Midweek Writer-Rummage - The 'How' and 'Where' of Writing

When I first started writing, it never occurred to me to have a dedicated writing space.  At the time I was working at ‘Boots’, and I was usually stuck behind the till in the quietest part of the shop.  I stashed my notebook there and scribbled away in the space between customers – believe me, most days that space would stretch wide indeed.  My next job was at an insurance brokers, and the only chance I had to write was during lunch break.  For whatever reason now lost to the past, I didn’t tend to write so much when I was home.

Since then, I have written outdoors, in cafés, stations, airports, on trains, planes … and, of course, the library, which would seem to be the ideal spot away from home.  But that didn’t work for me – like a magpie spying something shiny, I get too distracted by the books!

While in a ‘precious’-phase, one of my ‘but I can’t write because …’ excuses was that I didn’t have the ideal setting.  But to quote John Gardner in ‘On Becoming a Novelist’: “ Write in any way that works for you: Write in a tuxedo or in the shower with a raincoat or in a cave deep in the woods.

I then discovered that Edith Wharton, Colette, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, to name a few, all wrote in bed.  Kurt Vonnegut wrote on his lap sat in a padded easy chair, his things spread out and piled up on the floor before him.  Ben Franklin wrote in the bathtub.  Jane Austen wrote surrounded by the ebb and flow of family life.  There can be only one conclusion when you read about the different places writers write, and that is, there is no such thing as ‘the ideal setting’.

A writer’s space does not have to be a separate room, or a shed or cabin, though that would be splendid … The poet Archibald MacLeish had a small one-room stone building situated about 100 yards from his large colonial house in Massachusetts, and he would make his way there, whatever the weather, to write.  But for most of us, claiming a quiet space in a corner of a room with nothing but a folding table is enough.  Make it yours by adding your unique personal touch, and turning it into a place you want to go to, a place where you feel safe to write and lose yourself in your creativity.  As the late poet Robert Creely wrote: “ The necessary environment is that which secures the artist in the way that lets him be inthe world in a most fruitful manner.

Now, my preferred writing place is at the dining table, with my reference books and notes within easy reach.  And I still sometimes write in cafés, trains … though that’s more ‘casual’ scribbling.  The more serious writing I do at home.  Not because I need the quiet.  I can’t write when it’s quiet, my mind tends to wander.  But music anchors it, keeps me focussed.  It has to be classical music though; anything sung and I get distracted.  My ‘go to’ pieces are Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D, and his Piano Concerto No.2.

How do I write?  Longhand.  Always.  Usually with a pencil in a run-of-the-mill spiral-bound notebook.  I love the feel of the pencil in my hand as it moves across the page, seeing the words gradually take form … there’s something sensual about it.  It also helps me slow down enough to create order out of my jumbled thoughts.

Before I sign off, I’ll confess a few of my other ‘excuses’:

  • Too busy with other stuff, which is tied in with not enough time at this precise moment, so why begin?
  • Too tired
  • Uninspired
  • Programmes/films to watch on tv
  • Books I want to finish reading … and on and on …

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” ~ EB White.

Everyone and everything, it seems, encroaches on my writing time.  In Jane Yolen’s ‘Take Joy’, she mentions reading a biography about Emily Dickinson, “where she’s shown making tea cakes and writing letters, helping in the house, playing with her nephews and niece …”; also Edna St. Vincent Millay, “who went to parties, acted in plays, had three lovers in a single day, and still wrote.”  The point she makes, and there is no arguing it, writers live in the real world.  That means dealing with all manner of things, like paying bills and shopping, taking cats to vets, baking, tackling the housework (minimal though my effort may be), reading, ferrying the children hither and yon, going for walks … As Yolen says, “That means … life.  Besides, without life, what is there to write about?”  What is there, indeed.