The Not Writer, Part 6: I Can’t Write Under These Conditions

Like many authors, Roald Dahl had a special space in which he did his writing (you can take a fascinating tour here: Dahl’s cluttered and dilapidated hut bears all the hallmarks of such spaces: privacy, comfort and focus.

One problem with a creative mind, to put it diplomatically, is that it is a problem-solving machine which is very difficult to selectively turn off. Many of the interruptions we suffer while writing occur when we encounter unrelated problems that require attention. Another, more significant problem with a creative mind is that it requires a certain levity and chaos, making us easily distracted.

For both these reasons there’s a lot to be said in favor of a special, personal space, if your living situation allows it. The other members of your household should ideally respect your ownership of your Hut and agree not to disturb you when you’re in it, and you in turn should only go there if you truly intend to write, rather than abusing the privilege of privacy simply to avoid dealing with the monstrous people in your hizzouse. Not meaning to be sexist, males in particular seem to benefit from this practice, no doubt an evolutionary spandrel related to territoriality.

Even without a physical space, many writers still create virtual ones that offer similar clarity and focus. A separate user account on your computer which has no shortcuts to instant messaging software, no bookmarks and no files cluttering your desktop, for instance, is a good way to differentiate your ‘writing time’ from your ‘my life is a disheartening maelstrom of desperate chaos’ time.

For all the benefits of having a real or virtual writing space, there’s a commensurate drawback: you can’t always use your Hut when you really, really want to write.

While a Hut can certainly help you be a Writer while you have access to it, you might inadvertently create another opportunity to be a Not Writer whenever you’re away from it, and for understandable reasons. You have an idea you’re dying to deploy, but it’d be so much easier and better to deploy it when you’re back in your Hut. Your notes and drafts are there, after all.

Up with this we shall not put!

You’ll do yourself a service by using your creative, problem-solving brain to consider, truthfully, whether you’d really benefit much from a Hut. How many hours a week could you realistically use it? How much time do you spend in your home? How much of that time can you really spend on yourself without impacting your domestic responsibilities? How much time do you spend traveling or visiting friends?

The 20th century saw the greatest increase of individual mobility in our species’ history, and much of our technological evolution in the last two decades can be described as an effort to compensate for that. Web-based e-mail and messaging services, cell phones and myriad other innovations all try to bring to life the dream of doing anything “anytime, anywhere”, and they don’t cost an arm and a leg any more.

Brooklyn novelist Peter Brett wrote 100 000 words of his novel over two years’ daily commute on the F line. If your phone supports e-mail (and has a reasonable data plan) you can write chunks of a story in e-mails to yourself, or if it has a proper data connection and web browser you could use Google Docs, both of which you can access from any computer with an internet connection.

Evernote ( is a massively useful weapon in the modern e-writer’s arsenal as it offers powerful and flexible note-taking and editing software on a range of platforms, including cell phones and the web. The iPhone app, for instance, allows you to create text or voice notes, take pictures, and sync them directly with your account — even with your GPS co-ordinates recorded, if you so choose.

For the old-school among us, the Moleskine notebook ( continues to enjoy love and loyalty from its adherents and, while the fanaticism is sometimes quite excessive, it’s not entirely misplaced. Sturdy hard covers, rounded corners, an elastic band to keep it closed and small-signature binding so that when the notebook is opened it lays flat — these are details that make the Moleskine a very practical ‘device’ for writing away from home.

Your Hut doesn’t have to be a place, it can be a device, a system, a workflow. A sturdy notebook that fits comfortably in your pocket (be sure to ask the store clerk’s permission before ‘trying out’ any of the notebooks they’re selling, or you’ll be in trouble). A cheap second-hand PDA or a smartphone with a good data plan and software that lets you keep your in-progress projects up to date everywhere with the least possible manual intervention.

Build a Hut you can take with you, and most importantly, develop a routine that makes your Hut work for you!

– Alex F. Vance