Monday, July 25, 2016

Let the Sunshine In: Where Writers Write

On DeGroff Way, a short block of ten houses in the historic Union Hill district at the edge of downtown Kansas City, several homeowners welcomed visitors to their yards during a recent garden tour. I talked with one of the creative gardeners about his choice of plants, his artistic landscaping, and the street of lovely hundred-year-old houses, all of which faced south in two tandem rows.

“William Rockhill Nelson had the houses built,” he told me, “for his editors and writers.”

Nelson, the founder of The Kansas City Star newspaper, believed that houses should face south so his writers/residents could benefit from direct midday sunlight. Maybe early Star journalists such as Earnest Hemingway and William Allen White drank in the sunshine to enhance their creative geniuses. If this giant among Kansas City’s famous citizens, William Rockhill Nelson, the man who bequeathed the land and money to start our magnificent art gallery after helping to develop the city, believed that sunshine induces creativity, it’s worth considering.

Too much sun can cause a multitude of skin problems. On the other hand, the right balance can have lots of mood-lifting benefits. “Sunlight and darkness trigger the release of hormones in your brain. Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin. This is associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused. At night, darker lighting cues trigger the brain to make another hormone called melatonin. This hormone is responsible for helping a person feel sleepy and go to sleep.” [Sunlight and Serotonin,].

In a 2002 Creativity Research Journal study, the researchers found that teams of high school students who worked in direct sunlight… designed more innovative collages than those who worked in an inside space…. [Let the Sunshine In] Research from Australia and from China shows that children who get out in the sun more have better eyesight.” [Dr. Micozzi's Insiders’ Cures]

Another research project “showed that light exposure actually enhances brain response. In 2006, researchers in Belgium and England exposed study participants to light and then performed tests on their thinking abilities. They used brain imaging to see exactly what areas of the brain responded to the light exposure. Results showed that even a brief exposure to light substantially increased alertness and thinking ability in participants.” [A Natural Boost: Sunlight and the Brain, 2008]

I do much of my writing at a computer in a south-facing room of my house where I can look out at the sun on the leaves or bare branches, can see when the mailman arrives, and can watch birds play. Sometimes, one side of my brain processes a neighbor walking her dog down the sidewalk while the other side formulates my next sentence. Perhaps I benefit from the sunlight coming through the second story window?

When I’m in the “zone” of dreaming up scenes, anyplace I happen to be works as my writing space—the passenger seat of our car, the kitchen table, a picnic table at a campsite, or an airport waiting area. I’m not the only one. Allison K Gibson, in a Huffington Post article, wrote about habits of famous authors.  Emily St. John Mandel said, “I do most of my writing in my home office, at my unbelievably messy desk. It’s by far my favorite place to write—my cats and my music are there, and it’s a very peaceful room. Often, very often, I’ll find myself writing in the subway. I spend two hours a day on the F train, five days a week, and I always carry a notebook with me.” Believe me, I can relate to the “unbelievably messy desk” part.

Apparently, Mandel and I aren’t the only ones who write during trips. Erskine Caldwell, author of Tobacco Road, ran a bookstore in Maine. “…when he needed time to write, he would take a bus from "Boston to Cleveland maybe, and get off at night once in a while to write.” Said Alexander Chee,  “Usually it’s trains where I get the most writing done—I wish I could get a residency from Amtrak on a sleeper car, or an office booth in a cafe car.”  

It’s not clear how sunlight or the lack of it relates to people who write in cars, trains, and airplanes or in other busy places such as coffee houses or Paris cafés. Elizabeth Crane, author of the story collection, You Must Be This Happy to Enter, said that she writes at home, often on the couch with the T.V. on.

I also write in front of the television sometimes. I grew up in a small house where I shared a bedroom with my sister and had no place of my own to which I could retreat. I did my reading, writing, and arithmetic homework in the living room with the T.V. blaring. Background noise and activity don’t stop me now.

The living room of my youth was open to large windows on the front and back, to the north and south. I like the idea that sunshine aids creativity. "I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come," Toni Morrison told Elissa Schappell in a 1993 Paris Review interview. There’s another author citing sunlight as a force that invigorates or inspires.

In Poets and Writers’ Magazine, Alexandra Enders wrote about her own writing experience.  “I was in the middle of a novel when, several years ago, my husband, the sculptor Peter Soriano, won a grant to live and work in Alexander Calder's house in the tiny town of Saché, France…. My novel was about an island in Maine, a novel in which landscape, and the character's attachment to it, played a big role, and the irony of working on that while feeling distinctly unattached to this place in the beautiful French countryside was not lost on me…. Meanwhile, in the days and weeks that followed, the French landscape outside and its lovely slow spring was seeping in, and in my novel the bright and forceful Maine summer was hurtling out, and there, on that simple pine table pushed up against the bare white wall, I found a way to contain it all.”

Enders’s French springtime “seeped in.” The sunshine slipped through the window. Could the arcs of my stories and the personalities of my fervent characters be influenced by the sunshine sparking on the leaves of the giant elm, oak, and maple trees outside my office window? Did Edgar Allen Poe visit dreary places in his mind while he wrote in the sunshine? It’s possible the early Star editors and journalists retired to dark back rooms and never sat on their sun-facing front porches to write. I believe, though, that my mood and productivity lifts when there’s a sunny day after periods of dreary overcast.

What about you? Where do you write? Where do you read? Where do you create? Do you think sunshine or its lack might have an impact on your mood, subject matter, or creativity?


Charles Gramlich said...

My window faces the sunlit back yard. I think it does help me.

authorlindathorne said...

I do most of my writing in a little office with a window that overlooks our backyard and behind the yard (southwest I thing), an area of land that is owned by the city or someone else (a big green area with large trees). During the day I have plenty of sunshine. Sometimes too much and I have to slant my blinds to filter it out. I can't write while watching T.V. Really enjoyed your post and the various pretty pictures.

G. B. Miller said...

I do a good portion of my writing in a tiny little den (actually the furnace room) in the basement of my house. I have a cellar window that is always open so I can hear the sounds of suburbia. When I want to do some editing or blog writing, I have a spot outside in my side yard that is roughly 100 feet from a local mountain. Shady and quiet, it helps me relax and clear the fuzzys from my head. Which is a good thing, since I need almost 100% silence in order to write.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I write mostly indoors during the night after my kids and hubby have retired to bed. I sometimes write at their soccer practice and at parks. Doesn't matter my environment or sunlight when I write. However, when I get most of my ideas, work out plots, dialogues and scenes in my mind is at the park jogging in the early morning sunlight. So yes, sunlight does influence my creativity.

Joyce Ann Brown said...

Reading your comments makes me think that sunlight may enhance creativity. I wonder if there are writers in Alaska who produce great works during the wintertime. Ha.

authorlindathorne said...

I lived the first 35 or so years of my life in Phoenix, Arizona (except for being born in a small town in the Deep south and staying there until I was a good 5 or 6 months old). I still think sunlight may motivate more than overcast, but now that I live in the South, I can say I love the clouds and the rain more.

Liane Spicer said...

I do most of my writing indoors, in bed, at night, usually when the rest of the household is fast asleep. I live in the Caribbean and the ever-present blinding sunshine is something I try to escape most of the time. I like the coolness and quiet of the night when the only glare I have to contend with comes from the screen of my laptop, and even that brightness is turned way down. I rarely ever see the sun rise, unless I've pulled my staying up all night stunt. Like Linda, I love cloudy, rainy days best of all.

I do enjoy sitting under the old, old trees on the expansive greens of the campus on sunny but cool days during the tropical winter. Don't know how that affects my creativity, but it makes me happy and clears my mind.

Sally Jadlow said...

Yes. Light. A view of the outdoors. Quiet. NO TV! I plot as I drive or walk, then pour it out on the page to gel for a while. Then go back to taste and tweak until, at last, like Goldilocks, it's just right.

Sunny Frazier said...

You might have hit on something, sunlight being a "muse." I have tried creatng offices in back bedrooms and it never works. I finally set up the desk right in my living room where I can look out the large window and watch my neighbors walking their dogs, my cats behind their white picket fence enjoying their yard. I can also be the Neighborhood Watch, monitoring any unusual activity. Instead of distraction, it makes me feel connected to the world, not isolated as I write. It also helps me to take my eyes off the screen for a bit of a rest.
Oh, and I live alone so there are no distractions or people walking into my space. Except the cats. Most of the time they are respectful, but sometimes they want to play on the keyboard or sit on the top of my chair.

Amy M. Reade said...

I loved your post. It really got me thinking. I face a wall when I write. North- and west-facing windows are behind me and to the right, letting in some light, but not a lot. I don't know how it affects my creativity, but I do know that I get a little charge when I move to a different spot- the library, my daughter's bedroom (both of which are light and bright. Hmmm...), or the kitchen table. I wonder whether it's the change of scenery or the brightness of the new place that gives me the extra oomph I need to keep going. I can't write outside- too bright, and the glare on my computer screen makes it hard to see.

amazon said...