Writers Under Lock and Key

In a recent New York Times Book Review piece, Tony Perrottet writes about a number of authors throughout history who were especially productive when imprisoned. Among them are the Marquis de Sade, Marco Polo, Napoleon Bonaparte and Oscar Wilde. Perrottet makes the point that writers often are most productive when they are forced into isolation – away from the distractions of life.

Writers live for distraction; anything to keep us from having to face a blank page, it seems. Yet we complain constantly about not being able to find time to write. I hear it especially from new writers: How do you find the time to write? How do you focus/break through writer’s block/get started, etc.?

Most serious writers I know intentionally disconnect from the world. I turn off e-mail and close my Internet browser, then try to put aside for later temptations like Google searches related to what I’m writing. It’s not easy, but it is doable.

Something that works for me, too, is getting out of my routine space. So, instead of sitting at my desk where I do other work, I’ll sometimes take my computer to the dining room table. Or drive to a local café and write there for an hour or two.

If you can get away for a weekend, or even a week or two, do it. A weeklong writers retreat can be extremely productive, especially if it’s in a remote spot where Internet access is limited or non-existent. Silence that smartphone! Promise yourself an Internet orgy if you can get 500 solid words written in the next hour or so.

I’ve written in the past about my writing buddies and our semi-annual writing retreats. For nearly five years we (anywhere from eight to 14 of us) have traipsed up the coast of California to a small beach town where we de-camp for a week and write. Internet access is limited; but more important, we stay holed up in our rooms most of the day and write. I rewrote an entire book during one of our retreats. That said, this only works if one has the willpower to write while on retreat. It can be very tempting to hang out on the beach or sleep in the rooftop hammocks instead. But there’s group pressure, so most of us get a lot of writing done.

Imagine being locked in a cell with nothing else to do for months on end. No wonder the marquis was so productive. Perrottet tells us that after 11 years in prison, Sade had written eight novels and short story collections, 16 historical novellas, a diary, two volumes of essays and 20 plays.

For most of us, it boils down to willpower. Treat your writing as a job. Go to “work” every day by sitting down somewhere and producing 500 or 1,000 words. Then pour yourself a lemonade and … go back and write some more.