Recently I got distracted one morning by scrolling through social media (when I should have been writing) and an illustration of a man standing inside an empty pool and staring off into space popped up on my Instagram feed. The caption read, “Sometimes this is writing, standing silently in an empty pool like a psychopath, thinking about some made up person.” I laughed and shared it on My Story. Almost every writer I know was admonished in school by their teachers for gazing out the window instead of at the blackboard.
We tend to evaluate productivity by word count or hours spent pecking at the keyboard, but sometimes writing is staring off into space. Occasionally it’s milling about rearranging a sentence in your head, searching for the right word. This often happens while I’m driving, so I have to repeat this scintillating sentence in my head over and over until I have the opportunity to write it down. (Always carry a notebook or use the Notes app in your phone.)
Research is writing. My characters are smarter than I am, so I need to know more than they do in order to create them as three dimensional. It’s easy to fall into the rabbit hole while researching for a character. While writing my first novel, Breakfast With Neruda, I spent hours watching Hoarders because my protagonist’s mother is a hoarder. (Immediately afterwards, I’d clean my house and pack things to donate to Goodwill.) I also read a great deal about the psychology behind hoarding and collecting. We all have that instinct to want to accumulate things; most of us don’t abuse it unless a pandemic occurs and we’re out of toilet paper.
According to Lisa Cron in Story or Die, “a story isn’t about what happens in the world, a story is about what happens in the mind of a protagonist.” In other words, stand in your character’s shoes and view the world through their lenses.
That involves contemplation, which may resemble staring off into space. The brain is ping ponging all kinds of images into the storyteller’s mind. Noticing how the air smells like a burnt fireplace this morning, or hearing the loud conversation between two birds in a nearby tree. Perhaps that individual is conjuring a scene where his protagonist stabs his wife to death and needs to figure out what to do with the body. A writer’s mind can be a strange and terrible place.
Before the pandemic, I generally wrote in coffee shops, where I’d sit and write uninterrupted for two to three hours listening to music through noise-canceling headphones. Now that I’m home most days I’m easily distracted by my phone, my cat and — with the windows open — sounds from the neighborhood. Maybe I need to pretend my dining room/home office is a coffee shop so I can focus better.
In a recent interview, YA author Lish McBride said, “napping is part of the process.” Next time you see a writer staring off into space, or curled up on the couch, perhaps they’re busy noticing things.
Laura Moe is the author of Breakfast With Neruda and three novels. She is currently President of Edmonds based EPIC Group Writers. Her fourth novel, The Blue Whale of Summer, will be released in 2021. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.