How to Build a Moat Around Your Writing Life

When normal life threatens to overwhelm your book project, learn how to build yourself a moat. |

Novels-in-progress are incredibly fragile things. Can we agree on that? 

When you're walking around with a novel in your brain, you're carrying this precious ethereal bundle of impressions and insights and ideas--scraps of dialogue, exquisite gestures, emotional through-lines, motivations, pacing--

And the rest of your life clamors around with air horns and parade bands.


Here's what we have to do, if we really want to write these novels. If we really want to give birth to the ideas in our brains.

We have to build a moat around our writing lives.

Twyla Tharp calls this The Bubble. Heather Sellers calls it Surround Sound. And I'm thinking in terms of moats full of alligators and very dangerous-looking algae.

But whatever metaphor you want, it looks like this:

When you're inside it, you can hear your novel's voice. You can hear it breathe. You're insulated from all the other things that you have to pay attention to or care about in a day. And for now, it's just you, and the living book.

It's a magical place. You feel like you can stop fighting. It's a place of nearly-pure focus.

Listen to how Twyla Tharp talks about it:

"You are coming close to an ideal creative state, one where creativity becomes a self-perpetuating habit. You are linking your art. Everything in your life feeds into your work, and the work feeds into more work." -- The Creative Habit

How seriously beautiful is that? 

Here's how Heather Sellers describes it:

"Think of writing a book as like buying one of those speaker systems that envelop you in sound. No matter where you are, you are surrounded. Similarly, you must allow the book you're writing to wrap itself around you and permeate every single part of your life. Your book should always be running in the background of your mind, even when you aren't literally putting words on paper in your studio." -- Chapter After Chapter

But how do we create that kind of environment? How do we get there?

I found my way into a well-moated writing life because I was having trouble breathing. 

I don't mean that metaphorically. I mean I had pneumonia. So for a couple of months, I was stretched out on a recliner, with zero physical energy and crud in my lungs.

I canceled my commitments, scrapped my plans. Realized that I would be pretty much useless for anything or to anyone.

And I was all set for some major self-pity wallowing... when it hit me that I had just found the ideal writing life.

Right? I couldn't go anywhere or do anything except hold down that recliner, nap, and scribble. 

So that's what I did. 

For the actual writing, I got my sick little fingers on a bunch of index cards. (I LOVE writing on index cards. They're so portable, so approachable. Not nearly as daunting as a spiral notebook.)

I balanced them on the arm rests of the recliner, and I wrote a daily quota of eleven index cards, front and back. I could fill a card; take a nap. Write another one; take another nap.

In the evenings, when the day's cards were full, I read books about writing. I took notes, talking back to the books. I thought of it as my own, private writer's retreat.

All the small parts of my day seemed to surround the book, and shelter the process of working. 

I wrote an incredibly solid first draft of that novel. And in spite of all the gasping, it's one of my favorite-ever drafting experiences.

Hopefully you don't have to wait for a case of walking pneumonia to create a writing bubble, a writing moat.

All you need to do is find a way to stay more in the work than out of it. 

How can we do this in miniature?

Well, it doesn't have to be big and dramatic: no lung x-rays required.

Instead it might be a string of little habits, little triggers, little writing rituals, that create a benevolent moat--protecting your one and only writing life.

- Surround yourself with things that make you think of your book. Words, sure, but also pictures photographs of characters or related imagery. Little trinkets and touchstones. Quotes from your characters. 

- Start writing when you get up, just a few sentences. Write before you fall asleep, a paragraph or two. James Scott Bell recommends writing down a question, whatever it is you're stumped on, before you fall asleep, and see if your brain has come up with an answer for you when you get up.

- Turn your lunch break into a writing bubble by reading bit of writing advice, writing a poem or a mini-essay, and then reading a bit of fiction.

- Stay connected to the writing world by listening to essays and podcasts about writing as you clean, as you cook, as you go for a jog.

- Have a collector's mind, everywhere you go. Look at the weather, at the scene outside your window, at the faces you pass by. Consider the sound of voices, the feel of words spoken around you, the incidental noise. Measure and taste everything that comes your way. Think in terms of what will I use, what goes into the book? 

- Or, you could go big and dramatic. You could block off a four-day weekend, be unaccessible to everyone, and just bury yourself in your work. Warm up with writing exercises, take long walks with your notebook, spend your afternoons diving deeper into your work.

... You could even diagnose yourself with a case of writer's pneumonia. It's a very serious sickness, and the only way to heal--and breathe freely again!--is this: To write your book. 

(I'm just imagining all of us turning down commitments like this: "No, I'm so sorry, it's a very worthy cause and all, but I have this book in my brain, and it's spreading to my lungs, and so I can't breathe. Maybe in a few months??" ... Actually, I'm pretty sure this is a legitimate disease. It sounds familiar, doesn't it??)

Whether you make a big dramatic moat around your days, or whether you find small bubbles of time that protect your book, it comes down to this:

Aiming ourselves at stories. Pointing our energy and our time toward words, toward writing, toward creativity, rather than away. 

Ooooh. Just think what would happen if we did that. Just think what we could write!