Making the Real World Help You

Much though we’d love to be able to devote all our time to our stories, there’s this little problem known as the real world getting between us and them. Haven’t we all complained about it at some point? Go to bed late, get up early, keep the house in order, no time to write, nor to plot, nor to think… what’s a talespinner to do?

To be honest, I’m still figuring it out. But here are a few tips I’ve come up with to make sure I get at least a little bit out of what I have to give to Reality.

  • Separate the mind and the body. Figuratively, of course–if your brain’s not getting any blood, it doesn’t matter how many muses are tapping on your shoulder. A lot of the time, you’ll be stuck with mindless, tedious tasks, whether what you’re dealing with is housework or paper-pushing at the job or something else entirely. Sure, you can concentrate on how it’s taking you away from your work, but that’s counterproductive. Instead, choose one of your current creative hangups and think about it. After all, the work is keeping you from being distracted by other questions. Never underestimate the value of a mickey-mouse task that requires little to no thinking!
  • Mass transit if you can get it, particularly en route to work. Yes, it adds to your travel time, which may seem counterintuitive. But look at it this way: along with being good for the environment and for reducing your gas bill, it’s a place where it’s just you and your blocks, and (unlike with work) nobody to chew you out if you take the time to scribble your ideas down. In fact, one of my better characters, the demon-spider Akhterim, was the result of an unholy union between an impractically long commute, an equally impractically long lunch break, and John Sampen music on the ipod at the right time. And this blog entry was initially drafted on San Diego mass transit.
  • Speaking of work, if the job’s too brain-intensive to let you work on your own projects, why not turn it into a project? Almost any job can be reframed into something more in keeping with our own worlds: desk jobs as some sort of ritual, for instance. It’s all in how you choose to look at it. Then, when you’ve figured out what you’re “doing”, ask yourself why. What are you preparing for, or defending against, or calling forth? In the rules of wherever you’re transposing this to, how does it work? More importantly, is it suggesting a similar sort of event for one of your projects? (This one I personally pride myself on: I wrote a short story not too long ago based on a concept I picked up when marveling at the ritualistic nature of aide duties at the Oakland Public Library.)
  • Engage in or listen to conversations. As I write (or at least as I write the rough draft, a couple of people on my bus are finishing up a conversation about names and moving on to a riff on one of the local businesses. There are a lot of interesting people out there, with a lot of interesting things to say.
  • Listening not quite your style? Try watching and speculating instead. Choose a person near you, and do character sketches–partly what you can see, partly the conclusions you can draw from what you can see. It’s good practice, and world-switching your conclusions a little gets you a bank of Instant Characters you can draw on if you need random passersby who don’t look like walking scenery. You can do the same improvising a history for things as well as people–buildings, trees, old-looking pieces of clothing, you name it.
  • And carry a writer’s journal. This will help you retain what you pick up from all of the above exercises; moreover, I find its presence tends to tease ideas out of my mind. I personally recommend getting a pocket-size one; it’s lightweight, inobtrusive and, well, fits in the pocket.

You can’t run from the real world, but you can make it deal with you on something closer to your terms. How do you harness it in order to improve your projects?

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