All my best ideas happen in the shower, and I write my best sentences in my head while driving. Essentially I create a kind of quiet zone. (The idea for this post occurred to me while driving to a hotel one night, and I composed this lead in the shower the next morning.)
Writers tend to frazzle themselves chasing information, and you need ways to slow things down so you can think and plan and compose. Slowing down speeds you up overall.
For example, Sam Stanton covered agriculture for The Sacramento Bee, which involved long drives back to the office to write. He would plan his story at 70 miles an hour by asking himself questions aloud, and then just steer “until the lead formed on the windshield.”
California Zen has nothing to do with this technique. The secret lies in shedding distractions so you can see larger patterns., and the chief distractions are fear of failure and drowning in detail. These problems happen whether you work in an office or alone.
Quiet zones range from simple to complex, and can involve space as well as time. The great editorial writer Richard Aregood would slowly circle the newsroom as he composed a piece in his head. His colleagues would leave him alone, and quipped that they knew Richard was about to type when he passed the water cooler. I don’t work in an office, but I got a similar effect by writing in my head while mowing the lawn.
An editor friend of mine wears a red baseball cap when she wants total seclusion to write, which she does right in the middle of her six demanding writers, who temporarily respect her privacy, and then deluge her when she takes the cap off. They can only interrupt her if the building’s on fire. Her isolation in a noisy room consists of not being spoken to.
In your busy office, you can create a quiet zone simply by holding the phone to your head and moving your lips; no one will interrupt you.
Gathering information almost always involves sitting around while nothing is happening. In a library, plan while you wait for your book orders to arrive. If you’re reviewing a restaurant, you can think between courses. You can jot down ideas during ceremonial parts of an event, for example, while the chair blithers about the organization’s history. Interviewers can plan in waiting rooms, after they’ve surveyed the walls for clues to their subject’s personality.
You can create a moving or a static quiet zone. When I worked at the Poynter Institute, we used to improve meetings by walking around together. You can walk up and down a hall, or sit in your car. A friend of mine thinks in a bathroom stall; this technique works better if you don’t talk to yourself aloud.
[Where are your quiet zones?]