Each year, for the first full weekend of NaNoWriMo, we leave town (kind of) for a writing jag we call Jumpstart Weekend. Three or four days of NaNo-ing. Without the distractions of daily life. We write, we use the buddy system to plow through the inevitable panic attacks caused by Wow! This draft is BAD, and we build up excess word count to help counter future tough writing days. Also: booze.
We’ve holed up in cabins. We’ve holed up hotels. My favorite—a three-day weekend at the casino. That weekend was writing, writing, buffets, writing, and occasional stints at the Kitty Glitter slots. I left with nearly 20,000 words. The first time in my writing life I’ve ever produced that much in such a short span of time.
This year, we stayed at hotel connected to the Mall of America. Great idea, we thought. We’ve stayed at the hotel before for other writing retreats. Plenty of coffee nearby, and I am ever-inspired onward by shamelessly consumeristic carrots: hit a writing goal, and the reward is a little bit of shopping. After we booked the hotel, we discussed on and off hosting a write in at the mall. Quasi central location for our region, lots of public transportation + free parking. The North food court has WiFi, outlets, and a Starbucks. Perfect.
While we talked, someone else shut up and did. A write-in was planned for the Saturday of our Jumpstart Weekend. We asked to piggyback, the host was cool.
So, last Saturday, laptops in tow and Starbucks in hand, we ventured into the Mall of America’s North Food Court to write novels.
DUH, I know. Seems so obvious now. But here’s the thing: I usually write best in coffee shops. I can make Panera work. Hotel lobbies, airport gates, the waiting room at the car dealership. It’s all good. So why was the Mall such a productivity killer?
The atmosphere, I guess. The vibe was off. In coffee shops, most of the other patrons are doing—if not creative work, then deeply personal work. I write in the morning, and there are a lot of people like me at the coffee shop: doing creative and/or personal work in the early dawn hours before heading off to the job that covers the bills. There are prayer meetings and AA dudes meeting sponsors. Study groups, chicks mentoring chicks, other writers and dreamers. Most are gracious enough to respect this early morning hustle with QUIET.
Which the Mall of America on the first cold weekend was not. And due the social nature of a write-in, I didn’t wear headphones. So much clang and commotion. I never really settled into a deep place for writing, that low resistance, lost to the world headspace needed during Shitty First Drafts.
As the hours of low productivity dirged past, the bad vibe got worse. I swung between picking at my draft, word by word instead of line by line, and berating myself for not settling into my work. I got hypersensitive: feeling the other two or three introverts twitching with the over-peopling, half-hearing the stream of chatter flowing, flowing, flowing, and even getting swamped under the wash of other senses. Coffee shops are muted wood, and smelled of roasted coffee and pastries. The food court spewed a thousand scented variations on grease. Blinking lights all around, and in no discernable pattern. Chairs designed to encourage you to eat quickly and return to shopping.
My take-away lesson from this year’s Jumpstart: I gained insight to my best work environments. Comradely, but not social. Out of the house, but not in an overly PUBLIC public place. Nowhere that smells like French fries. Somewhere a Kitty Glitter machine is accessible, but not in the same room.