In her 1929 essay titled “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Today that’s true for both men and women, unless you’re like my husband, and you can shut out all distractions and work on your laptop for hours. But if you’re like me, who finds working at home incredibly difficult because there are 100 other things that also need to be done, you may want to find an external place to do your writing. (Right now, for example, I’m listening to hear whether the laundry is done, I’m checking to see if the mail has yet arrived, I’m listening to hear whether my baby has woken up and needs to be fed, I’m thinking about the gardening tools I just bought and how I had planned to do some weeding this afternoon, and the list goes on.)
In 2005 I had made it a habit to walk down to the local Starbucks to work. It wasn’t an ideal place to write because 1) The work table (with outlets for laptops) was right under the speakers blasting music from the Hear Music radio station and 2) Moms with kids would come in and let them run around, so it was noisy. But it was better than working from home. So I’d put my earplugs in, order my tea (and often lunch) and park my butt in a chair for three hours. It cost me more than making tea and lunch at home, but I was getting a fair amount of work done. Then one day, I heard an explosion. I thought a bomb had gone off on the sidewalk because the windows above the doors were imploding. My reaction was a bit delayed because of the earplugs, but I jumped up from my chair, grabbed my laptop and followed everyone else as they pushed their way toward the sidewall. An SUV had driven though the (closed) front doors of Starbucks, right into the store. It was rammed up against a post, spinning it’s wheels. Then the car backed up and sped away. I won’t go into details, but months later the man was interviewed on Dr. Phil about his bipolar disorder. He talked about the time he thought he was in an Al Pacino movie and was told to drive his car through Starbucks. I was too frazzled after that incident to ever write in Starbucks again.
The local pub is a great, quiet place to write, but it doesn’t open until noon and I usually write in the morning. Libraries can be wonderful, but mine has a children’s story hour and all kinds of other events, so it wasn’t the right place for me. And that’s how I came to write at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto (see the Grotto link in the right column for more information about this). It was worth it to me to commute 50 minutes one way from Berkeley to San Francisco (by train, where I can read or write), and to pay for BART tickets and rent in order to have a quiet place to write. And it’s QUIET. When I close the door of my office, I can’t hear a thing.
But the distractions didn’t end there. We have wireless Internet at the Grotto, and I am one of those people who checks her e-mail every 15 minutes and responds to messages as quickly as I read them. How was a person like me to get any work done? First I took a workshop with Martha Borst and I’ll write more about that later. Next I joined a “goals group” comprising the other attendees of the Martha Borst workshop. Third, I downloaded Freedom, a free application that allows you to turn off the Internet for an allotted time, while still using your word processor and other offline applications. (Another good one is SelfControl, which allows you to whitelist or blacklist selected websites and has a timer that lets you know how much time you have left.) Lastly, I used a stopwatch. For a long time I used a real stopwatch, the kind you buy at a sporting goods store, but now I use a stopwatch widget that I downloaded onto my Mac. That way I don’t have to worry about carrying something around with me, or forgetting it at home. I start the stopwatch when I begin writing, and I stop it when I take a break to eat or check e-mail or use the bathroom. That way, I know EXACTLY how much time I’ve written. Over the course of six hours, I usually write about four, less if I’m not focused. I set a goal to write a certain number of hours per week, then divide that into days and go from there. (For example, I typically wrote 4 hours three times per week). Right now I’m on maternity leave, so I’m off the clock until Thanksgiving.