Do You Write In the Nude?

Supposed photo of JD Salinger but debunked. It’s really nudist writer Jason Loam.

Writing is a socially acceptable form of getting naked in public. — Paulo Coelho

By PJ Parrish

So there I was, sitting on the sofa in my old sweat pants and my Bob Seger Get Out of Denver tour t-shirt and things were going south fast.  Actually, they weren’t going south. They were going nowhere.  I was mired mid-scene in a chapter about halfway through the WIP.  Getting no traction. Feeling hopeless. Ready to give up and go watch Shark Tank.

Then I had an idea.  All I needed was a change of habit.  It had worked before. Back when I lived in Fort Lauderdale, I would pack up the lap top, hitch a ride on the water taxi and go to my favorite coffee bar or bar, depending on the lateness of the hour and the depth of my desperation.

But I live up in northern Michigan now. And we were in the middle of a chilly-for-August two-day rainstorm. I had to improvise.  So I combed my hair, slipped into a leopard print lounging robe and locked myself in the bedroom, without the dogs or the TV remote.

It didn’t work.  But the bad patch did get me to thinking about writing rituals, and the weird things we writers do to prime the pump.

Like writing naked.

Lots of writers have resorted to going buff when blocked. Hemingway, it is said, wrote naked standing up at his typewriter, which I can somehow see (but unfortunately can’t un-see). James Whitcomb Riley had his friends lock him up naked in a hotel room with only pen and paper, so he wouldn’t be tempted to go down to the bar.  Victor Hugo, when facing a killer four-month deadline, had his servant take away all his clothes. He bought one bottle of ink and huge gray shawl, so he couldn’t go outside.

I’ve tried other things to get the juices going.  Usually, I go for a long run. Clears the brain and you can write dialogue while you pound around. I’ve relocated to places without internet. Once, when my sister Kelly and I were struggling with an early book in the series, we rented a tiny cottage near Hot Springs, Ark. Faced with nothing but each other’s voices and the whine of mosquitoes, we got a lot done. I would do this all the time if I could afford it, though not in rural Arkansas again.

Jonathan Franzen wrote The Corrections in a rented office, stripped of all distractions. He used an old Dell laptop  that had no wireless card and a blocked ethernet port. I prefer how Maya Angelou does it. When writing, she checks into a hotel room every day, taking legal pads, a bottle of sherry, playing cards, a Bible and Roget’s Thesaurus. She writes twelve pages before leaving in the afternoon, then edits the pages that night.

The weirdest ritual might have belonged to Franz Kafka. Every time he got ready to write, he would first do ten minutes of what was called the “Müller technique” — a series of swings, stretches, and body-weight exercises. After he was finished writing, he did another ten minutes. Did I mention that he did this naked?

Water is supposed to enhance creativity, they say.  And lots of famous folks wrote in bathtubs, including Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, Edmond Rostand, and Ben Franklin, who also liked to take what he called “air baths,” where he’d sit around naked in a cold room for an hour or so while he wrote.

Woody Allen, on the other hand, is strictly a shower guy, telling interviewer Eric Lax:

This sounds so silly, but I’ll be working dressed as I am and I’ll want to get into the shower for a creative stint. So I’ll take off some of my clothes and make myself an English muffin or something and try to give myself a little chill so I want to get in the shower. I’ll stand there with steaming hot water coming down for thirty minutes, forty-five minutes, just thinking out ideas and working on plot. Then I get out and dry myself and dress and then flop down on the bed and think there.

I am writing this post today lying in bed. Lots of famous writers wrote in bed — James Joyce, Proust, Twain, and one of my favorites, Truman Capote. “I am a completely horizontal author,” Truman Capote told The Paris Review. “I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy.”

William Styron was a real piker. He would sleep until noon, then read and think in bed for another hour or so before lunch with his wife at 1:30. He finally got around to begin writing about four.  I can relate.

But let me get back to my own problems with that recalcitrant chapter. How did I finally get going again? What was the magic ritual that unlocked my creativity? There wasn’t one. After four frustrating days of typing, deleting, typing, deleting, I finally printed out the chapter and took it to my favorite watering hole here in Traverse City, Sleder’s Travern.  I ordered one glass of wine and sat there and just read.

It took maybe half a glass for me to realize what was wrong. It wasn’t my ritual. It was my unwillingness to be naked. I was at a crucial point in the story when my character was facing what our own James Scott Bell called the Man in the Mirror moment, and I was pulling my punches. I was holding back emotionally in what should have been a really emotional point in my story.  Maybe it was a fear of being sentimental. Maybe it was because I didn’t truly understand what had brought my character to this point. But for some strange reason I was holding back.  And as Anne Rice once said, to write you have to risk making a fool of yourself.

It took me another week  to get that scene right. But it’s there and it’s what it needs to be now. Sometimes, you gotta get naked.

Oh, I should finish telling you about what happened to Victor Hugo.  He completed his book weeks before his deadline.  He used up the entire bottle of ink. He thought about calling his book What Came Out of a Bottle of Ink, but eventually came up with a better title — The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

24 thoughts on “Do You Write In the Nude?

  1. As an off-shoot of your post, I just finished reading “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” by John J. Ratey & Eric Hagerman. It is not intended to be a book on links between creativity and exercise, but the whole gist of the book is the importance of vigorous aerobic exercise to forging new pathways in the brain. Part of what he discusses is both the short term and long term benefits of aerobic exercise in many areas–mental, emotional, social, and physical health. So using your example of running, if you come back from a run, you not only have your running time to ponder the story but also if you’re able to come in from a run and sit down with pen & paper or computer, you can get out some work & perhaps look at it with an invigorated eye.

    I’m going to experiment with this and see what my findings are. That might also help make it a game changer since I consider myself a morning person but usually find myself stuck writing in the evening, my lowest energy time of day. But if I experiment with some good vigorous exercise before my evening writing time, I’m curious to see the effect.

    As to getting naked on the page, I can’t say I’ve tried any wild ideas but I definitely do run into that from time to time. I’ll have to make a note of what ultimately works.

    • You need to report back to us BK on your exercise results. I reallly understand what you say about the time of day affecting your ability to write. I can’t write in the morning. I have tried and tried because I am am early riser — like 5 a.m. But those hours are lost to me creatively so I do mundane life stuff and wait until the “muse” shows up around 1 and I work until 6 or almost 7. I should get ahold of “Spark”…am fascinated by analysis of how the brain works. Thanks!

  2. I was stuck and frustrated because it’s “only” a novella. Should be able to crank it out, right? But for me, writing short is a challenge and even though I have the basic ideas down (as far as this “plantser” can go), I kept worrying I was rambling. Plus, I have a different POV character, and because she’s not a cop, the whole genre shifted from police procedural to cozy, not something I’m comfortable with. After days of not getting anywhere, I read the whole thing again (I’m only 10K in) to see what the problem was.

    As usual, it’s the old “you can’t fix a blank page” issue which means I just need to keep writing crap so I have more to fix.

    As for my writing attire — mornings I’m in my robe dealing with things like email, social media, blog hopping. The dog demands I get dressed so she can have her walk later in the morning. I write best at the desk on the PC, and am usually wearing comfortable rural mountain life clothes. After periods of inactivity, my 27 inch screen goes black, which makes it a mirror. No nude writing for this old broad.

    • Ha! I so get your remark about that black screen mirror. It’s an ugly thing to face first thing in the day, for writing or vanity. And I hear you about the write crap until something else floats up. A lot of famous writers have said the same thing, though I believe Hemingway’s language was a bit more colorful.

  3. Without my shorts, white cotton socks, white tee, and blue shorts? I live, and write, in Phoenix. This is my standard writing regalia, even in the refrigeration, even when it’s 116 outside, even if there are UFO reports, and even with the possibility of a North Korean missile arrival penciled in for the afternoon. On one of those dates in the (solar) winter, you know, when it doesn’t seem that anything you can do to get warm, I will put on a blue sweat suit over my regular attire. (Winter, most of the time in Phoenix, means that the temperature has slipped to 67, perhaps even 65 degrees.) (Except on Super Bowl Sunday or NCAA playoffs, or Fiesta Bowl day, when all of the visitors are in town for the game, the warm weather, and sneaking through and around the Mexican drug cartel cabreros to Nogales, Sonora, to get their dental work done excellently but on the cheap. On those days, count on it, it’ll be 38 degrees.) (It’s sweat suit time again.)

    So I guess I said all of that to say this: write without clothes on in Phoenix? Are you kidding me?

    • Jim,
      Your narrative reads a little like a Burroughs novel. Maybe Naked Lunch? Supposedly Burroughs wrote in the buff. But when he was truly blocked, he resorted to a jumpstart method he called The Cut Up Technique. Here’s his words:

      “The method is simple. Here is one way to do it. Take a page. Like this page. Now cut down the middle and cross the middle. You have four sections: 1 2 3 4 … one two three four. Now rearrange the sections placing section four with section one and section two with section three. And you have a new page. Sometimes it says much the same thing. Sometimes something quite different–(cutting up political speeches is an interesting exercise)–in any case you will find that it says something and something quite definite. Take any poet or writer you fancy. Heresay, or poems you have read over many times. The words have lost meaning and life through years of repetition. Now take the poem and type out selected passages. Fill a page with excerpts. Now cut the page. You have a new poem. As many poems as you like.”

      They say this worked for David Bowie and Kurt Cobain. Don’t know how this would work for novels.

  4. My biggest block comes when things are happening in my family. When I get upset or anxious about my daughter, I can’t write. It would be such a wonderful escape if I could write at such times! I just haven’t figured out how to compartmentalize portions of my life so I can get on with creating.

    When I do write, I prefer to write in bed. It’s quiet and no one disturbs me, but if I come downstairs in my multi-generational home, I’m fair game for conversation.

    • My sister Kelly has kids so she can relate…she had to carve out her writing time after they had all gone to bed. I don’t have little ones so it’s hard for me to understand how writers with families can concentrate. You have to really be disciplined and, as you say, create a box around yourself.

  5. PJ–great information and very insightful. I had the same problem when I wrote my non-fiction book after the death of my first wife. I couldn’t get things right until my second wife reminded me that I tried to look good, instead of making myself vulnerable. I did, finished the book, and The Tender Scar has been helping others for a decade now. Sometimes, you’ve got to get naked. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I would write in the nude, but I’m afraid it might lead to dangling participles.

    I do, however, like to change scene from time to time. When I can’t do it physically, I do it by changing backgrounds in Scrivener. And sounds. I like coffee house sounds (e.g., Coffitivity) or city sounds (honking, etc., which reminds me of New York). Ocean and rain sounds make me too relaxed.

  7. Never tried the nude option – I’m clearly too prudish for that:) I would love to be able to write in coffee shops for a change of scenery but I get embarrassed by writing in public (jeez…so many hang ups!) – so my only option is to hunker down at home and hope any writer’s block passes mercifully quickly. I do find going to for a nice long walk is the best for clearing the brain – I get to look at the beautiful Colorado peaks as soon as I walk out my front door so I’m lucky:)

  8. Me in the nude? Far to scary. However, I do write in the same uniform as Jim Porter. I do find that focus works better to break block. I go for a walk (pants on) and think about the parameters of the story and ask myself what is the worst thing that could happen to the antag at a this point. Usually works.
    When it doesn’t work I’ll often write a short story as a way of refreshing what’s left of my meager brain.
    I’d like to thank the whole TKZ team. You are the way I start each writing day. You are an inspiration. Maybe that’s my secret.

  9. I can relate. About 60% of my second novel “Pepper Creek Murder” (Available on Amazon) was written in the buff. And, by the way, the story takes place in a nudist resort in Vermont. I typically do write, both naked and clothed. However, in this particular instance, being naked, helped me relate fully to my characters.

  10. I loved this post. It definitely got my attention. As for writing in the nude…….not me–I get chilly goosies, like Jennifer Lopez often says on TV. BUT, some good ideas come to me when hot water flows over my tired old body in the shower.
    Thank you for a great afternoon read.

  11. You crack me up! I don’t think anyone would want to see Kafka or Hemingway naked. (Also, Hemingway would probably have liked to be watched, don’t you think? Ew.)

    If you ever do decide to write in the buff, remember to cover the camera on your computer!

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