Writing While Wet
My best ideas come in the shower. I will be in the middle of scrubbing suds into my hair, with bubbles flying and sodium laureth sulfate dangerously close to my eyes, when the perfect topic will appear, and then the words will start to flow. I will know exactly how to begin, what should come next, and even an outline will begin to form in my mind. My ideas begin developing quickly, and as I realize the writing potential that I have created with a few minutes alone, I frantically finish washing and wish that pens and paper were compatible with water.
This happens inevitably, and although the conditions are not conducive to writing, there is an element of the shower that promotes invention. It also happens in the car, while I am driving children to and from school, ballet, and piano lessons, but only if the radio is off and my toddler is asleep. This condition is quiet, and it allows me, as a writer and scholar, to meditate, to think, to invent, and to create.
This quiet is not perfectly still. There is usually white noise or a scenic view, but it’s silent enough to allow my mind to wander and to think. I jokingly share my shower anecdote with my freshman composition students occasionally. It comes out as a counter to their claims that writing at 3 a.m. on the day the essay is due is their best place and time to write. They claim that their writing “flows” when they are under pressure, when a deadline is looming, and when their bodies are loaded with caffeine. They defend procrastination vehemently, not realizing that writing is a process and that it best occurs over time, with thought, craft, care, revision, and thinking.
We try to engender such thinking in the classroom. We read essays to lead up to each major writing assignment and then put pen to paper silently in class to respond to those essays. We talk about the issues, looking for thesis statements, topic sentences, connections, and transitions. We spend weeks doing this thinking, and then, it is time for invention. I would love to encourage my students to go home and take showers while thinking about their essay topics. However, even if assigned, this would not happen. They do not see writing and thinking as enjoyable, but instead as a chore. Their minds would wander and they would procrastinate. So, we create that quiet in the classroom, where it is supervised and artificial, but it is there.
We spend a day or two drafting and brainstorming. I provide the questions and they write. I suggest clustering their ideas, and they write. I explain Peter Elbow’s concept of free writing, and they write. They write silently, alone, in a quiet classroom, with only the sound of the building’s heating and air-conditioning system and the tick of the clock creating ambient noise. Hopefully, their ideas are flowing and the environment, although quiet and sterile, is promoting that. Perhaps the classroom does not promote ideas as inspiring or as urgent as my shower ideas, but it is a start toward creating a quiet place in which to meditate. The location does not matter as much as the condition of that location.
My shower is not the only place that I find inspiration for my writing. I have also used the quiet of my undergraduate university library and an old spiral bound notebook to let my ideas flow. I sit on my bed at night after the children are asleep and jot down my many thoughts. I carry a small notebook with me and write whenever a moment of inspiration hits me. That’s usually when I’m walking through the tree-lined sidewalks of my current campus. I use technology, my iPad, my computer, and my laptop, to write as I am struck. I keep sticky notes and a pen in my car for inventive occasions as well. And when I am reading, I write in the margins and on the end papers. The mode of writing does not matter, but the conditions. The conditions can strike at anytime, for quiet and meditation can happen at different points throughout the day.
But perhaps technology contributes to a lack of quiet, meditative conditions. We are constantly connected through our phones, our iPads, our televisions, and our computers. Some even sleep (or shower) with these devices. There can be no quiet with such connectivity. There is no chance to think, to relax, or to meditate. Staring at one’s laptop screen in the classroom, despite the instructor’s best efforts to create a thinking atmosphere, may be just as intimidating or unsettling. That blank screen may induce anxiety and the suddenly louder tick of the clock may magnify that feeling. Are pen and paper better? Are there more possibilities for healthy mistakes and free flow of thought on a notepad? Is there something less formal and less demanding of perfection than a screen, which from the get-go displays an ideal form of typography and the serious feel of words in print?
Technology isn’t our only boon to writing and creating a quiet place in which to do so. The busyness of our lives also encroaches on thinking time. If we are never alone during the day, if we are never allowed a moment of just sitting, and if we can never find the right conditions for pondering, when will any thinking happen? This is an issue often explored, from well-written essays in The New Yorker to complaints of friends and children being burned out from overachievement. This busyness may also take away from the quiet moments of inspiration a writer can and should receive.
My shower is a haven of writing for me, despite its limits, because it is the one consistent place I am away from the technology and the busyness of my own life. Although, I still don’t have a solution to writing while wet!