Kage Baker had a complicated relationship with distractions.
Most of the time, she ignored them – like the professional, dedicated writer she was. She had learned how to do that during a complex apprenticeship in writing in less-than-ideal environments: the noisy zoo of Momma’s house; study halls in a Catholic Girls school; sitting in the back corners of crude wooden stages, putting down her pen to hand performers musical instruments, beer, flaming torches and Yorick’s skull.
Some of the time, though, she courted distractions. She could (and did) make a good case for it, claiming from time to time that it was an enhancement technique. A good distraction to hand gave her something to push against, she claimed; resisting it honed her will and determination, and led ultimately to better writing. And, of course, it ended up providing an incentive as well; something to aim at as a reward, when she could finish a scene, a chapter or a book and then fling herself into the waiting arms of some distraction.
Ordinarily, I would say Bosh to the idea. That sounded to me like postponing sin soley to get more enjoyment out of eventual confession. Like banging your head against the wall because it feels so good when you stop. However, for Kage it worked – maybe even the head-banging part. God He knows, not every writing session was a delight to her (though most were). Sometimes she sweated and howled and cursed through every paragraph, stopping betimes to threaten Black Isle Studios or LucasArts or Valve about what she’d do if they didn’t have a new game ready for her to play when she was finished.
More than once, I bought the game she was hoping for and hid it – so, when she finally came to the end of her story, I could put it right into her shaking hands. It saved drives out in the middle of the night, looking for a 24-hour KMart with a good games section …
Mind you, Dear Readers, I’m not suggesting this as a motivational technique. It doesn’t work for me, for instance. I apparently don’t believe me when I promise an eventual reward; nor can I trust me to maintain discipline in order to win the prize. If you decide to try this method and it works for you – don’t tell me, please. I’ll just be disappointed in myself again, either for telling myself lies or for believing me when I do it. I have a difficult enough time with the inside of my head as it is.
Of course,some classical distractions were put to immediate and active use by Kage – and by lots of other writers, as well. Many writers find noise (defined as a sound they are not, themselves, making …) to be anathema to a good writing session. Others need a soundtrack. Kage was of the soundtrack persuasion, and she often chose that soundtrack with great deliberation to match what she was writing. And then she would play it over. And over. And over.
For years, one or the other of us had to be ready to leap up and grab the needle as soon as a record ended; then return it to the beginning with great care. The ancient Grundig that was Kage’s sound system all through adolescence was built by people who considered adding a 33 1/3 speed option to be cutting edge technology. Some of Kage’s early favourites (old operas apparently made out of lacquered basalt) had to be restarted every 15 minutes … luckily, the art of recordings advanced steadily through her life – for the 14 years of her actually published career, she could pre-program 8 hours of continuous music and just let it wash over her.
I was grateful, too. Catching and setting that damned needle all the time was a pain.
Radios didn’t do the trick for Kage when it came to the soundtrack for writing. There was no guarantee they would match the mood. Radios were not biddable. And if they didn’t match properly, she was not sure she could keep the writing on the track she envisioned. Kage was quite sure that some of her stories came out slightly different because she listened to the wrong Police album, or too much Borodin, or not enough Beatles. Sometimes that difference was an improvement, but it still bothered her that the music had made such an unexpected difference.
There was only one recording of the opera Sir John In Love, for instance, that she could stand. And it has never been released on CD. So when she needed that one, it was back to the vinyl version and much needle-jockeying.
I guess every writer has to face the noise vs soundtrack problem on their own. I even know that there are writers for whom the daily cacophony of a house full of children and domestic livestock is a soothing background. For me, most daily noise is no problem – I go psychosomatically deaf when I read or write anyway. And my family knows it, and will yell in my ear when it’s vital I hear them.
When I do need music – variety is what I need most. Anticipation is a worst distraction, for me, than noting what just came on. There is only so much organization that fits into my head, and if I use it all up on counting off What song is next? – well, the plot of what I’m writing goes to hell.
Which is why KDFC is being magnificently variable in the background right now. And when you’re house-sitting for a couple of musicians, as I am, the sound system tends to be fantastic.
Which is just the sort of distraction that works best.