Tapestry of two monks writing

So we come to that last week before the onset of Nanowrimo 2017, that delightful point where the initial novelty of the idea has worn off and the “oh shit” feelings are starting to set in. Still, by this point you might well be feeling reasonably well set. You’ve done your planning, or if that isn’t your style you still have some ideas ready that you can flesh out once November begins. That’s really all you need, right?

Well…

There’s an important element to consider that a lot of writers (myself included) often overlook when getting ready to start a project such as this.

“What’s your writing environment like?”

This was a question that, until recently, had never even crossed my mind. Yet the space in which a person writes is absolutely integral to the whole process, especially if you want to remain as productive as possible. Distractions are an ever-present and near-constant aspect of this day and age, after all, and where you choose to write can exacerbate this fact. If you’re writing on your computer then social media and other such distractions are literally just a few clicks away, and even if you’re writing elsewhere there’s plenty to keep your attention pre-occupied; be it your smartphone, the TV, games consoles and plenty more besides.

Why do you need to worry about these things, says my hypothetical strawman figure? Surely with the right amount of grit and focus, a sufficiently motivated writer should be able to power on through regardless.

Again, well…

Carl Jung psychoanalyst's writing and study retreat the Bollingen Tower

We can all take a minute to be super jealous of Carl Jung’s writing retreat, though.

As studies have shown (and as I’ve mentioned before), your brain’s ability to focus on a demanding task such as writing is actually finite. It has a limit, and once you’ve hit it no amount of forcing the issue is going to salvage the situation. What’s more, distractions big and small further divide your brain’s ability to focus between multiple points of interest, each one making it increasingly difficult to return to the task you’ve set for yourself. That innocent little check of Facebook/Twitter/Instagram (pick your poison as relevant), or that quick break to play some video games? Each of these is further lessening your chances of achieving anything productive when it comes to writing.

 

What you need to do, then, is foster a good writing environment by removing sources of distraction. Or, to put it another way, you need to create your own monastic space for writing. A sanctuary from the noise and buzz of the real world, from the fear of missing out and the ever-present attention absorbers.

The Monastic Writing Space

cover of neal stephenson's post-cyberpunk novel Snow Crash

Authors and creative minds new and old have shown the value of such a practice. There are of course the monks from whom we’ve coined the term, closing themselves off from the wider world to commit themselves to focused practices. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung is another example of an author who utilised monastic practices: when working on his studies and books he would periodi

cally retreat to a private home known as the Bollingen Tower, giving him the time to focus exclusively on such tasks before returning to public and intellectual life. Finally, we can see the monastic approach in modern authors such as Neal Stephenson, who does not maintain an active online presence, shuns email and rarely attends events. In his own words:

“If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.”

I’m not trying to claim that in order to find success in this Nanowrimo (or indeed in any writing project) you must cut yourself off from the rest of your life and focus solely on your writing. Not only is such an approach completely impractical (we all have commitments that can’t go ignored), it also doesn’t sound healthy for you at all. What I’m trying to show is the importance of putting yourself into a space that allows you to focus, that keeps distractions away during your writing efforts. We might not be able to afford charming isolated towers like Jung, but there are plenty of small steps that can be taken to ensure your writing space is as monastic as you need it to be. I’ll try to outline a few of them.

1. Turn off the internet

No, you don’t need to make sure you’ve got that one detail about your story correct by Googling it: that can be fixed during editing. No, you don’t need to stop and see if that email you’ve been waiting on has come through: if it has, it will be waiting for you when you’ve finished your block of writing. The internet is an incredibly potent tool for a writer, but it’s simultaneously deeply distracting. By disabling it when you’re concentrating on writing, you remove it as a temptation that’s all too easy to slip into without realising.

2. Turn off your phone

For an increasing number of people smartphones are becoming a large part of our lives. They’re just so damn convenient, always right at hand and ready to use at your leisure. Yet so long as it’s burning a metaphorical hole in your pocket (I didn’t make the exploding Samsung S7 joke bestow me with praise) it will remain an easily accessed distraction, keeping your mind from your work. So keep it off until you’re finished writing for the day. If that isn’t practical, you can always keep it on silent or keep it well out of reach.

3. Write somewhere different

They say familiarity breeds contempt. I can’t really speak to the truth of that statement, since I’m a big fan of familiar spaces. I like my office. Big fan of my couch in the living room, not gonna lie. Wasted more than a few hours at the kitchen table at my parent’s house. These are all spaces I’ve spent a great deal of time, and these are all spaces that I’ve attempted to write in. The issue, however, is that familiarity breeds habits. Habits that are often ill-suited for when you want to focus on writing.

To escape this, finding a new writing spot with focus and a lack of distraction (a monastic space because yes I am going to keep forcing this metaphor) in mind can be of great benefit. This might be a space you’ve not used for writing before within your home, or it could be out in the great beyond that begins at your front door. I’ve personally taken a liking to writing at my local pub in the afternoon, when it’s quiet, in possession of a relaxed atmosphere and has a ready supply of good beer for creative fuel. That might not be your scene, but a coffee shop or a library might well be: the point is to get yourself away from established spaces where bad writing habits are easy to slide into.

4. Set out specific time blocks for writing

We’re all busy people at the end of the day. Each of us has commitments and responsibilities that must be seen to, no matter how much we might daydream about ignoring them all and just spending the day writing. Yet it’s still perfectly possible to have a busy schedule and still find the time to focus purely on writing. All it takes is a bit of planning and perseverance. All it takes is setting aside certain free periods of your day that you can devote to sitting down and focusing on putting words to page (metaphorical or otherwise). It’s important to remember that it can take a while to really get your head into the right mindset, so make sure to block out a decent chunk of time: I usually aim for about an hour to ninety minutes. It’s also worth letting any flatmates/relatives/loved ones know you’re doing this, to pre-empt any potential interruptions/confusion/screaming arguments. Trust me, learned from experience on that one.


Making progress with your writing means making time to focus on it. That can seem daunting, amidst the hustle and bustle of your life, but adopting a monastic approach to writing can go a long way to seeing you through to the end of an endeavour like Nanowrimo. You don’t need a rustic tower, and you don’t need a monastery: all that’s needed is the right space, some free time and the right attitude.

Best of luck to everyone taking part in Nanowrimo this year. I hope you all get plenty written, and I’ll see you on the other side.