I don’t typically work from home when I’m writing fiction. Too many distractions which are almost purely mental (as opposed to audible or visual). Reminders of things that need cleaning, fixing, adjustment. Things I’ve put off seemingly forever.

I typically write in coffee shops, sometimes the odd bar. So yes, I am typically more comfortable in a strange place, surrounded by strangers (though to be honest I tend not to seek out locations that are packed), with music that is not my own playing overhead. This may sound odd. After all, what could possibly provide more distraction than that?

I find the hardest variable is music. The last thing I want is to write while music I know is playing. Why? Because if I like a song, then I’ll be focused on it rather than the brittle little fictional world I’m constructing. My foot will inevitably start beating on the floor to the drums. I will anticipate the dynamics, the chorus. Pretty soon lyrics will be passing through my eyes like ticker-tape instead of my characters’ dialogue.

So, though it might seem paradoxical, I prefer the random jukebox that is the playlist of whomever is working at an establishment I’m located in. And you know what? I discovered many years ago that I can write through pretty much any type of music. And the stranger or furthest away from my taste the music is, the easier it is to tune it out. When I’m in a place that isn’t home, with people I don’t know, with music playing that I wouldn’t necessarily choose to listen to, I can more easily fall into that glorious black hole which allows me to sync with the fictional universe on the other side of my consciousness.

And yet I found my limit the other day. I was in a place I shall not mention, a sometimes habitual writing bunker, when out of nowhere this bubble-gum punk rock started pouring out of the speakers. It was a sort of tame-yet-posturing, loud-without-being-honestly-offensive style of music that I haven’t been exposed to very much because I don’t have children or listen to Top 40 radio. It made Green Day sound like Television. It was just a bunch of loudly inoffensive canned-rebellion bullshit rock. It was giving-your-Dad-the-finger-standing-behind-a-wall-six-miles-away rock. Did I mention it was loud? Thing is, even when the staff turned it down I still couldn’t concentrate.

My imagination can cut through Kylie Minogue and The Eagles. It can cut through Manu Chao and Metallica. But on this day I discovered the imagination-despoiling equivalent of kryptonite. I could not tune it out. So, for the first time ever, I left an establishment based solely on how bad the music was.

I’m still working through it a little… It was, after all, a discovery of limits. And while I’ve never pushed myself to prove how much shitty music I could withstand while writing (there are no winners), I always figured I could find a crack in anything – a little sliver which allowed me to slip through the assault and find my muse; to then in turn make my resistance work for the writing, allowing me to fall further into it.

I’m reminded of the early Warner Bros. cartoon (1959’s Unnatural History) in which a chameleon was depicted effortlessly blending into whatever colour was presented behind it, only to find itself facing a screen of plaid, forcing it to break down, crying “I can’t do it! I can’t do it!”.

I can’t do it, either. And while doing it isn’t that important (again, who’s the winner when the opponent is pop-punk), it’s the very discovery of limits that can sometimes create a chill.


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