Your own quiet zone

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?]

Published in: on August 21, 2009 at 6:15 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Terrific post, Don. My quiet zone comes when I’m walking the dog. I compose in my head as we go, and sometimes try out a line or two on him, though he’s a tough audience! This works for writing projects, and many other kinds of work, too – meeting planning and debriefing, interview prep, and even just organizing my day when I’m particularly busy with work and home. I’ll certainly try some of the other ideas you cite as well. Cheers!

  2. I learned a long time ago that my best writing occurred when I jogged. Now I walk about 4 miles most days and that’s my quiet zone. Once I have something in my head, I can write it.

    I remember, Don, when I once asked you about a book that you and Roy were writing. You told me it was finished. Then you “corrected” yourself and said you had one chapter to write–but it’s in my head.

    That’s what really matters. Not the medium, but the thought.

  3. Thanks, Tom. Oddly enough, I can write in my head while driving, walking, showering, and mowing, but not if there’s music playing. I used to think that I could write better by listening to Bach, but he kept engrossing me. Others can only write with music playing. You do what works for you.

  4. Thanks, Amy. I know several people who try things out on their dogs. It works, of course, because you hear yourself out loud and notice what’s not going to work. Most cats don’t work as well; they’re not good listeners.

  5. Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so, Excellent post!

    I’m Out! 🙂

  6. Wonderful article. I’m so glad and honoured to be featured here. Thank you.

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