NaNoWriMo Notes 21: A Writer Observed
There is a certain sub-category of the species artist that exists in most societies around the world know as the writer. A highly reclusive creature, that appears to shun the company of others while working, little is known of their daily routine or working habits.
In an attempt to come to a deeper understanding of the subject matter, I have gone into the field to observe a writer in his natural habitat. The one who I have chosen seems to be fairly typical of the species, but we know so little about them he may, in fact, be unique.
His basic details are as follows. He is forty-five, married with no children, and lives in South Eastern Ontario Canada. Over the course of slightly over a year I have observed his morning routine on an almost daily basis. The following is a distillation of those many mornings of observation compressed into one typical block of time.
It is my hope that through continued observation and consultation with other experts in the field, that insight may be gained into the nature of this beast. By exposing his characteristics, and monitoring his behaviour patterns, it could be possible to draw some conclusions about this subject in particular and writers in general.
12:30am – 2:00am: After what appears to have been a restless sleep the subject gets out of bed and wanders into the bathroom. After his relieving himself he enters the kitchen and precedes to plug in his laptop, start the coffee he's prepared the night before, and feed some sort of treat to his four cats. He then puts out a fresh plate of food for the cats and seats himself in front of the laptop.
His first step is to read a newspaper online, starting with the sports section, then the arts and finally the front section. Occasionally he will swear under his breath or utter similar exclamations. He will conclude his reading of the newspaper by doing the crossword puzzle that he only occasionally cheats at. (Note: During this time he will have consumed anywhere between two and three cups of coffee, and two or three cigarettes. He will also have started a second pot of coffee while drinking the third cup. Very rarely will he eat at this time)
Next he will check both his email accounts for anything that he feels he should respond to immediately. Mail will elicit much the same responses as the newspaper, but also occasional laughter.
From the time he opened his newspaper's site to finishing with his mail he has consumed about an hour. At this point the subject has been observed doing one of a few things. He will either retrieve a CD case and begin to examine it, I can only presume he's listened to it at a prior occasion; a book which he will stare at for a moment blankly as if trying to remember what it is; or just stare blankly at his computer screen for a length of time ranging from seconds to minutes.
In either instant he will set to typing after his perusal of the object at hand or the computer screen. He will continue thusly for the next hour or two; stopping only to make more coffee, stop the cats from fighting or making too much noise as they race up and down the apartment halls, light cigarettes, and go to the bathroom.
At 4:00am every morning the subject stops and retires to his bedroom and returns shortly after with a pill that he takes with a mouthful of water.
Physical Character Traits: Hair and Body
As with any creature the subject matter seem to observe a set of physical characteristics that he is apparently unaware of while he is preoccupied. He utilizes a slightly old fashioned kneeling apparatus for a seat where his knees rest on a lower platform and his buttocks rest on an upper platform. This leads to a series of interesting body adjustments that he will undergo during his time at the computer.
Initially he will seat himself in such a manner that both knees are placed parallel to each other with his weight evenly distributed. His back is straight, his shoulders relaxed and his head erect. But it's not long before he starts to shift uncomfortably; first he passes the weight from one buttock to another as if trying to find a more comfortable position. Then he will twist his spine in various angles, rotate his shoulders, and turn his head from side to side all in what appear to be more vain efforts to achieve comfort.
Finally, when those recourses have apparently failed to achieve the desired results, he will begin to rearrange his legs. First he will remove one from its kneeling position so that the knee is at a roughly 90-degree angle to the platform on which his foot and the other knee rest. This seems to happen without his awareness because he will all of a sudden switch back to having both knees resting on the lower platform and make an effort to sit erect again. But soon the legs have gone back to earlier mentioned position.
Eventually he appears to resign himself to that position because instead of reverting back to the kneeling, he will merely switch back and forth between legs that are at the 90-degree angle. On some even more drastic occasions he will even rise up completely from his resting place and walk around the apartment muttering under his breath while keeping his hands splayed across the small of his back.
The subject matter has longer than average hair for a man of his age and at times this too seems to be a distraction and something that he must contend with while writing. While on occasion he keeps it tied back in a loose pony tail arrangement, other times he lets it just hang loose. It's those moments when his hair becomes an indicator of his mood and perhaps even his progress.
It might be of interest to pursue the utilization of hair in greater detail as a general area of study. Is there significance to the number of times a subject will curl a strand of hair around a finger? Does the tightness of said curl indicate an increased state of frustration or just excitement in general? What about stroking a strand meditatively while brushing it back from the eyes? Is that just incidental action or indicative of something more complex?
As the subject exhibits all of these traits to one degree or another understanding of them at a more complex level would allow us to perhaps gain a deeper insight into the creative process. (Note: I don't believe we should read much into the subject's tendency to occasionally set strands of his hair on fire while lighting a cigarette. I think that can be put down to his general mood of preoccupation while he writes)
The subject has been observed at various times while writing to manipulate various aspects of his facial structure. Some, like the rubbing of the exterior of nose with thumb may be considered merely habitual scratching of little or no significance or pertaining to an actual physical discomfort of the nasal area, others may offer some insight into his state of mind or even the emotional fluctuations he under goes while writing.
He is often observed to place his hand on his face such that it covesr the lower half of his mouth on a diagonal down to his chin. This will when then be followed by moving the hand downwards and upwards along the path of his beard so that he appears to be attempting to scrub his beard from his chin with the palm of his hand.
As this is usually accompanied by a cessation of typing, and a creasing of forehead we should be safe in assuming it indicates some sort of thinking process is underway. He has been seen to affect a milder form of the same behaviour by idly stroking the edges of his moustache hairs with the tips of his fingers. That this action is always performed with the head tilted slightly to the left and staring into the middle distance or with eyes partially closed it can be concluded that this to is an indication of a thinking process.
If one were to be fanciful one could try and give a metaphysical attribute to the second of these displays of concentration. While the first has elements of frustration, the furrowed brow, the aggressive and aggravated motion of the hand, the second appears gentler and more contemplative. Could it be that those are moments of inspiration we are witnessing?
Instead of struggling with a thought as the first behaviour indicates is happening, the subject appears to be almost listening, as if some inner voice is communicating with him. This is of course mere speculation, but the differences in demeanour do suggest a significant shift in mood and temperament that lend credence to that observation. Perhaps a more in depth study of the differences between beard and moustache manipulation could reveal further details.
Some actions involving the face and the hands are more prosaic than others. The vigorous "washing" motion wherein both hands are placed to cover the entire face and scrub up and down over the whole surface, including under the glasses would appear to be just a method of reviving tired and perhaps itchy eyes and invigorating the skin in an effort to curb fatigue.
Rubbing the forehead across its breadth with thumb and first two fingers, followed by inserting the same digits under the glasses to rub at the point where the base of the nose and the eyes meet is more than likely for similar reasons. More mysterious is the act of rubbing the forehead with the index finger from the space between the eyebrows to the hairline.
While some cultures maintain that this area is home to the "third eye", an access point for spiritual insight, it does not appear that this action accomplishes anything of importance and should only be construed as a habitual activity like the his ear scratching or nose rubbing.
Finishing and Conclusion
Approximately two hours after the subject begins his typing he starts to show signs that he will not be continuing much longer. One of the sure signs that the period of activity is drawing to a close is the increased ratio of physical movements and facial manipulations in proportion to the amount of writing taking place; the more extraneous activity the less writing.
This should not be seen as an indication of completion on the subject's part, instead this would appear to be the limit of his ability to stay at his laptop. If he has managed to complete something during this time, he will stop and prepare his first food of the day. Once he has completed those preparations he returns to the computer and proof reads, making any edits and changes that he sees fit.
The subject accomplishes this by the simple expedient of reading what he has written out loud to himself. He has been observed to stop in mid sentence, re write a segment, and than continue reading as if he hadn't been interrupted.
After an extensive period of observation, slightly over 12 months, the one conclusion that stands out most obviously is that the subject is a creature of almost obsessive habit. In all this time he has rarely ever deviated from the proceedings described above, down to the smallest detail of physical activity.
On those occasions where he has been forced to alter his routine he is visibly discomfited and highly stressed. Although generalizations based on the observations of one individual of a species can be erroneous, if this writer's behaviour is indicative of others, they are most definitely creatures of very fixed habits. This almost compulsive need for routine suggests a need for familiarity in order for the creative process to proceed smoothly.
In an attempt to understand the subject more completely I will expand my range of study to see if the patterns continue throughout the day during his other periods of activity. If these characteristics are consistent it may be necessary to consider his behaviour not just compulsive but obsessive.
An argument could be made that the desire, and means of fulfilling said desire, to write is a form of psychological illness and a modification of the DSM IV (book listing symptoms and diagnostic techniques for physiological ailments) may be required to include its symptoms to facilitate future diagnosis. Before that conclusion is reached further study is required, and perhaps other subjects considered for observation.
This is a field that cries out for further study and intense analysis. I hope that my small contribution is a step towards helping us all understand the strange and complex creature that exists among us called a writer.