Pressure—pushing down on me,
Pressing down on you . . .
—Queen and David Bowie, “Under Pressure”
When I was considering my options for an Outside Experience, a quiet place to write with other creatives sounded like the ideal writing retreat. I sat through the Outside Experience presentations with visions of uninterrupted writing time, a space of my own, communal meals . . . but as a single mom working multiple jobs, I knew a two-week writing retreat was a luxury I couldn’t afford. Instead, I crafted an Outside Experience that incorporated a personal writing retreat for thirty-two hours of plotting, organizing, and pulling my hair out, with another eighty hours of dedicated writing time for my creative thesis. I called it my Thesis Novel Writing Month, or TheNoWriMo, like National Novel Writing Month, but different.
Let’s be honest, for many the Outside Experience is one more piece of pressure in an already overscheduled life. We all have real-life challenges to overcome for the Outside Experience to work—crazy schedules that will make the post-MFA writing life a tough balancing act as well. I work at a library, I teach college composition, I try to write four days a week, and I’m a mom. I’m in charge of pet care, childcare, lawn care. I act as a chauffeur, a cook, a personal shopper, a housekeeper, and the list goes on and on, so dedicating the month of June to my thesis project was a challenge that made me long for the ideal writing situation. You know, the one unlike my real life.
As writers, we fall asleep fantasizing about the perfect writing life: a place where kids and work and pets and life in general won’t interrupt. Imagine how much writing we could get done. Ah, we think as we drift into dreamland, the perfect writing day. Naturally that perfect writer life takes place at a house on the beach or in an equally stellar location in the mountains, without distractions like family and work. Somehow in this pristine stillness of nature, we will create our masterpiece.
And then there’s reality. I had four days in the mountains for my personal retreat, and it taught me that tranquility is not my speed. The quiet of nature freaked me out. I typically write twenty hours a week with writing friends in public places like Panera, Starbucks, or the library. I put earbuds in and start typing. We write 2,000 to 3,500 words each day using writing sprints. These aren’t perfect words, but they are words I can edit later. In the mountains, I wasn’t coming close to my typical word count. Turns out, I should have brought earbuds to tune out the silence.
My nearly allergic reaction to quiet time helped me to cheerfully embrace the second half of my Outside Experience and the white noise of writing in public. After finding a seat near an electrical outlet, I plugged in the laptop, slipped a headset over my ears—something loud and fast—and set a timer. After each thirty-minute sprint, I wrote my word count on a calendar, compared my stats to the writer sitting across from me, and then set the timer for another thirty-minute round. These writing sprints boosted my productivity. By focusing my writing energy on my thesis for the entire month, I found answers to problems that have plagued this project. One night while falling asleep, I had an epiphany about how to add depth to one of my characters. Consistency—writing daily—was the key.
The result of my Outside Experience is that I wrote for 112 hours in the month of June. And I learned a few things. First, the mountains are not my writing nirvana. Turns out, the perfect writing day is what I’m already doing: writing in public spaces where the crowd noise becomes white noise. Second, my existing writing practice of writing in public spaces boosts my productivity. And third, story epiphanies happen when I write consistently.
After 112 hours of writing, what is my potential outcome for this Outside Experience? Fame and fortune and everything that goes with it, of course. Oh, wait, that’s outside my control. Actually, my goal for this project is a polished creative thesis. Now we’ll see if my thesis year mentor agrees.
Cindy Skaggs signed her first book contract within months of her acceptance into the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. A year and a half later, she has three published novels and a three-book contract with Entangled Publishing. Her essay “Matchbook Memory” was published in Progenitor and was subsequently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She currently lives in Colorado and has an MA in Creative Writing, three jobs, two kids, and more pets than she can possibly handle. Find her on Facebook as Cindy Skaggs, Writer, @CLSkaggs on Twitter, or www.CSkaggs.com.