The right environment to write

(That’s a bit of a tongue-twister – or at least an easy one to misspell if you’re moving too fast.)

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I’ve been “home.”  (By which I mean, back from overseas, not back from my recent trip to see friends and business associates.)

As I’ve mentioned before, I do consulting work and it’s on call, so it isn’t a traditional 9-5 set-up.  So, today, for example, I had to respond to a few e-mails this morning and then have a conference call in three hours.  Theoretically, the rest of the workday is my own, but in reality I’m tied to a computer “just in case.”  And if that phone does ring or an e-mail does come through, I’m expected to be in work-mode immediately.

(Part of that is my own expectation.  If I want to keep getting work from my client, I need to be useful to my client, which means available when my client needs me.)

When I’m halfway around the world, the way my day lines up with my client’s day, I’m only in this weird limbo state until noon at the very latest.  I may have a full day’s worth of work to do, but I’m not tied to someone else’s schedule for most of the day.  So, if at noon I want to go take a hike and eat lunch from a bench overlooking the lake, I can do that.

When I’m in the States, I’m basically in this limbo state from 7 AM to 5 PM.  And I find that it really does affect my writing ability.  Yes, I know there are folks who pushed through no matter what.  PCW wrote her first few books with moments she snatched during her lunch hour.  Another succesful published author wrote a whole rant last week or the week before about how you have to push through and write no matter what, because this is a job, etc., etc.

(Of course, he also wrote a post about how victims of child abuse just need to get over it.  Like we’re all somehow one size fits all automatons that react the same way to the same events.  Suffice it to say, his books are not on my reading list.)

For me personally, I need enough creative space for ideas to unfurl.  I can’t write for five minutes, stop to do something else, and then write for another five or ten minutes.  I can do that with work reports, but they’re factual.  (And not always.  I worked on a project that involved a bad translation of foreign regulations and I really had to twist my mind sideways to understand what it was trying to say.  On those days I had to turn off my music and go offline so I could hold my mind at that awkward angle.)

I could push through and write on days like this.  (And I’m having to or else I’m not going to write for the next three months, which is not advisable).  But I think an agitated mind shows in your writing.  I re-read Stephen King’s On Writing the other day and he mentioned how it wasn’t a coincidence that he wrote Misery and The Tommyknockers while he was struggling with serious addiction issues.

The setting we live in fuels what we write.

Last week I was in the physical office for a few days.  I went in at 8 AM and left at 9 PM that first day.  The next day was 8 AM to 8 PM.  This is what my life was three years ago before I took very drastic steps to change it.  And living like that was part of the reason I didn’t write even though I wanted to in some little part of my mind.  If I did write it was something emotionally driven and personal as opposed to fiction.

So, to generalize this…


I think there are jobs that writers can have that are more conducive to writing than others.  If you’re working at a job that exhausts you (either physically or mentally) to the point that you just can’t imagine doing anything other than sitting on a couch and shutting down when you get home, I don’t think that job is a good fit for writing.

You want something that:

  • Pays the bills, or comes close enough that you aren’t carrying around money stresses all the time.
  • Doesn’t demand so much of your time that it doesn’t leave room for writing.  (I rarely if ever had a lunch hour when I worked full-time in an office.)
  • Isn’t an environment that is toxic for you.  (This means different things for different people.  I need a certain amount of mental challenge in a job or it makes me miserable.  Some people need a lot of personal interaction.  Some need to be left alone.  Some need low demands.  Some need high.  Whatever you need, make sure you get it.)

Physical environment:

When I’m overseas, I tend to get a lot more exercise because the outdoors are at my doorstep.  (This is funny since I’m in Colorado now, so you’d think it’d be easy to get outdoors here.  But it’s a good half hour drive from where I live to anything approaching a hike.)

Most of us have to make sacrifices and compromise on where we spend our lives.  For family, for work, for medical issues. Most of us will not get to write in our “ideal” environment.  But to the extent that you can, I think it’s important to put yourself in a place that lets your mind get to where it needs to go to write the story you’re trying to tell.

(Yes, that was a terrible sentence.  I agree.)

Let me see if I can explain.  If you’re writing gritty, dystopian, horror-filled novels, chances are you should be somewhere that inspires that.  If you’re writing sweet, happy, romances, same thing.  I would expect those places are not the same.

Maybe some people can live in their minds to the exclusion of the outside world, but for me, personally, I react to my environment.  I may have a sweet, happy romance in me (doubtful), but I’m not going to be able to write it if I’m commuting on the New York subway every day.  I’m much more likely to come up with some zombie story or some stalker story in that environment.


I think the people you surround yourself with matter as well.  First, they’re the raw clay you draw on to create your characters.  That’s why I think knowing a variety of people with a variety of life experience and motivations can help.  (Or at least cyber stalking a variety of people.  Special interest forums are amazingly fun that way…)

If you have toxic people in your life, it will affect you.  It’ll affect whether you write in the first place, and, if you do write, it’ll affect what you write.

On the flip side, if you have someone in your life who demands time and attention (even in a positive way), that may in fact keep you from writing.  Being happy and contented isn’t necessarily a great motivator for isolating yourself in a room and pouring out your inner thoughts.  (Or what you write may not be something you want to publish.  Like, oh, I don’t know, erotica or love poems.)

(E-mail just dinged…time to switch gears again…anyone know of private grants they give to mediocre people so they can just focus on writing?)

So, in summary, before I run back to that job that pays my bills, to the extent you can, create the right space to allow yourself to write what you want, whatever that means for you.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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