my bed as well, to write down anything useful that comes to me when I’m reading or trying to sleep.  Ideas will keep until the time is right to put them to use.  They don’t need to distract us from the work-in-progress.

3.  Don’t abuse the muse.

This is a quote from the great Greg Bear, who I was privileged to study with.   Most artists are a bit obsessive.  That’s a good thing, because it gets the work done, but it won’t help the work to pump the well dry.  Work, and work hard.  Then take the time you need to recharge.

For me, this means exercise.  I walk, I do yoga, I get up in the middle of a writing session and stretch.  For some writers, it might mean coffee with a friend, a ramble with the dog, a visit to the library.  Everyone needs their own way to unwind, and, as the wonderful Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, to fill up again.  (And by the way, if you haven’t read Anne Lamott, you’re missing out on a rare treat.  I think every contemporary writer should read all her nonfiction.)

Jay told me once that although he was a binge writer, after a session—which could run for many hours or even days—there would be long periods in which he wouldn’t write at all.  That wouldn’t work for me, but it did for him, clearly, because his bibliography is extensive.  I always imagined Jay’s idle periods as his unwinding time, his chance to let the well fill up again.

We wouldn’t expect a ballet dancer to practice only when she felt like it, and still turn in beautiful performances.  It’s no different for writers.  We have to go in search of the zone.  We can’t wait until it finds us.

Do you have any other tricks that work?  Feel free to share.  Me, I’m going to go practice these until I learn some better ones.