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The “Writing Oxygen” and other tales from inside a writing house

I’m writing the first draft of this post waiting for a press conference to tell me if Melbourne is going back into a tough lockdown. My original plan for today would mean I was meeting a colleague for coffee and then spending a day sitting under the great glass dome at the State Library (one of my happy places, it’s even the avatar I use on Twitter) finishing a book.

But suddenly that didn’t seem like a sensible plan, and so I decided to work from home… only to run into an issue. My partner has a writing deadline, and was planning to spend today writing from home. We both looked at each other with a grimace, he uttered the magical words ‘writing oxygen’ and ‘I can write from the office’.

Now we live in a ridiculously rambling house. When we work from home, he works from the far front on the ground floor, and I work at the far back upstairs. We have good internet, and plenty of doors, and plenty of space. The problem with the writing oxygen is not one of space or time or infrastructure. It’s more… a vibe.

My partner and I both have jobs that involve writing, and often, in fact, we write together. We are currently trying to tie up three related projects together: an academic article, a scholarly book, and a popular book version of some earlier academic research we did. So we are perfectly capable of being co-authors, we go on research trips together, we debate ideas over dinner in the evening. Sometimes we have academic or team-work conflict, and we are good at addressing those. But the writing oxygen is non-negotiable.

What even is this ‘writing oxygen’? Like many insider phrases that build up in families, teams, friendship groups, it’s one of those things that has a source incident but has come to be a shorthand to refer to something that we recognised but didn’t yet have a name for.

Many years ago, I was frustrated one day when we were both working from home, both trying to write and I just couldn’t. I was sitting at my computer, I had things to say, and I just felt itchy and claustrophobic. I felt like I couldn’t breathe deeply enough, that I didn’t have enough space and air to do the expansive, challenging, full-throttle work that producing a first draft requires. I couldn’t concentrate. Writing new words is like running, you need more space and air and power than you do walking or sitting. Editing is fine, formatting is fine, reading and researching is fine, but new ideas and new words need space, dammit.

I just feel like there isn’t enough writing oxygen in the house for both of us, I said.

Oh, yes, that was the problem. The mental energy that is required by existing in the same place as other people you care about (whether that’s family at home or co-workers in the office) takes up quite a lot of brain power. And new ideas and new words might need more brain power than is left over, especially if they are original and rigorous and difficult. You might want to think about it as Brain RAM, or Processing Power, or anything else. And other things impact it, like health and stress, but they require other solutions. In our house, this capacity to focus without social constraint, is called ‘writing oxygen’. This is why writing in a library also works for me, and why writing in the office can work for my partner (he is the most senior person in the building, and has a PA, when he closes his door and puts on his noise cancelling headphones, that is more likely to be respected).

Writing has technical aspects, sure. You need skills, and training. And you need to be organised and disciplined about keeping up with deadlines and juggling projects. And writing has physical challenges, you have to sit and use your back and wrists and neck and eyes.

But, you also bring your weird, inner, non-rational self to the desk when you write. The inner self that has views about what music you can listen to, or that you need to enact your writing rituals before typing a word. There are good reasons why you might like what you like, but a lot of it just is personal preference, and that is totally a great reason to take it seriously.

Academic writing is really hard. It requires serious brain power, extended focus, and careful attention. You need to force something nebulous and new and emerging, into clear and accurate academic prose. The more experienced and skilled I get at writing, the bigger the writing challenges I am tackling. It isn’t getting easier, even though I’m getting better.

And so, if I want to write with my favourite tea cup, or only listening to Kpop, or propped up in bed, or even in a space with no-one else breathing the writing oxygen… then I should honour that. Lean into it. I should also expect others to honour those preferences (as long as I’m similarly honouring theirs). Our support and respect for each other as colleagues and family includes supporting our writing quirks.

Maybe you have a writing quirk, or two! Maybe some of them even impact the people around you. I’d love to hear your writing preferences, join the conversation on Twitter 🙂

Photo by J K on Unsplash

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