Yesterday we dealt with the “first-level” comforts, things like the location you’re in when you’re writing or what sort of chair or other spot you choose to do the writing in. Those can have an influence on whether your mind follows old habits and goes down its usual paths that tend to distract you from writing or whether it buckles down as you want it to and really plows into your writing task.
But your writing circumstances don’t just involve choices like public vs. private, coffee shop vs. bedroom, comfy chair vs. hard, straight-backed chair, or desk vs. kitchen table. There are even more subtle things that become a part of your NaNo-writing experience, and they can exert almost as much of an influence on how well you concentrate or how your writing energy flows. You’re probably just less aware of the influence of, say, a chocolate bar on your writing than you are aware of how uncomfortable you are in a particular chair. But those subtle influences are there, and they, too, are things that you can tweak to try to help yourself get through this thirty-day marathon and keep writing.
One cannot live without snacks. Thus saith virtually everybody who does the NaNo. Snacks are intended to be part of comfortable writing, so after our discussion, above, of the pros and cons of comfort, you can decide whether or not you think snacks should be cut out of the equation. I imagine that most people will still want to have a snack now and then, though, even if they decide that a comfortable chair isn’t a top priority.
One thing to decide is what kind of snacks you want. Believe it or not, even your snacks can have an influence on your writing experience. They may not determine what sort of story you write or words you use, but they can have an effect on your writing energy itself.
I have an absolute favorite brand of milk chocolate-hazelnut chocolate bar that I would always pick as a snack over anything else, if I could. But I’ve begun to notice that I get pretty sleepy after I eat one. So if I’m doing an uninterrupted NaNo session, I have to decide whether it’s worth risking my writing energy and time by having one of those chocolate bars. Something else might work better now, and I can save the chocolate-hazelnut bar for later.
If chocolate is your thing, though, there are other types of chocolate that might still be of assistance with respect to your energy. Milk chocolate, as it does me, makes some people sleepy. (It’s the calcium in the milk, believe it or not. There’s a reason for those old grandmothers’ advice to have a cup of warm milk before bedtime; it helps you sleep!) But dark chocolate, of course, does not have the milk. I don’t like dark chocolate, because it tastes too “sour” and sharp for me. But you might really like it. Much dark chocolate has caffeine in it, so it might not be the chocolate, as such, that helps you; it might be the caffeine.
But hey—caffeine! People have been using it to help themselves get energized for many, many years, so if that’s what you need to keep your brain alert and energized, go for it. The tales of “NaNoing with coffee” are legion and legendary. Keep in mind that it’s all nervous energy, though, and sometimes if you rely too much on caffeine, you just get edgy and twitchy and irritated rather than inspired and full of energy. Believe me, before I quit drinking coffee myself, I spent enough nights totally exhausted with insomnia while edgy with caffeine to recognize that this was not useful energy. So be moderate enough with the caffeine that you don’t undo any positive effects you were trying to create with it.
For some people (me included), certain types of tea work better. I don’t mean the really heavy-duty concentrated black teas, and I don’t mean the not-really-tea fruit teas either. Some teas are a happy medium, with just enough caffeine to keep you slightly more alert than usual but not so much that your brain is shrieking full-steam until 4:00 a.m. every night.
You might also consider a different, more natural sort of brain booster as part of your snack regimen. From what I have always understood, apples are very good for brain energy. I can only give my own anecdotal experience as a testament to that, but I have often found that when I wake up sluggish, I can help myself become more alert and functional if I eat an apple or two, first thing after I get up.
As another anecdotal point, I can recount the story of the years when I was an organizer of a three-day conference that took place every summer. Saturday was the busiest day of the conference, and I was always on my feet all day, that day, usually not even getting time to break for lunch or even sit down. But one year, I kept myself going all day, without feeling draggy or hungry or icky, by filling my big pockets with apples. The moment I felt like my energy was dropping or I felt hungry, I would pull out another apple. And out of the seven or eight years I did that conference, that year was the one year when I did not feel kind of sick and knocked-out by the end of Saturday. I was energized and alert the entire day, was able to enjoy the dance on Saturday night, and did not feel mildly sick on Sunday morning, as I normally would have. So if you’ve never thought of using apples as your NaNo snack, maybe give them a try one day, to see if they help.
How comfortable (or not) you are while working on the NaNo can make a surprising difference in how well you do.
The whole matter of ambient sound is so interesting. Before you even think of music, you may first need to evaluate the “public vs. private” issue, because some people have a hard time concentrating if they are simply in a room with other people—even if those people are all silent. And if they find that, first of all, they must work when they are alone, then they face the question of ambient sound in general. Do they need absolute silence, or can they handle some sounds? If they don’t need total silence, can they work when there is music playing? And if they can, are there restrictions on the type of music?
You may find that your ability to write to music depends on the day, the type of music, and the mood you’re in. Some days you might do it, while other days you just can’t. So these are things to consider while planning the setting in which you do each day’s NaNo writing.
I do know some people who need absolute silence in order to do homework, to write, or to do anything else that requires concentration. I have always fretted that this actually puts them at a disadvantage, because very few people will find themselves working in a job where they have absolute silence. Of course, when you’re writing the Nano and working under this sort of heavy deadline, it’s not the time to make any big changes in this regard. But if you find that you have that requirement of absolute silence in order to get your work done and do it well, you may find that this is something you will need to work on trying to lessen a bit, if you can. There are going to be very few circumstances in the real working world, or in life in general, where absolute silence will be available to allow you to work well.
But say that you can handle general background sound. The furnace in the house turns on, it’s no big deal. Someone can cough in the next room, and you don’t need to backtrack to remember where you were in your sentence. You can handle the general stuff. But what about music?
This can be another big divide. You may find it possible to let your mind regard all sorts of music as the same sort of background sound as the furnace noise or the subliminal hum of traffic from a distant highway. If that’s the case, music might be a good sort of “companion” while you’re writing alone in your room. Whenever you need to lift your head and think about something else for a minute, that companionable music is there, already playing. And when you go back to your story, it recedes once more into the same sort of background ambience and atmosphere that is provided, say, by the color of the walls.
Or you may have trouble concentrating if there are actual songs being played, you know, songs with lyrics. Songs can be a means of setting two streams of words flowing in your head, the words you’re trying to write and the words to the songs. The big difference is that one stream (the songs) is playing on its own and is not stopping, while the other stream (your writing) is a set of words that requires you to make constant exertion in order to produce. If the two streams start to clash, which one do you suppose is likely to predominate in the end? That’s right, the songs with lyrics are going to “win.” So you might have to turn them off.
But what about instrumental music? Ah, here’s another divide, unfortunately. (It’s like the issue of music vs. no-music is turning out to be a kind of Russian nesting doll set, always a new smaller problem division inside a bigger problem division.) If you put on some instrumental music where there are only musical instruments playing songs that normally have lyrics, but in this case, nobody is actually singing, what happens inside your mind then? For some people, this type of music is not a distraction at all. But there’s also the possibility that you might find your mind straining to supply those lyrics itself. So now you’re trying to make the exertion to create new words for your NaNo, but your mind seems to, well, have a mind of its own, and it’s exerting itself to supply the lyrics missing from that instrumental song. Will you be able to concentrate on the NaNo then?
I started out being able to write to any kind of music, and I often still can. But my brain is one of those that tries to supply missing lyrics, so oddly, I don’t do well with instrumental music for songs that usually have lyrics. (On the other hand, I often have songs going through my head all on their own, complete with lyrics. When this happens, it never seems to affect my concentration. Go figure.)
You might also try to put on music that is instrumental, has no lyrics, and never has had any lyrics. A lot of classical music is like this. I once wrote a very sad star-crossed love scene to a sad semi-classical saxophone piece. I set that one song to replay again and again until the scene was written; it was the perfect inspiration, and I think it helped me write the words on the page with just the right tone. On the other hand, there is some music that I “sing along to” even when there are no lyrics. Have you ever had the experience of singing along with the bass line on a song or singing the different guitar riffs? When I hear Handel’s Messiah and the “Trumpet Shall Sound” song, I don’t sing along with the tenor—I sing the trumpet parts. The same thing happens with Ian Anderson’s flute album, Twelve Dances with God. I sing all the different flute parts. That particular album is one that I can never write to, because it’s even more distracting than an album with all sorts of vocals. (Pity, too, since it’s almost the favorite album I’ve got.)
The point to all of this discussion of the various types of comforts you might add into your NaNo experience—the location, the furniture, the snacks, the music—is that you should try to make yourself aware of which elements might actually distract you from writing well, or which ones might even make you so comfortable that you’ll hardly write at all. The more you can do to set up the absolute optimal conditions for your writing, the more successful you’re going to be.