Thomas Wolfe, once stymied — and I’m betting it was only once — with not a single thing to write about one day, applied his considerable talents to describing the towels in his bathroom. This was not an occasion of writer’s block, just an absence of a suitable subject. There are times when I experience a similar quandary. Yet I have never had classic writer’s block; there is always something with which to litter a perfectly clean piece of paper.
At the moment that would be the absence of noise, or more positively, the presence of quiet. In the place of a severe influx of hammers, guys lifting things to the top of the house, dogs demanding a bush or someone else’s lawn, street sweepers or the blow-and-go team, there is now only the distant movement of people in their cars, a breeze through the trees and the periodic closing of the door to the microwave. And I do like it. A lot.
Not that I can’t compose without dead silence. Back in the day when I was pounding out fresh words for corporate America, I was completely comfortable in the soft din of a business office. In the trade, we call it the city room environment — at least that’s always been my way of referencing it. Akin to reporters working at the New York Times, you sit in your own cube, surrounded by other people doing the same thing, but survive and function by tuning out all of that extraneous noise. Colleagues walking by have no effect if you’re completely in the zone. Yet ironically, if someone, seemingly trying to be helpful, closes the door to your cube, the spell is usually broken: you become cognizant of less noise.
For many years I found the city room environment to be compatible with isolated thought, but I have to say that it was an ability that took some time to develop. Well, maybe not so much an ability as a work process, and one borne of necessity, unless, of course, you found yourself in a walled office that was nearly impervious to car crashes or air raid sirens. Prior, I would see those scenes in a film of noisy editing rooms of a great newspaper and wonder how anyone could possibly concentrate long enough write anything with a coherent sentence. But obviously, such is the case, given that a wad of paper then ends up on your driveway every morning. Or copy in the hands of a television anchor.
Appreciating that was sufficient incentive for me. So in fairly short order I developed what it took to concentrate in the face of the world in action.
Now, however, all has changed. Now I have the supposed pleasure and advantage of the peace and tranquility of a — sometimes — dead quiet office, with, no less, a view (and not of the garage next door, or the wall of a building not four feet away).
But with it comes the slow erosion of the ability to write in a cacophony of the indescribable from all corners. Now it’s like my hearing is getting better by the day. Scary stuff, really: What would happen if I was made an offer that I couldn’t refuse from, say, the Los Angeles Times, for a dream job making gobs of money, but that threw me right back into the hubbub of sixty guys all beating on their computers and yakking endlessly on their phones? Would I end up standing on the top of my desk and screaming, “Shut the ____ up!! Now!!”
Very slight chance, and that’s a good thing.
I’d be a very long way from the couch.