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A Writer’s Zone

by Dina Behlke


When I grow up, I want to be a little boy.” – Joseph Keller

As a writer, I cannot help feel envious of my seven year-old son. At any given time and on no certain terms, I can witness him snatch up an action figure and launch instantly into an imaginary world. “Time to destroy Megatron!” His visit to Cybertron (or wherever) is indefinite, or at least until I call his name, seven times minimum, to drag him from the depths of his fantasy. I grow even greener at the ease with which he oscillates between pretend and consciousness, or (for gosh sakes) weaves the two together. “Bam, crash, aaahhh, my arms are on fire. Hey, mom, is Aunt Debbie and Uncle Mike coming today? Boom, crash….”

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” – Pablo Picasso

Somewhere along the line, that snap-finger access to my creativity was pushed slightly out of arm’s reach, and if I were to examine, this probably began, ironically, during my school age years when left-brain skills became more coveted. I can only imagine how my poor right-brained self would fare in the present-day educational system where kindergarten (the new first grade) has become more like SAT prep than Romper Room (yes, I’m dating myself). Although this article is not a debate about whether current curriculum is nurturing or killing creativity, it is no secret that most schools place a higher value on skills such as mathematics and logic than on art and using your imagination – the key ingredients of writing.

“The reluctance to put away childish things may be a requirement of genius.”  -Rebecca Pepper Sinkler
 As it happened though, I did put away my writing notebook and paints to make time for schoolwork. Then in walked peer pressure, dating, family squabbles, career, bills, marriage, kids, PTA and social calendars. At some point, my muse threw his hands up saying, “Forget this,” and quietly slipped out the backdoor.

Thankfully, when I sit down to write now, I am able to lure Senor Muse (we’ll call him M) back; however, like a hurt and neglected lover, he must be wooed. A Starbucks run and a scenic route home get him lingering at my doorway. I peruse my bookcase, and begin skimming through verses of Nathaniel Hawthorne. A little Gabriel Garcia Marquez perhaps. M is interested. I close the books, and my eyes, clearing my thoughts of everything. M approaches, runs his finger along my desk, his back turned. I feel I am ready to create and curl my fingers over the keyboard, but he wags his finger. “Nah, ah, ah. Not yet,” he says, motioning to my MP3 player that holds the soundtrack to Avatar. I put on the headphones. Finally, M sits beside me and nods. “Now.”

So, I became curious. Do other writers have similar rituals? A method of tapping into their inner children as they sit down to write? I presented this question to several present-day bestselling and award-winning novelists, and this is what they had to say:

Photo: Deborah Feingold

Emily Giffin (Something Borrowed, Something Blue, Love the One You’re With, Heart of the Matter) - “I am inspired by my favorite authors. Whenever I read anything by Alice Munro, for example, I find myself in a great zone (although also filled with envy that I will never be able to write as beautifully as she!). I love writing in coffee shops. I have solitude, but am comforted by the hum of noise and activity around me.”

Photo: Robert Azmitia

Michael Connelly (The Lincoln Lawyer, Echo Park, The Reversal) – “It is probably the most important part of the writing day. I usually get going by looking at what I wrote the day before. I do some editing and rewriting and it sort of gives me the momentum to break new ground and keep going. Sort of like a battering ram. You back up and then swing it forward. That’s how it works for me.”

Photo: David Bainbridge

Jim Crace (Quarantine, Being Dead, The Pesthouse) - “Guilt and panic send me into my workroom,” he says, “but only on dull or wet days and only when I’ve run out of displacement activities such as housework, crossword puzzles, gardening, newspapers, tennis, tanning. The bright screen (of his computer) is my zone. Switch it on, and I am there at once, immersed and focused– except of course that I first have to deal with emails, explore Spotify, shop on the internet, play a dozen hands of Solitaire. Suddenly, it is late afternoon and a second, more shaming wave of guilt and panic breaks over me. Finally and with a sinking heart I start to type. I'd rather be doing anything but this. But nearly always I’m amazed how even when I feel flat and uninspired, the work itself carries me forward. The Imp of Storytelling is a generous and inventive creature. It’s quick and keen to help the writing come alive. It wants me to succeed.”

Photo: Melanie Cannon

James Braziel (Birmingham 35 Miles, Snakeskin Road) – “What puts me in my zone always varies.  Sometimes it can be a song, and I'll listen to the song two or three times, then start writing. Sometimes it's a photograph, especially of people - Dorothea Lange's photographs have this effect on me.  I'll stare at the black and white photo and then after some time, I'll put the photo down and write. Sometimes, though, it can simply be the wind or rain, a sudden change in the weather.  Or reading a poem or a passage from a novel.  And finally, sometimes I'm able to get into my writing zone best by writing in different places - porches, coffee houses, waffle houses, libraries, park benches, or the fields where I grew up, that is, when I can make it home to the family farm in Pitts, Georgia.”

Photo: trinette9 (Photobucket)

Ellen Hopkins (Crank, Burned and Impulse) - “I do my best writing at home, and it has become a refuge--a place of beauty I've created over a number of years. My office looks out big picture windows, across my lovely yard and over a greenbelt to the Sierra. The view is incredible--and inspirational. However, I travel over 100 days per year, and so sometimes I must write in hotel rooms or on airplanes. Then, my inspiration is found within the story itself. Often I find new insights into characters from being in unfamiliar places. That's when things get really interesting. Like now. I've been on a tour for over two weeks and I've just found some time to dive in again, with even more layers to give my three protagonists. That's true inspiration.”

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John M. Fitzgerald (Spring Water, The Mind, Primate) – “Inspiration is a phenomenon I no longer rely upon to begin writing. I find it comes instead during the writing process, in the form of enjoyable surprises. What's more, writing to me is only a side effect of thinking. It is the hope of reaching a better understanding of my thoughts that motivates me, and I write them so I can forget them and move on. To the extent such original thinking occurs, I feel good and want more. In that way I am something of an addict.

So you could say that the possibility of inspiration is the high I look forward to. The method is simple - sit and think, then record the thoughts. It's mostly junk but sometimes I get lucky.” 

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Helen DeWitt (The Last Samurai, Your Name Here) – “I go to the gym for two hours; I read a chapter or two in one of the books I'm using for research (as it might be, Edward Tufte's Envisioning Information or Peter L. Bernstein's Against the Gods); I drink very
strong coffee, black. If I am having trouble with the structure of a book, I revisit Calvino's
Invisible Cities. It's sometimes good to grapple with a technical problem, such as how to produce a particular plot in the statistical graphics package R: coming up with a good graphic element often gives me ideas for something to do with the page,which gives energy to the narrative. (When I was working on my first book, The Last Samurai, working out how to get Japanese characters into the text transformed the way I told parts of the story.)”

Photo: Herman Estevez

Joshilyn Jackson (Gods in Alabama, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming) – “I wake up, my husband brings me coffee, and then I pull the laptop into bed with me and get straight to work. I put on Pandora and let it play soft, innocuous songs with breathy vocals and acoustic guitars. Music for me is more of a necessary hum that keeps the squirrel parts of my hyperactive brain distracted so I can buckle down and work. I need background noise in order to focus. In the afternoons, I like to write in coffee shops where the buzz and hum of conversation and rustle-y human noises surround me. I am much more likely to get inspiration and actual book ideas from things I see. I love art museums, love looking at paintings and sculptures, especially when they contain human figures or faces. Expressions or postures make me start to invent characters and satires to explain them. I am also a veteran eavesdropper. I love to sit quietly in an airport bar and listen to snatches of conversation as people walk past me. I like hearing just a line or two with no context. I hear a good line, and I will begin to invent a context and a character around it.” 

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Janet Evanovich (One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Plum Spooky) - “What puts me in my "zone"?  Knowing that I have a deadline does it every time.  And I prefer quiet.”

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Louise Penny (A Rule Against Murder, The Cruelest Month, Still Life, A Fatal Grace and Bury Your Dead) - “I get inspiration from two things.  Poetry and music. The poetry part is quite early in the process.  I read a lot of poetry anyway (always a slim volume in the washroom) but I read with a whole different brain and heart when I'm preparing to write a book.  Generally 4 to 6 months before I start the actual manuscript.  As I read certain couplets, certain phrases zing out.  And I write them down.  Collect them.  And finally, I winnow it down to one single excerpt of poetry.  And I put that on my laptop, so that when I eventually lose my way, it will bring me home.  Music is equally powerful and necessary.  I adore sitting on long flights.  I hardly ever read - mostly I look out the window, plugged into my ipod, and listen.  I see the fluffy clouds, but I also see the characters...and then, I suddenly feel them.  Feel a pivotal moment.  Of joy.  Of desperate pain.  And it inspires certain scenes.  Themes.  I can't begin to tell you how crucial music is to my process.  Each of my books has a sound track, in my mind.  And mostly a main theme.  A single tune or song, that drives the narrative.  Sometimes it's both the music and the lyrics that matter...often it's just the music.  Sometimes it inspires the characters, and sometimes it inspires me, the writer, to keep going.   Indeed, I see my books as symphonies.  With different movements.  And, since some of my books are connected, I see some books as first movement, some books as second, and some as the trumpets, drums, violins sawing triumphal and thrilling third movements.  All building on each other, and variations on themes.”

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Sean Williams (Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Astropolis, The Crooked Letter) –“When I'm really stuck, Steve Roach's ‘Structures from Silence,’ one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, always gets me in the groove. I could be sitting in the middle of an airport, or a construction site, or a roomful of noisy kids, but as long as I have that track playing through noise-reducing headphones, I'll be okay.  It's 28:33 of pure inspiration.”

Photo by Dave Chidley

Emma Donoghue (Room, The Widower’s Tale, Slammerkin) – “Daycare. Sorry to be so pragmatic about an inspiration matter, but there's nothing like delivering my three-year-old to my preschool, hurrying home and hearing the silence of the empty house to put me in the mood to write!”


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David Carnoy (Knife Music) – “I tend to put on some music while I write--I wear headphones…I've been listening to Peter Gabriel's ‘Scratch My Back’ album lately and Arcade Fire's ‘The Suburbs.’ I have pretty eclectic music tastes, but I tend to listen to a few songs over and over when I'm writing. I move on after a week or so to something else.”

Interesting indeed. And to answer my original question, “yes” other writers do have muse-rousing rituals like me, and the variety of this process is as wide and unique as the authors themselves. For some, it is merely the act of sitting down before a computer screen and “hoping it leads somewhere” as stated by Jennifer Egan (The Keep, A Visit from the Goon Squad), or as Ms. Evanovich mentions, “knowing I have a deadline.” Or silence, in Ms. Donoghue’s case. In Stephen King’s book On Writing he said he listened to heavy metal music. There are those whose pens are set in motion by the works of other artists – a photograph, a painting, an excerpt of poetry, music – in which case I envision the art world like one collective inspirational well that artists of any kind can draw from. It requires a writer to sink deep. To be able to maneuver their mind away from the rigidity and routine of daily life that would allow the creative part of the brain the freedom it needs. To inhibit our inhibitions, to dig into that vast idea-laddened world that is our subconscious. And when you hit that place, what a feeling it is! For me, it has become an addiction, and one I am not apt to give up any time soon.


I will leave you with one final quote.

“It’s like a creamy rainbow dancing a happy dance around on my tongue. It gets all swirly and melty and vanilly. Then when the party’s over, it takes a delicious slide down my throat. I take another lick and the party starts all over again! Then, mmm, you get to the cone…”

(Kevin, age 7, on What Ice Cream Tastes Like)


Dina Behlke resides in Atlanta, Georgia and is presently working on her debut novel.