Writing Without Electricity

Winter storms bring power failures on a regular basis to my neck of the woods. Despite the best efforts of the CalTrans tree trimmers, branches will fall, trees will topple, and mud will slide. The neighborhood of my first house, where I lived as a single working mom, had been without power for three weeks during previous winter. The story is that after a couple of days without refrigeration, everyone got together for a huge barbecue. Alas, I missed it. I think the longest I went sans electricity was a week. My daughter, our Japanese exchange student, and I survived pretty well with flashlights and candles and oil lamps, the propane fireplace for heat, and showers at the home of my day-job supervisor.

When my husband and I bought our current house, one of the first things he did was to install a 10 kW standby generator. I attributed this action to testosterone poisoning, although I did appreciate “all the conveniences” the next time the inevitable happened. However, no system is foolproof, and the generator battery failed one winter just before it was due for its yearly maintenance. We had an interesting couple of days (wood fireplace, aforementioned lamps, etc.) but what struck me most about that experience was how many things I love to do that don’t require electricity: read, play my piano, walk the dog, snuggle with my sweetie, potter in the garden, knit socks . . . and write. That got me thinking about power failures and where power comes from.

The power to tell stories doesn’t come from electricity or teachers or publishers, but sometimes I act as if it does. I come up with all kinds of excuses for not settling to write. It’s too hot, it’s too cold, I’m hungry, I’m sleepy, I’m restless, this book will never be any good . . . Ack! The power’s out I can’t use my computer!

I learned to write stories in longhand and can still return to that medium without much difficulty. I use it when I’m stuck on a scene because the kinesthetic and tactile experience of pen moving over paper involves my brain on a different level than keys going clickity-click. Not everyone makes that switch easily, and that’s okay. We’re all different. But generating pages is only one aspect of writing, the one most vulnerable to power outages.

One of the limitations of production quotas (so many pages per day, a novel in a month, that sort of thing) is that so many other “pieces” of writing don’t involve putting words on the page. When I worked a full-time day job, I’d walk during my lunch hour. I’d plan out the next scene — or the scene I was most interested in at the moment — recite lines of dialog aloud, act out the parts. In other words, I’d play. Have fun with it. Discover bits of detail and twists of action that I had no idea were there. A beautiful day and a winding road through successive groves of oak, eucalyptus and redwood (my lunchtime route) make this experience pleasant, but are by no means necessary — you can do it anywhere. Just exercise discretion about the reciting dialog aloud if you’re on public transportation or in church.

I keep a notebook for each writing project and an ongoing general writing journal. I use the notebooks for “writing through” plot problems, working out geneologies and time-lines, drawing maps and flow-charts. The journal’s for cool names in search of characters, story ideas, that sort of thing. Sometimes, a half-hour spent noodling through the work in progress or dreaming about the next one can make the difference between a day of frustration and excuses and one that while not enormously productive of written pages, supercharges me for weeks to come.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her recent publications include Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jaydium, available in serialized chapters and ebook here on Book View Cafe.

Find my new and out-of-print books at Powell’s online. Read my essays on the writing life and how to survive reviews in Brewing Fine Fiction.

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Writing Without Electricity — 6 Comments

  1. It’s hard not to let your tools dictate how and when you write. I used to do “morning pages” as well as my usual writing work–and stopped when a ganglion cyst made writing long-hand almost impossible. And almost immediately I desperately needed to write long-hand, until it became an ache, and using the computer just didn’t do it. Drove me nuts, and took about two weeks to shift that impulse back to the laptop and fold all the writing back into the work in progress.

    When I was growing up we lived, part time, in a barn that was in the process of becoming a house, in farm country in Massachusetts. Candles and firewood were always on hand, but curiously, my father never thought about having a standby generator!

  2. Mad, well do I know the feeling — it’s as if my inner child and my muse have ganged up and thrown a royal temper tantrum. We want to write THIS WAY — nowwwww!

    I wonder if the generator is — excuse, please — a generational thing? If you grew up without electricity or with intermittent power, surrounded by pre-electricity tools, it might be less important to you.

  3. I find long-hand useful because you can easily lug along a folder or something to work on when waiting for a doctor’s appointment or an oil change.

  4. For a long time writing was a handiwork, and I actually had to write fiction by hand. Preferably with a mechanical pencil on yellow pads. However, as word processors improved I switched over, and now I really need the flexibility of cut and paste.

  5. Deb–I think my father’s not-thinking-of-a-generator comes more from his being a city boy than from a generational thing (the guy is 97…). But we always thought of the barn as “rough living,” and so much of what we did there were not electricity-dependent (cooking was, because the refrigerator, stove and oven were electric, and I was the only one desperate enough to read by flashlight when the power went out).

    What I remember with great fondness was the first big blackout in NYC in the early 60s. As with any major outside-our-control event (blizzards, hurricanes, etc.) the first New Yorker response was “But…but we’re a city! This doesn’t happen to us!” And then things became curiously cheery, as if the whole city was having a block party. My father directed traffic at 53rd and Madison for an hour before he walked the 40+ blocks home. Candles were not to be had for love or money, but people sat out on their stoops on our relatively respectable block, sharing candles with neighbors and singing and chattering. It was extraordinary, and I was reminded of it on 9/11, when an not-festive, but very cohesive spirit of community reigned immediately.