Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

When You Can’t Find a Writing Workshop…

It never fails.  When you’re stuck at work, doing some mindless task or staring at a computer screen, ideas fill your head and you dream of writing.  Then, when you’re at home with your cup of tea, and it’s quiet, and you have time and blank paper – nothing.  You might have pages of notes and ideas, but there’s dirty laundry to wash.   The phone rings.  Dust coats everything.

Why is it so easy to daydream at work or school – then, impossible to do the same at home?

Okay, I don’t know why – but I accept the fact that I write more when I’m “trapped” in a very specific type of setting.

In my perfect writing trap, it’s like this:  Very little distraction (no television or radio);  enforced seating;  a space foreign to me;  a lot of other people engaged in some kind of learning or testing; the minimal comforts are provided; and I can’t easily leave for at least an hour.

To get writing done, I used to sign up for real estate seminars -- really sales seminars where it cost nothing to attend but you’d be pitched a system you could buy.  Or I’d go to retirement planning seminars – again, free meetings in hotel ballrooms where you’d be pitched something to buy.  I’d sit in the Department of Motor Vehicles – which is especially crowded and slow during the last few days of each month.  I’d even sit in church.  In the back pews, but writing longhand in a notebook.  I’d sit in during the all-day state bar exams if I could.  The LSATs or the GSATs. 

In all these places, the distractions are minimal.  The environment is disciplined and monitored.  Everything is controlled – except my imagination.

You’re surrounded by people, most of them focussed on learning something.

The room is quiet and comfortable – except for a presentation of some kind you can ignore.

And it isn’t easy to escape.  Especially if you’re sitting between people in the center of a row.

Like at work or school, you’re trapped.  So you day dream.  If you bring a pen and notebook – you write.   That’s when my imagination goes nuts: when it’s the only option I have to entertain myself.     

Many people say the most important thing a writers workshop does is give people the “permission” to write.  The workshop setting makes it okay to write.  It gives you the license to write.  But if you can’t find a workshop, consider using the structure of any other “classroom” to settle yourself and get permission to write on a regular basis.  This might be a church service.  Or even a support group – I’ve seen people writing in AA meetings.  Or any of a million sales pitch seminars.  These are all focused, public settings where you can sit for structured lengths of time – writing.

Hell, wear a tie.  Wear the clothes you’d wear to work or church.  Make this a real ritual for you – but always take a pen and notebook.  Make this little window of time your place to reflect and imagine.  Hunt out the most-boring place you can find.  

And the benefit goes beyond finding this “permission.”  Most meetings are lead by ministers or salesmen trained in public speaking.  Listening, you can borrow their rhetorical devices for structuring information.  You can pick out how they transition from one topic to the next.  Or, how they build tension or gets laughs.  How they establish head or heart authority.  Their choruses.  

The best sales pitches seem to be great stories.  Testimonials.  This might include people standing to “witness” on the behalf of the product.  They tell their story: how the doohickey changed their life.  How no-money-down real estate investing made them rich.  Then, what they spent their new money to buy: What to them demonstrates “rich”.  Boats, cars, second homes.  It’s wonderful, revealing stuff.  Real human emotions on parade.  Greed or fear or joy.

That’s just not going to happen around you, sitting alone at home.

Plus, sitting around you is a sea of physical detail.  If you need to describe a certain color of hair.  Or a hand or shoe or mouth.  You have this huge inventory of detail and gesture that you don’t have at home.

In short, if you can’t find a workshop to keep you writing – borrow the structure from some other “classroom.”  Trap yourself among other people in a setting where you’re forced to entertain yourself.  Re-create the kind of boredom that leads you to daydream.  Attend this church service or support group or seminar at least once each week, and see if you don’t get more writing done.

This is going to make me sound a little piggy, maybe just insensitive, but I have to share this resource I’ve just discovered.

Recently, I’ve been shopping for rural property – the dream of creating a writers retreat center still lives – and I’ve noticed something about property presented for sale by the actual owners.   When you look at property represented by a real estate agent, the agent describes the land and building in fairly dry, legal terms.  Square feet.  Zoning restrictions.   Room dimensions.  Well water flow in gallons-per-minute.  All the boring-assed abstract terms I avoid in my story telling.

But when an owner shows their property…   This weekend, at a farm near Goldendale, Washington, the owner talked about a stooped plum tree in the backyard.  How some years it produced no plums, some years, tons.  How when she and her husband bought the farm twenty years ago, the tree with just a stick growing beside the garage.  How, they’d fenced the backyard and created a warmer, sheltered garden.  Then, the tree had really branched out and flowered.  Now it bore more fruit than they could eat or can. 

The owner talked twice as long about that tree than about the furnace in the house.  She told stories about each of the bedrooms.  She told about being pregnant with each of her three children.  Every moulding and corner of the house had a story.  Every plant in the yard.  When an owner presents the property, they tell stories – in effect demonstrating, “Heart Authority.”

When a real estate agent presents, they tell legal details – or, “Head Authority.”

For homework, look for places where people tell stories.  And look for the “memory cues” that trigger those stories.  Consider going to yard sales and asking, “What can you tell me about this baby crib…  tea pot… bloody dagger… whatever.”  Look for ways to coax good stories from people.  Most people are dying to talk, to tell their stories and exhaust their emotions about the past. 

I’m not saying to pester and abuse people – but just be open and give permission for them to talk about the history of the car or house or sofa they’re selling.  This is best done face-to-face.  Whatever they describe, it’s likely they’ll be describing themselves.  As Tom Spanbauer would say, “Everything you say is a self portrait.”

If you’re working on a first draft, get it done.  Push through it until the horizontal journey is done.  Find the boring setting that will “trap” you on a regular basis until you’re done.

After almost four months of full-time work, I’ve answered all the letters from people who were writing me for the first time.  It takes so much time and effort to answer the first-time letters that I seldom answer second- or third-time letters, but I do read them all.  This year, I’m answering all the mail that was postmarked during last November.

I do my best, but every year some packages come back to me as “undeliverable.”  Some people forget to include their addresses.  Even forget to include their names.   Some people write, warning that their mail gets stolen – especially packages sent to eastern Europe.   So, again, I do my best.  If my letter or package didn’t get to you that bums me out, also.  It means a box of candy is sitting somewhere, getting stale.

For everyone who came to the reading in Madison on January 31st – thank you.  I had no idea how I’d fill that much time, but it went great.  And it went too long, but I had a blast.  Thank you for standing at the end.  I always botch the ending of an event – hurrying away – but this time I started to pick up trash on the stage.  Maybe I looked like I was taking a bow, but I got my first standing ovation at an event. 

Thank you, Madison!

And again, thank you for reading my work.

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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