Thursday, June 28, 2007

Alone and Together with the Creative Process

Elizabeth Zelvin

I write alone. When I’m at the computer, I enter a world in which any interruption is an intrusion. If I have a door to close, I’ll close it. When I had a day job in which I had to write and also interact with clients and staff, this became a problem. The appropriate message to send these people was: “My door is always open.” But if my door was open, I couldn’t concentrate. Short term solution: I closed the door after sticking up a sign that said: “My door is figuratively open.” Long term solution: I quit the day job.

The logistics of writing are a little more complicated for me these days. I have two wonderful work spaces, but no doors. In my apartment in the city, there’s what could be called a computer corner in the living room. Tucked away behind the desktop, I’m practically invisible. It’s usually okay when my husband passes through. Occasionally he forgets and tries to start a conversation while I’m deep in my manuscript. But he’s very good about going away if I hold up a “Stop!” palm like a traffic cop. And his day job gives me plenty of alone time five days a week.

In the country, a little house on the East End of Long Island, my computer is also set up in the living room. But rather than looking into the room, I look over the top of my laptop monitor into the garden. The view includes constant activity at the bird feeders, my wonderful flowers—more glorious than ever since I got a deer fence for my last birthday—and wildlife that includes rabbits (loved or hated depending on what they’re nibbling on) and some very smart squirrels (though not smart enough to beat the baffles on the bird feeders). Once in a while I even get a fox, a possum, an owl, or a hawk. The key to solitude here is that my husband is a city boy who hates the country. (I had great fun giving this trait to one of my characters in a future book.) He’s relieved when I say, “It’s okay if you don’t come out this weekend. I’m writing.”

At a friend’s book launch recently, I heard the best answer yet to why—or how the hell—some writers write at Starbucks. She said, “At home, the phone rings, people try to talk to me, the mail comes—there are always distractions. At Starbucks, no one bothers me. I’m surrounded by all that wonderful energy, yet I can plunge into my own little world.” I guess the world is divided into two kinds of writers, those who talk about wonderful energy and those who say, “Leave me alone!” (This particular friend comes from Kansas and writes upbeat spiritual self-help books. I come from Queens and write murders. Hmmm.)

The middle ground between solitary writing and writing in a crowd is collaboration. I’ve heard quite a few mystery writing teams talk about writing together—PJ Parrish, Maan Meyers, Charles Todd, Evelyn David—and I’m always impressed. The chemistry of successful collaboration is a gift and a mystery, a lot like falling in love. On the other hand, I have seen that chemistry created in lab conditions, not as a fiction writer or poet (does anybody ever collaborate on a poem?), but as a songwriter. I’ve attended several workshops with legendary singer/songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who believes that the collaborative process both stimulates and mimics the internal creative process. As he memorably put it once, the voices that say, “Wow, that’s brilliant!” and “No, that’s stupid!” can come from the group or the inside of your head. In his workshops, he proves it by throwing together groups of four or five total strangers on Monday and asking them to write a song that’s ready to perform by Thursday. Talk about a creative challenge! But it works, though not without some acrimony and occasional tears. After going through that process five times, I appreciate the inside of my head.


Lonnie Cruse said...

Ahhh, IF I could just learn to not answer the phone! Starbucks is about 15 miles away. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Evelyn David here with a little explanation about our collaboration. We write books together - but separately if that makes sense. Like you, both halves of Evelyn David need quiet and solitude to create murder and mayhem. So we each work in our own offices - 1500 miles apart. We talk about scenes before writing, we revise endlessly after writing - but we're each on our own when putting words to (virtual) paper. I've always been in awe of newspaper reporters who can file a story in the midst of chaos. I can't even write a shopping list with someone else in the room!