Writing While Angry: On Being a Frustrated Novelist in Public

You know those people that always assure you they’re a good person while their actions say otherwise? I’m not one of them. If you wander into my writing environment when I’m having an off day you will meet a terrible person.

Most of the time my inner curmudgeon sits behind his view screens, a grouch on a couch making observations that never turn into vocalizations, but every so often my inner sourpuss comes to the surface. I don’t need a full moon to trigger the change just one too many annoyances in my writing space.

I don’t like to think of myself as a music snob, but when I’m trying to concentrate I turn into a full on tune tyrant. The moment that dubstep mix of that chill wave hit comes over the speakers I start to twitch. You know the song where the snare drum rat-ta-tat-tats, the vocal sample loops an octave north of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and the hi hats go so fast they sound like a sprinkler shooting into a microphone? That one always throws me off my game.

I get resting Batman face with demon eyebrows, a scowl, and a frown. Strangers crossing my sightline think I’m glaring at them. Sometimes I am. It’s funny how one anger trigger turns all the other ones up to eleven.

If I catch someone bopping their head, tapping their toe, or air drumming out of the corner of my eye I hone in on them. If their restless leg syndrome triggers my restless mind I stop what I’m doing. If someones chews with their mouth open, clicks their tongue, or spends an unusually long time indulging in a public display of affection I have a problem.

This hypersensitivity to sights and sounds is amplified by caffeine. One of the coffee shops I frequent serves alcohol. It’s too much of a balancing act to find the right ratio of stimulant to depressant.

Instead I resort to using other techniques when I get this high strung. Some help me calm myself, others help me phase the annoyances out.

2. When I'm Angry

The Public Writer’s Guide to Managing an Anger Attack


I love writing in public when the writing is going well. I love bouncing ideas off of friends or the captive audiences behind coffeeshop counters, but when the words want nothing to do with me I’m no fun to be around. This is why I try to avoid social spaces until the day has given me my requisite sense of accomplishment. Sure, I’ll write in public, but I have to put a thousand words in the tank before I do. This way the rest of my output feels like extra credit.

Have Another Option On Hand

When I get writer’s block, or I’m too distracted by my environment, I get an overwhelming urge to load every film rumor site in my bookmark menu all at once. The problem with this kind of distraction is that these chunks of information are so fleeting that they reduce my attention span. This is why it helps to have another creative option on hand.

Author Chuck Wendig recommends flexing your other artistic muscles when you get blocked. “Muscles work in muscle groups – your writing muscle is part of an overall creative cluster. You gotta work ‘em all.”

When I’m stuck I manipulate selfies in Photoshop, illustrate, and mix audio for my website.

Stand Up

Long periods of sitting aren’t good for your long term health. Go outside with the cool kids coughing up their lungs. Reduce the size of your bladder with your umpteenth bathroom break, or better yet, buy something at the establishment you’re nesting in. I’ve seen people use coffee shop counters like standing room desks. Don’t be that guy, just take a moment to let the blood circulate.

Do Clandestine Meditation

For whatever reason the coffee shops I frequent won’t let me install my own personal zen garden (my cat keeps pooping in the one I have at home). Still there are subtle ways writers can center themselves.

When I’m at peak anger I do breathing exercise where I sit up straight, inhale through my noise, and exhale slowly through pierced lips. Do this right and you should feel like you’re blowing a kiss in slow motion. Slip some shades on if you need to close your eyes for a moment.

How to Write in a Noisy Environment

If you write in public you will encounter music that makes it tough for you to think. You know that song with the siren samples, the one with the air horn, and the nails on the chalkboard clip in the breakdown? You’re going to need to be able to work with that in the background.

The simple solution would be to ask the barista if they could please turn the music down, but I live in the frozen tundra of Minnesota. We are pioneers of passive aggression and plainly stating our grievances is frowned upon.

If you can’t afford a pair of noise canceling headphones, but have a pair of earbuds handy, try crafting a playlist with songs that are both calming and capable of drowning out the noise.

I can’t write with dance music blaring in the background. Techno songs are usually upwards of 120 beats per minute. The average human heart rate is 60-100 beats per minute. When I hear a pounding kick drum my heart rate wants to speed up to match the rhythm. This is why dance music is perfect for working out to. The problem is when I’m sitting it just makes me tense. This is why I have a playlist full of songs with heavy beats that play at 60 beats per minute.

Sometimes the best way to drown out electronic music is with a different type of electronic music. I listen to a lot of artists featured on Future City Records who are known for vintage synthesizer sounds that play at slower beats per minute. Horror writers should check out Makeup and Vanity Set, Mitch Murder, and Jupiter-8, they’ll make you feel like you’re writing a movie for John Carpenter. The soundtracks for Drive, The Knick, and It Follows are also perfect for this purpose.

Let’s say you can’t stand electronic music in any of its forms. There are other options.

The Mozart Effect to improve concentration has been all but refuted, but classical music still has the power to soothe savage beasts. The right instrumentations can also cancel out background noise. Orchestral arrangements with powerful string sections can drown out most sounds. Michael Nyman’s score for the film Gattaca is perfect for this (fun fact: Joss Whedon writes to this album).

For more music recommendations check out my soundtracks for writing from 2014 and my horror writing music mega-mix.

1. Drew Smash

Anger’s Role in My Writing

In high school I couldn’t write lyrics unless I had something to vent about. If I was pacing around my bedroom muttering obscenities that meant I was being productive. Anger was an essential part of my process. If I wrote about an emotion while I was in the throes of it my output felt authentic. Now that I’m writing narrative fiction that strategy doesn’t work.

Anger is a fickle muse. It can supercharge your action sequences and block you when you need to give your audience a breather. It can inspire the perfect tell-off speech, while contaminating your love scenes. If you have an excess of anger, from say being a novelist working in public, you’re not always going to have room for it on the page. Writers need to be able to tackle scenes that are out of tune with their emotions.

Here’s something I’ve learned since high school: I’m better at writing tense scenes when I’m in a good mood. I’m better at writing lovelorn declarations when I’m not preoccupied with anyone. I’m better at articulating the symptoms of depression when I’m not experiencing them. I prefer to have a clear head when describing a cloudy one. I have plenty of rainy days to draw from when the sun is shining.

Writing is a great tool for centering myself after tense encounters, but anger isn’t an essential part of my process. I still write venomous lyrics in the urgency of the moment. That catharsis helps keep my anger in check, it fences it in, and prevents it from contaminating my long form writing.

If your surroundings fill you with an urge to inflict wrath on your characters, pause and consider the long term ramifications. Maybe you ought to take that anger out on a separate piece of writing.


My audiobook Terms and Conditions is now free on Bandcamp. You can listen to it right here!

After getting a lot requests for prints of my art I decided to open a  store on REDBUBBLE where you can find prints and a whole lot more.


22 thoughts on “Writing While Angry: On Being a Frustrated Novelist in Public”

  1. Great advice, Drew, to have “a thousand words in the tank” before heading out to a public place to continue writing. This was a major revelation to me some time back.

    Regarding noise cancellation, on my recent trip back from Florida, I was literally surrounded on the flight by screaming babies: one in front, one in back, two beside. The cacophany was enough to drive even someone like me who has the patience of Job … batty. However, I just popped on my over-the-ear headphones and played “brown noise” (I find “white” and “pink” noise too harsh) from a white noise app on my iPad. It basically acts as a neutralizer – even for something as strident as those very unhappy babies. And there are some very good white noise apps that are FREE (I use SleepBug for sleeping and NoiseBox for noise canceling).

    1. I’ve certainly learned the value of white noise around the apartment. Sometimes I’ll leave the fan running when I don’t need it just to cancel out the neighbors’ voices.

      I’m always a little disappointed when the refrigerator’s motor stops cycling.

      I think I’m going to set to some speakers up on the night stand in case, download SleepBug, and drown out the sound drunk revelers out in the winter. Thanks for the tip.

  2. Speaking of music, Drew, I am trying to find the kind that really inspires me. It’s the mournful wailing they seem to use everywhere these days, Gladiator and Troy had masses. I want my own CD but no one seems to know what I mean. Do you?

    1. I’ve had a long time to think about this. It get’s lonely working alone in a room (as Stephen King recommends). I like to at least be in the proximity of other people. The problem is noise can dramatically affect my output.

      I imagine writer’s with families have to explain to their loved ones that they’re never as angry as they appear to be.

  3. Great post, Drew…. Clandestine Meditation sound like a major ally here aiming to defeat that potential angry writing! o_O Best wishes to you! Aquileana

  4. I can handle music in a coffee shop and I can tune it out – but know what gets my goat? The tinny tune of a video game next to me… that little whiny bling and then weird music and then sounds that come and go with no rhythm behind it. Or when a person keeps the sound on their phone and when they text that little tiny sound each letter makes is heard – it’s enough to rattle my brain and I can’t write a thing. I get it, I really do.

  5. Love! 🙂 I was laughing (and sort of crying a little) reading this. Damn. Great post. Though this does not have to be exclusively a “Public” Writer’s Guide to Managing an Anger Attack. Really, it can be applied to home. One with kids, in particular. Just saying.

    1. There are a lot of writers on Twitter in your situation. You just need let your children know that the moment your fingers touch the keyboard you are the devil and you will eat them. 😉

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