Most writers find it necessary to work in quiet places where they can concentrate in silence. Jonathan Franzen has been known to write in a room with no electronics, no WiFi, nothing but a chair and a table. On occasion, he’s even blindfolded himself and plugged up his ears.
Maybe that’s your style — being cut off from the world. But don’t dismiss the possible advantages of writing in a noisy environment. Crafting prose in silence and serenity has its benefits, but it might be time to take your laptop and wrap yourself in racket.
An unintentional experiment with writing amid noise
The other day, I locked myself out of my house. I was in a hurry, trying to get the dog to poop, taking out trash, stacking laundry from the washer. While I waited for my wonderful girlfriend to drive over and let me in, I wrote in a nearby coffee shop.
Espresso machines whirring, clinking and clanking of silverware and mugs, laughter, talking, chatter — the constant din of a caffeine club wasn’t my typical writing environment. But I wrote, I thrived, I fed off all of the noise.
If you generally write in silence, this situation might sound awful. But here are three reasons why you might want to experiment with writing in a noisy place.
1. Conversations inspire authentic dialogue
Listen to the conversations going on around you. What are people saying? How does each one turn a phrase? What kind of voices do the speakers have — gravely, sweet, annoying? And most importantly, how does the conversation unfold?
Dialogue is hard to write with authenticity. Listen to how people really talk, and let it evolve into your writing. If you’re writing a scene about a conversation in a coffee shop, go to a coffee shop and listen to the voices.
2. Noise offers depth and color
Your parents always told you to do your homework in a quiet place, and yes, research says studying or working in silence, in a place where distractions are low, is a good thing.
But that was homework; now you’re writing and creating. Instead of letting noise disturb you, allow it to inform your work. The music you hear inside a tavern can add mood, police sirens from the street outside can add to plot, and an overheard argument at the table next to you can add depth to a character. Use what you hear to enhance scene and story.
Next, go deeper and explore the ambient noise, the less obvious sounds. What do you really hear? Go beyond the people talking at the next table and the music coming from the speakers. What about the squeak of a chair, the clang of a closing door, the food grilling in the restaurant’s kitchen?
Let each one settle in and listen closely. Consider how they manifest and how people react to these sounds. You might think the audio coming out of a television in a bar would be distracting, but the content of that sound or someone’s response to it might lead you to a new creative idea.
3. Science suggests noise might lead to inspiration
If you need to be creative, you might be better off in a moderately noisy place than a quiet one. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found noise at about 70 decibels — the equivalent of a busy coffee shop — distracted participants just enough to help them think more creatively.
Inspired by this research, a website called Coffitivity offers a soundtrack of ambient coffee shop sounds. If you want to try writing at a noisy coffee shop before actually going to one, give it a try to see whether a little clatter gets your creative juices flowing.
Will you try writing in a noisy place?
Although this noisy world can sometimes wear on our senses, commotion and clatter just might take our writing to wonderfully imaginative places.
Life happens in the noise, so writing right in the middle of it is a great example of embedded reporting. It might take extra concentration at first, and your usual writing discipline or routine might need some adjustments, but shaking things up could have a great effect on your work.
Do you enjoy writing in noisy places? Or do you prefer to work in silence?