Operating with a Chainsaw? Use Your Senses to Improve Your Writing Environment

Asking a surgeon to perform an operation in a pitch black room with a chainsaw would be a bad idea, wouldn’t it? Just the idea of the resulting mess is enough to make most people at least a bit nauseated. It would be equally detrimental to ask an electrician to perform their job with a fork. Not even remotely efficient, and, in a worst case situation, potentially fatal. Why, then, is it acceptable for a writer to work without the proper setup?

Working at your best is made up of a lot more than a tool list. Especially in something as subjective as writing, the more individually tailored to all five senses your personal work environment is, the better the end result will be.


1. Touch

I suppose it would be possible to write with birch bark and crushed berries, but it’s by no means ideal to do so. Touch encompasses a few things most people don’t consider. What tools do you like under your fingers, and what conditions do you find yourself most comfortable in.

There are dozens and dozens of different writing implements out there, but undoubtedly one or two will feel better in your hands than others. My preference is to type my rough drafts. Typing is significantly faster than writing everything longhand. That means it’s easier to keep up with my thoughts on the computer than it would be if I tried writing everything longhand.

That said, when I was younger, I despised writing on the computer. There was a sense of ownership to the words I put down on the page that was unlike anything I could get by typing. Over time, that feeling got better, but it took years.

Other tools that may “fit your hands” the best include: an antique typewriter, a spiral notebook, a sketch pad, and even a quill and inkwell.

What makes you feel best? Do you think clearest curled up beneath a blanket? Sprawled out in the grass? At a cubicle in the library? A seat in the corner of a coffee shop? Experiment in different environments to find what makes you feel the most comfortable.

The only requirement I have for writing is being able to be near something soft. Sometimes, that soft thing is my dog, Pippin. Other times, that’s a soft fleece blanket, grass in the park, or sleeves of an oversized sweater. The beauty of writing on a laptop is the freedom to go where I please.

2. Taste and Smell

Taste has a profound impact on memory. A popular study trick is to chew an unusual gum flavor while studying and during an exam. The familiar flavor can jog your memory. The same thing can be done with smells, but they go a little further.

Use this concept to your advantage while writing. If you love salted caramel mochas, make yourself one before you sit down to write. The familiar flavor and ritual can start your creativity going.

Research aromatherapy. Spend some time exploring lotions and candles. Scent memory is one of the strongest forms of memory a human has. How many times have you smelled something and had it pull up a memory from years and years ago? Use that to your advantage. Pine candles help me immerse myself in the forests between the tavern and the Manor. Pumpkin spice is my go-to writing scent as well. I participate in NaNoWriMo every year, and that smell puts me back in November, AKA writing time.

The most important bit to get out of taste, though, is water. Whatever you do, drink. I don’t care what you drink, but do not go without something. Dehydration not only wreaks havoc on the body, it also negatively impacts your ability to think as clearly as you need to. There will be days you get so wrapped up in your writing, the idea of water never even crosses your mind. Every time you get up from your seat, drink a glass. Keep a tumbler beside your desk. Have a human you’re fond of force you to drink if you don’t trust yourself to remember. Your health matters.

3. Sight

There’s so much I could rant about in this section. First and foremost, the things in your field of vision should help you, not hurt you. Use your resources to improve your focus.

Lighting is a big problem for a lot of writers throughout history. The night owl creative type is not modern in any sense. Freud was a night owl, and Thomas Edison was a serial napper. Intellectuals seem to tend to favor the night, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It does mean, however, that additional lighting needs to be used most of the time. Pick a lamp that illuminates the area you need it in, and illuminates it enough. I’ve been known to use candles for this, too, especially if I’m working on one of Sam’s chapters. Sam writes by candlelight most of the time, so in order to really capture his voice, sometimes I do, too.

Decluttering your writing space is another task that, unfortunately, often gets neglected. While it’s fine to have a few decorations in your work space, do you really need six bottles of cola, three plates from last week’s pizza party, eight books you still haven’t read, and half a dozen unused packages of sticky notes? Cleaning up and organizing helps me refocus quite a bit.

4. Sound

There are two types of creative people in the world. Those who work best in silence, and those who absolutely, completely, irrevocably do not handle quiet well.

Guess where I fall.

People in both categories can benefit from noise cancelling headphones. They cut out outside noise and let the user/listener enter their own private bubble. Very useful.

However, I think the vast majority of you are like me. Noise is preferable, and music is an invaluable tool. I am a musician. The first time I picked up a clarinet, I was four. My phone is loaded with so much music, it would take weeks to listen to every single song. I’ve made it easier to navigate, though, by carefully organizing my playlists.

Different songs may remind me of different characters or be best used in certain specific scenes. Different tempos invoke different emotions in the listener, and this can be used to assist in nailing down a scene. Music is the only reason I started to understand Sam’s fear or Oliver’s guilt. Music helps me delve deeper into a character, and doing that makes them seem more real. Characters are multifaceted and different music helps them get that way.

Create different playlists. Some of the ones I have include:

    Sam-contains songs that help me write Sam better. Sam dealt with a lot of secrets on his own, and coming up in book 2, he has to face losing something valuable to him.

    Northwest-This is where Zoey and Gwynn are from. This playlist focuses on their backstory and where they grew up.

    Oliver and Anna-This playlist has an interesting mix of love songs and despairing, end of the universe type of songs. Knowing their backstory and what happened to their family, it fits.

    Brothers-Sam and Jay have a tumultuous relationship, but they are still brothers and therefore are still loyal to one another. Music helps to capture that interesting and delicate divide.

    The Twins-Zo and Zane have some things coming up in the future. I’ll elaborate at a later date. 😉

Bonus: Two of my many writing spaces: my desk and my bed.

All in all, do what is best for you. Experiment. Learn what your best environment is. It doesn’t always have to be the same place. Some scenes are better in one place than another. Keep in mind: this is your art. Never do anything you don’t want to. Make it right for you and everything else will follow.

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