Officially speaking, it is not a coffin, but a sensory deprivation tank - a salt floatation unit. You clamber in, normally naked, lower the lid, float in a few inches of super saturated salt water that is the same temperature as your body, and switch off the lights. You can have some new age music, playing underwater, but I prefer silence. For the first few moments it can feel like you are spinning in space, similar to the sensation of falling that you get when you are drifting into sleep. Then, you feel nothing. Because the water is your body temperature, and the salt means that you float with ease (not touching the sides or bottom), once the small waves have subsided it feels like you are simply suspended in a weightless environment. This is when the magic occurs, and you can start writing.
Let me say that floatation centres aren't new. I tried a couple in Oxford eight or nine years ago and liked them. I did a large scale version in a pool for eight or nine people in Reading. A few months ago, a new center opened up near my office, with a special intro offer, and I decided to take the plunge (surely I can have one bad pun in this little blog?!). So since late October, I've been doing a salt float once a month. If you do a quick search on google or bing you will no doubt be able to see if there is a facility near where you live, and give it a go. Their websites will fill you in on all fo the pseudo-science (if I'm honest, I'm never quite convinced by all the stuff about the type of brainwaves it induces and how it sits between REM sleep and relaxation, but go ahead and educate yourself). I can tell you that I like it, and I'll explain why I think it's good for writing. One warning first: some people are uncomfortable with the size of the space, and the concept of being trapped in a coffin-like device, feeling claustrophobic, others are paranoid they are going to drown. Unless you have a serious issue with small spaces, I wouldn't worry - the modern floatation units are quite big, and egg-shaped. I'm over six foot tall and I never feel cramped or confined. The real issue is wounds. As a runner, I have hopped in several times with minor friction burns. I won't tell you where, but with a modicum of imagination, you might think where runners most frequently suffer friction - it is not on our feet - and I can tell you that super-saturated salt water can be ****ing painful. The good news is that it only lasts for a few minutes, and then the pain fades away. The salons provide petroleum jellies to put on cuts and wounds, but I never seem to notice until I get in, and by then it's too late.
How do you write, you want to know? Well, you can't physically put pen to paper in the tank, but it is a perfect place to work through knotty problems with your narrative, or to imagine an entire new short story. The trick is to have a particular idea in mind that you want to explore, before you settle down. Then, when the water and your mind have calmed, you can start to imagine and visualise the story. Pseudo-science or not, I have to say that the experience is definitely highly creative, and more akin to a structured dream than simply sitting down and writing - although I know that can induce a trance like state too. A couple of times, I have imagined entire short stories, and then got out and jotted the key points down into a moleskine that I have in my sports bag. Other times, I have worked on some complex problems at work (which is related to the application of Artificial Intelligence in swarms of machines). On two occasions, I have pretty much fallen asleep, and not been able to have any coherent thoughts - largely because I was very tired. Don't worry though, you won't drown. The extreme buoyancy and the fact that you are lying on your back make it almost impossible. I did a quick google check, and the only incidents I could find involved someone who had taken ketamine first (the horse tranquilliser), and another person on a cocktail of opiates. There are a couple of people who claim to sleep in them every night.
One other interesting aspect is that you lose track of time. I normally ask the receptionist to give me music for the last 5 minutes, just so that I know when the session is ending. Otherwise, after you have been in there for some time, you can begin to wonder if you have been abandoned, and will emerge to find the zombie apocalypse has occurred, or the planet has been pulverised by asteroids. One time in particular, I began to feel that I had been in the tank for longer than my hour, and as I was starting to cool off, I decided to clamber out and check. Yes, my watch confirmed that I had been in the tank for 90 minutes instead of sixty. It was no big deal. I showered, dressed, and wandered into the quiet room, and then through to the exit. Which was locked. And all of the lights were turned off. I have to admit to feeling slightly panicked at this point, until I saw the receptionist outside, smoking a cigarette. A brief conversation yelled through the glass and I discovered that the receptionist had managed to lock themselves out, and I was advised to go to the fire exit, where I could escape and they could re-enter. Slightly surreal, but I think I have an idea for a new story...