Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Room of One's Own

Kathleen O’Brien writes for Harlequin Superromance…whenever she can get the stars and the furniture to align perfectly. She can’t remember when she got so picky about her writing conditions, and she’d love some advice on how to relax. Or, failing that, at least some company in her misery! Be sure to leave a comment: Kathleen is giving away THREE books. Welcome, Kathleen.

Sometimes I think I'm the author equivalent of Goldilocks. I find it hard to write under just any conditions. Every little detail makes a difference. This chair is too hard. This one is too soft. This music is too loud, and that light is too bright.

Ugh. I'm not sure how I ended up such a prissy hothouse flower. I didn't want to be. I didn't used to be. My earliest professional writing years were spent at a daily newspaper. There, you plop yourself down in an open-plan newsroom, amid the chatter of other reporters and the rat-tat of countless keyboards, and bat out your 12 inches of copy by your six o'clock deadline. No whining allowed.

I loved it. Most journalists do. The noise and the urgency provided a current that swept me with it. Prowling the thesaurus for the perfect word would have seemed juvenile, because the quest was for clear, concise communication, not grandstanding. Writer's block wasn’t in my vocabulary yet. I composed my first paragraphs in my head as I drove home from my interview, and "downloaded" them the minute my rear end hit the chair. Sometimes not even my own chair, if another writer had confiscated it for a more urgent story, a tighter deadline. No big deal. I just found a free computer and got busy writing.

Then, after I got married, I decided to stay home and be a novelist-mom. A lovely, lucky life, for which I’ll always be grateful. But somewhere along the way I lost that fluid indifference to my physical surroundings.

I have an office I adore. It’s a room painted my favorite cornflower blue, with a white desk, a cat curled and purring in my father's armchair, and walls of books. I have an absurdly large monitor, a sensitive keyboard, a Moulin Rouge mousepad, and a desk chair that soothes and breathes.

Heavenly. But by creating this sanctuary, where every detail pleases me, and not one note jars, have I created a monster? I've grown so sensitive to every nuance that I'm practically frozen in the presence of a new computer, or a minor rearrangement of the furniture.

On beautiful spring days, I long to take my laptop outside and write in the sweet little corner of the backyard I call my bower. When I'm editing, or researching, or answering reader mail, the bower suits me fine.

But when I'm trying to write new material, the outdoors is too distracting. The sunlight on the pool, the squirrels braiding the tree trunk, the cardinal hopping cautiously toward the birdbath...nothing gets written until I go inside.

Until about a year ago, I couldn't even bear to have music playing in the room while I wrote. Thankfully, I've broken through that barrier, but I still have days when I can't hear my inner voice if my background music has lyrics. For those days, I’ve created all-classical playlists. Mozart for the happy scenes, Beethoven for the sad.

I know a lot of writers who have similar Goldilocks tendencies, but many lucky others are still free spirits who can write anywhere, on anything, in front of anyone. Man, do I envy them! The story of J. K. Rowling creating Harry Potter at a coffee shop sounds like a fairy tale to me. If only I could. If only.

Which kind of writer are you? Do you require any particular environment to do your best work? If you are one of the lucky unfettered ones, do you have any tips for the rest of us? How can I reclaim that free flow, that open faucet of creativity that can't be clogged by such trivial things? Free book to three commenters! Open until Wednesday. Winner announced Thursday.

Kathleen has published more than 30 titles with Harlequin- everything from hot, sexy contemporaries to dark, brooding suspense. She's a five-time finalist for the RWA RITA Award, a winner of the Maggie Award, and a three-time finalist for Romantic Times' Reviewer's Choice. Her newest release, available now, is WE NEED A LITTLE CHRISTMAS, a novella in the anthology THAT CHRISTMAS FEELING. Please visit Kathleen at www.KOBrienOnline.com


Darlene said...


Now I'm wondering if having a house all the same bland off-beige color can inhibit creativity. I used to be very creative and was published when I was in the East, but since I moved to Texas, the only color in two houses I've owned has been white or off-white or beige. Totally bland and boring. I think I'm intimidated by this area and afraid to put any color into my house, even though I really miss it. And I haven't been able to do any serious writing or feel creative since I've moved here (although there are other factors involved). I keep wanting to go back to painting colors, but that's a huge job and one I can't do alone, so I'm living with what I have.


Melinda said...

Kathleen, very nice post. My writing corner is in the guest bedroom. I have a corkboard in front of me, a cat on the desk and a cat on the guest bed. It's very homey.

I have to have complete silence. No music, no t.v. going in the house and if my poor cats start to snore (one does loudly) they get asked to leave. :-)

Ana Kenley said...


Thanks for sharing your 'writing corner' with us. I'm a little envious of people who can write anywhere, but I guess we all find our muse any way we can.

Terry Odell said...

I'm so happy to have Kathleen here as my guest today. Just a heads up: She's at work, but will be checking in as her schedule permits, so keep your comments coming. I know she's eager to read them.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Terry, thanks for hosting Kathleen.

Hi Kathleen, *waves* - I can write pretty much anywhere-but I need things to be very quiet. Writing around music or TV or conversation can make me want to scream "Too much going on!" LOL I think because the voices in my head are so loud- :D


Kathleen O'Brien said...


I always thought beige might be the most soothing color, leaving all kinds of psychic space for creativity to flourish! How sad to have that dream shattered! Lol! So I guess I can't blame any of my writer block episodes on my bright blue walls!

Thanks for stopping by!


Kathleen O'Brien said...

Melinda, your corner sounds charming! I had to laugh, though, at the notion that you can actually ask a cat to do anything! Mine is so stubborn! I spend hours lifting her off my keyboard, only to have her spring back up immediately! Congrats on training yours better!

So glad to see you here!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Ana, I'm envious of them, too! I keep thinking there must be some secret... But I fear it's all about willpower, which is in short supply at my house!

jeannenewalker said...

Love to hear about others having issues. I too have created classic playlists to encourage my muse. I am a noobie writer, so I have few really set habits developed as of yet. I live in a small space with my family and the only refuge from the noise is the four days I am at home by myself. I still have to have interruptions to get the words sometimes. I write outside quite a bit with all our cats. That is fun.(rolls eyes)

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Terry, I'm so honored to have been invited! I'm definitely loving hearing from your readers! It's comfortIng to know I'm not alone! I'll definitely be back as often as I can today!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Nancy, lol about the voices in your head! I happen to know that they sometimes scream some very suspenseful stuff, too! No wonder you can't stand any competing noises! Thanks so much for coming by to say hi!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Jeanne, four days alone sounds pretty promising! I'm envious that you can write outside! What part of the country do you live in? I'm in Florida, so the summer months could melt a computer right in your lap! But spring and fall are lovely, and still I can't produce new pages out where the world distracts. Very frustrating!

Tammy said...


I can write anywhere as long as there is not too much noise. I am easily distracted by that. My favorite place to write however is on the balcony of a cruise ship. The scenery is calm and soothing as is the motion (most of the time). And, it is quiet. To date, I have taken 12 cruises, but have only been writing the last few. It also makes great writing material using visited ports. Allows me to accurately describe my surroundings and the life style of the Island or country.

Tammy C.

Nas Dean said...

Hi Kathleen, I try to go and sit by the sea for a while, then come back for my writing. I've got a corner in my bedroom which I've set up as my writing space. I'm lucky with daughter in school and hubby at work, nobody disturbs me during the day!

Mary Anne Landers said...

Thank you for your post, Kathleen; your blog, Terry; and your comments, everyone who has responded.

Want to hear about lousy writing conditions? "Cliffs Notes" tells how William Faulkner created one of his early successes:

Of "As I Lay Dying", Faulkner writes that he wrote it in six weeks while working on the night shift (from twelve midnight to six A.M.) in a heating plant. He would fire up the boilers, then, using an overturned wheelbarrow, he would write until the boilers needed firing again.


With this example in mind, I figure I should be able to write anywhere, under any conditions.

Keep up the good work!

Chudney Thomas said...

I can write anywhere, if it gets too noisy I just put on my I-pod. But editing had to be done at home, where I can spread out and print out what I want.

Linda Henderson said...

I'm not a writer but I can read anywhere, it doesn't matter how noisy it is. My daughters used to tease me that I was the only one they knew that could read a book while wearing headphones listening to music and watching tv and still tell you what was happening on all three.

seriousreader at live dot com

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Mary Anne, I have to admit that I've never learned to like Faulkner. This is almost heresy coming from a lifelong Southern reader. I'm not sure my sister can quite forgive me. :) Still, it does put a hot-house flower like me to shame.

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Tammy, writing on a cruise ship sounds divine! Unfortunately, for someone like me it also sounds probably impossible. :( But you're so lucky to have taken so many cruises. I've never taken a single one. No one in the family is willing to risk my whining and carrying on, as I'm super susceptible to motion sickness--and far from stoic! :

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Nas, I think you may have the perfect formula! The outdoors beauty first for inspiration, followed by a virtuous seat-in-chair stint. Do you leave near the sea? If so, you're soooo lucky! Water, especially moving water, is heaven to me.

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Chudney, what a gift to be able to create anywhere, anytime! Have you always been like that? Does it require discipline on your part, or does it come naturally? I can understand needing space for editing, although I've finally learned to do most of mine on the computer. If you have any tips, I'd sure love to be more like you!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Linda, you had me laughing at the mental picture of you, book in hand, tv flickering in front of you, and earphones pulsing in your ears. How on earth do you keep from going insane? That's what I call multi-tasking!

Anonymous said...

I finally made it. I know I am to late for any wins of any kind. But that okay I am just thrilled that I finally got in. LOL


bertie welck said...

sorry forgot to put in my name. Oh today has really been the pits. But that just means tomorrow has to be better ( doesn't it)

Terry Odell said...

Bertie and everyone- the comment drawing won't take place until tomorrow, so you're all still in the running. Tell your friends.

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Hi, Bertie! I'm glad you got here, too! :) The drawing will be at random, so coming early isn't the only deciding factor! I'm so sorry your day has been rotten. Any chance you can curl up with a good book and make it all go away? :)

LaVerne Clark said...

Hi Kathleen and Terry

I seem to have become more sensitive to things going on around me as I've gotten older. When I was younger (and before children!) I could write anywhere and anytime. Not so anymore.
I strongly suspect my main problem is the willpower thing though, as it's 10.30pm here in New Zealand, my children are fast asleep and my husband too is in bed after having given up on the thought I might join him - LOL - sorry if thats too much information : )
So - the perfect time to write - and here I am checking out my favourite blogs! : )

Maggie said...

Maybe you go into the office expecting your inspiration to be there? But of course it's in your head. I like to think of it as foreplay. You need a little mental warm-up before you go into the office, just as a little making out in the kitchen can make the bedroom—um--imperative. So start re-reading your last day's work before breakfast or grab some recent notes you've made about your work, and glance over them before you go for a walk or run.

Here's another angle. Mental work isn't just in your mind; it's in your body, too. Your body has daily rhythms, so writing happily depends on WHEN you work more than where. I like to start writing first thing in the morning, so my favorite "inspiration" is to lie in bed for half an hour reviewing and plotting forward, until the keyboard beckons, rather than repulsing me.

Good luck!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

LaVerne, oh dear! You mean it's my age??? LOL...you're so right, of course. The age card always is in the deck somewhere! And of course willpower is such a big part of the writing issue, too. I smiled at the thought of your husband postponing bedtime just a little, hoping you might decide you didn't *have* to write tonight! My apologies to him, but I'm glad you stopped by here instead!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Maggie, those are brilliant ideas! It's absolutely true that coming cold to the computer is pointless. I love the idea of re-reading or glancing at notes before I go for a walk. (The idea of a run makes me feel faint... ) You also may have hit on something with the rhythms idea, too. When I was a completely unblocked newspaper writer, I ordinarily wrote in the late afternoon, just because of the paper's production schedule. It happened to fit my rhythms perfectly. Nowadays, I frequently try to write in the morning, which is obviously a bust for me!

Great, great comment! Thanks so much for coming by and sharing your wisdom!