I'm convinced that solitude and silence are the first two ingredients in art. They're essential for getting into and staying in The Zone, that elusive flow where the words spill out and time spins away. So I asked 20 writers how they get there and how they return. Here's the secret sauce from five of them:
I get in that zone by having an empty day, free from obligations, or at least a few empty hours. It starts with coffee and reading the New York Times, but only a little...headlines, maybe two articles that make me feel my passion, so I curate what I read...and some carefully selected emotional music after that to open my heart if you will...usually '70s soul, like "Me and Mrs. Jones", something like that. Then I open up a story or two and go to work.
If I fall out of zone, a walk is always good...nature...sometimes a swim. The sauna afterwards will also get me inspired...something about the heat...then back to the desk, a few emo songs, and off I go.
Regarding your first question, I wish I knew - I'm in between projects right now and current events are proving quite distracting.
Re: the second, when I am actively writing, I usually find that rereading the results of my last session or two is enough to get me back into The Zone. What works best is to go back far enough that I find something with which I've surprised myself. It seems to make it more likely to happen again.
How do you get into the zone? Music. I have to have music in the background. Back in the days of CD's I used to put five discs in my stereo, hit shuffle and start writing. I'd suddenly come to--it literally was like being somewhere else--and realize that all five discs had played, and a lot of time had passed. I don't have as much time to write these days, and I don't have a CD player anymore, but now I just put on Spotify through the wireless speakers; I have a number of playlists there that go on for hours and listen to those.
How do you get back in The Zone when you fall out? Usually I don't fall out until I've gotten as much done as I had planned, if not more; if I am interrupted and somehow get knocked out of it, I can't get back there that day--my brain just won't do it.
My own zone:
I write early in the morning. Feed the dog and sit down at my desk in a silent house with coffee, still in my nightgown, gummy teeth, tangled hair. Journal briefly like a dog circles a rug. Most importantly, I stay away from anything that is practical or linear (like paying bills or reading the newspaper. God forbid my husband puts on MSNBC loud in the other room!) By the time the mail arrives, or I check my email (around noon), I'm in the linear state and the work could plod along but it won't have any magic, so I stop. I used to take a 20 min nap after lunch in the hopes of getting closer to the dream state that I had when I woke up. It doesn't work as well as it used to.
It used to be that I would push myself to be productive, but now I can tell when I'm getting mentally tired and won't give the words/characters the attention they deserve. As I have the luxury of writing full time now, I'm more afraid of bad writing than not writing so I don't go any further.
I'm a big believer in this particular piece of advice from Hemingway: know what you're going to write in the morning. It counteracts that feeling of dread when you first sit down. At the end of the day, I lay down and think "ok, how is she going to do X?" I'm hoping it will come to me in a dream, or just before I sleep. And I find that walking will point out things that don't make sense in the plot, or things that I've forgotten.
Yesterday evening after dinner and TV –PBS, Nova and Nature -- I came to my desk and looked at what I'd written two days ago, a ten page addition to a middle section of my sci-fi novel, A Bard on Hercular[i].
I'd intended to only polish what I wrote. (I only write first drafts now, but I can polish: polish certain lines or dialogues or pages a great deal.) I'd sat at my desk at 10:03 pm. When I looked up it was 12.13 a.m. What had happened in between? The Zone had happened. And while in the zone I'd not only done what I set out to do but added substantially, rewritten dialogue, strengthened one character and gave another one a different tone.
What brought it on? All I wanted to do was add two lines, maybe strengthen another line. So, these days, it just happens: the blessed Zone--what used to be called inspiration. (Oh Sing muse, Vergil wrote, begging for it to be a constant, steady, nurturing force.) I've been writing fiction of one sort or another since 1965. It now comes when I sit down at my desk or laptop. But that may not be until the end of a day. Yet I don't worry if it will come. It will come.
That wasn't always the case. Poetry always came. Fiction would too, but not in the great flow and ebb and flow that Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe and other writers described. Coming from the Counterculture generation, I would light up a joint of grass and some wine then began to write --long hand, sometimes typewrite. As I suppose Hemingway and Fitzgerald etc used alcohol to unfetter their creativity, and Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Coleridge and Thomas de Quincy used opium and hashish to unfetter their imagination. I'd read them when young and knew it would work and it did. Of course, many of them got caught in the substance. But I had no time for that. And then one day, I can't recall when exactly, I no longer needed the two or three tokes of grass to get me going. Which is good because, most of the grass people give me to smoke is crap compared to what was around as late as the 1980's. I used to use a few tokes to visualize also. I remember smoking a few tokes and lying on a towel at the beach on Fire Island and visualizing most of Like People in History and Dryland's End. But that's changed too.
Nowadays I wake up in bed a little early and visualize the next scene or a few scenes ahead, or a climactic scene. It may take me all day, or a few days, or a week to actually write out the scene, but I know I have its general outline and the effect I'd want it to have in my book.
I seem to spend more time struggling against obstacles than "in the zone." But as I've thought about the topic, I realize that maybe that's a perspective that some people might find helpful. I know that when I'm having a hard time with anything in life, it's helped to know that I'm not alone. And over the last few weeks, we're all facing unprecedented circumstances that make writing even more challenging—worldwide pandemic and the prospect of a global economic depression aren't conducive to relaxed creative thinking!
So, to your questions:
I don't really need any special setting to write, just quiet and as few interruptions as possible. Those conditions became harder to get when I moved in with my father five years ago after he had a stroke that left him hemiplegic, with no use of his right arm and little use of his left leg. He needs help with everything, and at first, I was overwhelmed, and just getting through the days and giving him the care he needed took all my energy and time. I'd go days or weeks without writing, and the longer I didn't write, the harder it was to get my head back into it, to make progress from where I'd left off. Finishing my current novel seemed like an insurmountable challenge. (It's just as well I didn't have a contract and a deadline, because I wouldn't have made it!)
Things have gotten easier now, but I still spend a lot of time on tasks that require a very different state of mind than that required for writing, so I've had to recall or develop tools to get myself writing and to vanquish the doubts and fears and worries that crop up.
The first of these is to remember that the more consistently I write, the easier it is to get in the zone and make progress, both because my creative mind is working in the background and because if I'm writing every day, then I remember that I can actually do it and it doesn't get scary. I've found that I can make this happen if I get up fairly early, before my father is awake, and sit down to write immediately after I've had breakfast and looked at the news. Otherwise, it's too easy to let a marathon of other stuff I have to do get in the way, and I never get to the writing!
Sometimes, when the idea of sitting down to write seems hard, especially if I've been swamped with other things and my head just isn't in the book, I have to bargain with myself. Just write for twenty minutes, I tell myself. And of course, by the time twenty minutes is up, I'm in the flow and enjoying what I'm doing, and I write for much longer.
Another tool I used when I was writing my first novel, before I had an agent, much less a publisher, was to let myself do something that seemed manageable. If writing the scene that came next in the book seemed impossible, I wrote another scene instead. With that book, I wrote a lot of the "tent-pole" scenes that held up the structure of the book first and then wrote the scenes that came between. If writing a new scene wouldn't come, I revised something I'd already written, or figured out a plot problem, and sometimes that led me to working on something I didn't think I could face.
I've made good progress this year, though the last few weeks have been a big new challenge. I'm almost finished with this draft. I just wrote one of two new scenes I needed (the marriage!). Next up—the wedding night, which feels like a bit of a challenge. Then I have only another sixty pages or so to revise. Then I need to start at the beginning again and incorporate all the notes I've made for myself during this draft. And then I need to write a few scenes from the point of view of a character in the same place but in a different timeline, something I haven't done before.
Originally, I thought I'd only have the main character find letters and a journal her aunt had written. Then I decided against that, and thought I'd leave out the aunt's POV entirely. But after reading a lot of historical novels with dual timelines over the last few months, I've decided I can make it work, and I'm excited to see how it turns out!
I think it also helps to acknowledge the doubts and fears you encounter but move past them. When I was writing that first book, I could have allowed myself to think it was pointless, that I'd never finish it and I'd never get it published. But I did finish it, with the support and critique of my wonderful agent Kevan Lyon, who worked with before I even had a complete draft and sold it in a two-book deal almost as soon as it was finally done.
So I remind myself, and if you're struggling I hope you can remind yourself, that fears aren't facts, doubts don't represent what will happen, and no one but me can stop me from writing the best book I can and having faith that it will find its place to shine.
FEEL FREE TO ADD YOUR OWN INSIGHTS ON THE ZONE IN THE COMMENTS SECTION BELOW
[i] Felice says: "This the third of a trilogy. The first, Dryland's End, was published in
1995 and again in 2003, was nominated for some prizes, and
received the usual Picano Amazon ratings of either one star or five
stars, confirming my ability to continually outrage those readers
I don't entertain. It will be reprinted in 2021, along with the second
book in the series, The Betrothal At Usk, already written and in the
pipeline to come out later that year."