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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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All Alone In My OWn Little CHair — Part Two in a Five Part Series: Things Writers Say That Make Me Nervous

Sometimes, there comes a moment in the writing of a book when a writer tells me, in hushed tones, that he needs a studio, an office, a yurt, just some other place to go and write. He is emphatic. He can no longer get his work done — only a move can save him. Often writers work from home and suffer a certain lack of solitude, privacy, quiet.  They need a place to sprawl out, to leave their papers and books about. They need a place to think.  I get all that. Writers need to get away from the kids, the phone, the UPS man. Still, there’s  Mary Higgins Clark who dragged her typewriter on to the fire escape every night after she got the dishes washed and put her kids to bed. Or Ray Bradbury who deposited dimes into the typewriters at the public library to bang out his fiction. And many like them. When you have to write, when you are at the beginning of your career, you’d write on the roof of your mouth if you had to.  Is it just me or does a room of one’s own sound more like a  place to jack off and smoke dope? Yes, of course you need a corner of your own, but not mid-book. When you want to find a new place mid-project you’re looking for a geographical cure, and like most geographical  cures they usually turn out to be short-lived and expensive. The minute you think something like a new space can save you, you’re a goner.

Agree? Disagree? Where do you write?

76 Responses

  1. I agree. I write at home. People who need fab surroundings are looking, as you say, for something else.

  2. Tonight I write for a Wednesday deadline. Husband is out of town, kids have been farmed out for a sleepovers, I have a large coffee beside me and a big bowl of dark chocolate, and I am going to shred. All night, listening to the crickets and the sound of my anxiety hammering against my ribcage.

    I have found that fantasy solace time is less productive than I’d envisioned. I wanted to be like Sebastian Junger, writing in his unheated house in Truro on Cape Cod, rewarding himself with heat when he finished a chapter.

    The truth is, I get more done when I fit the writing in around life, not when life gets pushed aside for the writing.

    Back to work.

  3. Basement office. No lights. Footsteps above me, even when I’m alone.

  4. Nothing wrong with wanting a writing room that smells of rich mahogany and mayo, anchored by a desk made of Amazon-sourced wood with a MacBook Air sitting on top of leather. My pen is made of irradiated space-age materials — it gives my endings that out-of-this world crust.

    • And afterwards: a comfortable chair, a large tumbler of good scotch, a Cuban cigar (or a resin coated bud or line of coke, depending on your preference) and Billie Holiday on the exquisite sound system.

  5. Jack off “and” smoke dope? Greedy, greedy. Jack off OR smoke dope.

    I love to sit at the computer, but “historically” I was there at the very forefront of the electronic age of publishing. Printing, actually. Galleys, actually. But I love to think of something, almost asleep, when I’ve had a couple of xanax and/or Lunesta, greedy, greedy, and write in a crappy grocery list notebook and read it the next day.

  6. I would love a room of my own. Wouldn’t that be nice? A quiet study, private office, secluded cottage, even a closet would do. But I have a kitchen table in the midst of a busy family with kids, dogs, husband, kids’ friends. I really can’t write when there’s noise distraction because of a possible little touch of adult ADD (or post-menopause mushy brain). So I write at night. Or when the kids go off to school. Or at the library. Or on an empty train into the city. But when I’m procrastinating or feeling uninspired (read: procrastinating) or having writer’s block (read: procrastinating) I love to blame it on location. That’s so much nicer than having to actually stare down the blinking cursor, which is waiting for me to type something. Anything.

  7. No comment from the tiny adobe house in Marfa, TX. For what it’s worth, there hasn’t been any pot smoking. But I’m not ruling it out.

    • Ah, Marfa. *waves at you from Midland* It’s long been my dream to buy a house in Marfa and escape there when I want to be really, truly alone. But I’d probably just go hang out at the Dollar store and buy stuff to pass the time instead of writing. I can’t write anywhere but right here, at my desk in a spare bedroom I snobbily call my office.

    • Shanna, I just checked out the pix on your blog. What’s in the ashtray???

      (PS – Your nail polish rocks.)

  8. …you’d write on the roof of your mouth if you had to. That’s a great line, Betsy.

    It doesn’t much matter where I am when I write but I do have to be alone. That is non-negotiable.

  9. I think it depends on how easy it is to get the space, and how much the thought of having what is unattainable occupies your mental life. If you have to substantially interrupt your work to attain your solitary paradise, you’re probably stalling and should stop. But if a friend calls and says, “I’m going to Africa for six months; can you come house-sit and take care of my cat?” you can feel confident that God/the universe/the Muse is blessing you with needed solitude to finish your work. Right now I’m in a tiny beachside shack, away from my community. It’s a good thing for me, as my social life is now reduced to nil.

  10. That said, there’s no denying the salutary effect of a prison sentence on the production of prose and poetry.

  11. I do move around from time to time, but this is still my favorite place.

  12. I write on the dining room table, and I think, “What a huge desk I have!” Writing often recreates that sneaky feeling I had when I was a kid, doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing: writing secrets in my diary, figuring out where to hide a baggy of pot, reading my mother’s Nancy Friday books before she got home from work. I don’t need a space of my own, I need a twinge of anxiety.

    • Dining room table for me as well. If I want a change of scene I move to the kitchen table.

    • “doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing”

      That’s exactly how it feels for me. Probably because it’s true. Not that I’m not supposed to write. Just that I’m not supposed to write when I’ve got real life stuff I’ve got to do. I play hooky. Seems like I always have to put something important on the back burner to write.

      As for a special space to write – that’s a bunch of crap. Too many great ones made do with whatever and wherever in order to produce. Time, lost sleep, discipline, and putting off other things you really shouldn’t be putting off is what gets writing done.

  13. Agree. Had 80 pages for years. Got laid off and wrote 200 more in 8 months on the back porch listening to the washer dryer rattle spin and buzz. Talking to my dog. Staring out the backdoor. Rhyme time. Powered down time. Beautiful time feeds the page maker. I’ll take it. Don’t care where.

  14. Agree. I set up my office, but rarely write there. The librarian said she would find an open study for me any time I liked. I stared out the window and didn’t like the chair. I even looked for houses in the mountains. Last night I polished off 26 pages hauling my laptop from the couch, to the floor to my bed in between reading stories and doling out bedtime kisses. Today I pounded out 5 more while sitting on my bed in between taking my father shopping and picking up the kids. It’s not about the place. It’s about the perseverance. I finally realize that.

  15. Since my Day Job relies on people and companies paying me to improve their work or home spaces, I’m more willing to listen to that excuse. Certain tasks do require a buffer from distraction but not sensory deprivation, a sense of territory (even if temporary) and methods to contain/store the tools and output from such tasks. More studies have been done on the office environment rather than the home-office environment, but my in experience there are many similarities. If someone is engaged in their work and their surroundings support their efforts, all is good – even if it is confined to a corner of a kitchen table.

    Of course, The Princess And The Pea Syndrome is a whole ‘nuther issue: it indicates someone indulging in obfuscation to avoid the real problem.The charming accommodations in the above photo offers a tough-love option – but may be the only recourse. Do all literary agencies offer this type of writing retreat?

    • It’s funny– sometimes even a certain picture on the wall or an object of personal value can make a space so much more friendly.

      • That a whole OTHER field of interesting study: look at what people bring to their office cubicles and you’ll have an accurate idea of their personal happiness and the quality of the employer.

      • PS- found the lost “is” , please apply where needed so I don’t sound completely loopy

  16. laptop means moveable space. I enjoy the coffeeshop and library, too. most productive when I squeeze writing around a busy life.

  17. I agree with you, Betsy.

    But at the same time, I’m so DAMN LUCKY. My kids are all grown up and I’m living in a wonderful old farmhouse on the Eastern shore of Maryland, part of a waterfront estate owned by a former ambassador. I have my writing chaise out on the front porch, with a fan directed just so, and music from Pandora piped straight in. Does it help the “creative process?”

    God, I fear the answer is YES.

  18. Agree.

    I do almost all of my writing these days in the room my wife and I refer to as The Study. When I need solitude, I close the door. When I need concentrated solitude, I close the door and put in earplugs. The work gets done.

    I have not always been this sensible.

  19. I’m the kind of guy that will argue you don’t “need” anything but your computer (or paper, whatever) and the time you set aside to get your shit done. Having said that, I have always found places to work far away from people, and I get really cranky if I don’t get my time in my space. In high school I cleared out a storage room in the basement. In college I made a closet an office. To this day my wife refers to my office as my “dungeon.” Of course, having said THAT, I’ve also worked in loud dorm rooms, with a kid running around, on airplanes, in libraries at four a.m. after getting out of work (college days again), in a newsroom at 7 a.m. before the boss gets in. It’s nice to have the special space, but you do what you have to do if you want to get it done.

    A yurt, though. That would be bad ass.

  20. When I was finishing my book, I knew I had to get out of my house to write certain parts. I had a full-time job, a husband, and a toddler. And no money for a writer’s retreat.

    I asked all my friends and was given the incredible luxury of an empty Manhattan apartment for a solid week for free. I used vacation days and fell into a dreamlike routine, writing exactly what I needed to.

    I called it the Working Mother’s Yaddo.

    • Bravo, Linda C!

      When my children were infants, I used to hang a frozen bagel on the fireplace, lay the fire, and at four-fucking-a.m. I was down there, match in hand, defrosting the bagel and everything else.

      But I had the bagel, and I had the fireplace, and, most of all, I had my children. You can’t separate it out.

  21. I write on the Metra heading to Chicago every morning, bouncing and bounding along only stopping to grab my coffee mug during scheduled bumps in the track.

    Now, I realize I need a Yurt. Nothing less will do. Damn it.

    • LOL – I ride that same train in from Elmhurst – the coffee stains give a nice vintage look, don’t they? Like you’ve been agonizing over this !@#$%^&*() thing for eons – – – – –
      Good Luck on yours!!

  22. I write anywhere. The backyard. The garage. The toilet.

    But when I revise, it has to be somewhere else. Somewhere unfamiliar.

    Next week I’m watching someone’s dog while they’re on vacation and I’m taking those days off of work for my self-imposed, free Yaddoesque revision getaway (though I’m the one making myself the brown bag lunch). Granted, I’m house-dog-sitting for rich people with a Shangri-La sort of mountain-view paradise-but it doesn’t matter. Even if it was a tin shack on top of train tracks, it’d work.

  23. Geographical cures have never worked for me because, as Confucius and Buckaroo Banzai have said, “No matter where you go, there you are.” Whether I lived alone or with a smattering of husbands and children, everything I ever wrote that was significant or challenging or published was done between midnight and five am. But, most of my reliable paying job, reviewing and evaluating case files, is done in spurts and in daylight. However, I wouldn’t turn down a yurt.

  24. A little over a year ago, I wasn’t getting enough spare time to write. Job, distracting friends/roommate, various obligations. I quit my job, sold everything, and moved to a remote island chain in the mid-Pacific and am now living as a monk in an ashram. Despite the lack of masturbation and bong rips offered by temple life, it has been a highly productive year of writing here so far, especially in comparison to the previous year(s). But they’re cracking down on me now, and me and my notepad and pens are about to hightail it to quieter country. My moral: Grin and bear it if you have to, but if you can’t stand the heat, get the hell out.

  25. I have found moving to rural France helpful.

  26. Where do I write? Wherever….

    I sometimes write when I am running. The prose is absolutely fabulous, bolstered as it is by those exercise-induced endorphins. If I am really lucky, I might even remember a word or two when I finally get home.

    When I am afraid of losing my prose before I get back, I might sneak those words into the voice recorder of my mobile phone.

    But it doesn’t really matter where I am. The words are in my head. If I’ve got that with me, I can write. France is OK too.

  27. Agree. There have been times when I have written on my arm in a moving car. I was driving. The writing was less dangerous than scrabbling through my purse for a pen. I never have a pen when I need it.

    • Wish I’d thought of this! The best phrasing occurs to me then and I never have pen & paper to hand – and can never reconstruct them later – – –
      Soap is a whole lot easier as a remedy than the auto body shop and increased insurance premiums after the accident caused by trying to write them down in the normal fashion.

  28. “When you have to write, when you are at the beginning of your career, you’d write on the roof of your mouth if you had to…”

    OMG this is so true and laugh out loud funny. I wrote the draft of my first novel on those tiny post it notes at the day job in between phone calls. Never got caught by my boss and I got a lot done.

    Second novel I have a little more time and space. Some times I dream of going to a writers retreat but we don’t have the money for that right now. So I’m camped on the dining room table and I’m grateful I live alone.

    • I’m laughing too, Karen, because my WIP is all post-it notes. I’ve taken to sticking them on the underside of my desk for safekeeping. At the end of the day, I collect the bits and pieces and spend the evening trying to reassemble them.

      Here’s hoping I will be as stealthy as you.

  29. Agree. I’ve tried the geographical cure. The neuroses always followed, amplified by unfamiliar surroundings.

  30. Betsy, are you saying that a writer is not allowed one innocent neuroses?

  31. I have never written anywhere but in my lucky chair. It’s a portal.

  32. Where you are in your head matters most, although distractions can derail that metaphorical train as it’s just about to pull into Literatureville.
    I think a lot depends on the book–William Burroughs pulled out scraps of paper with observations, scenes and notes, threw them in a pile and hatched Naked Lunch. I’m sure Beatrix Potter was more organized in her idyllic setting, but books by both authors are on the same shelves in many homes.

  33. I started out writing in complete silence and isolation because it was just me. Then I convinced this woman that she wanted to live with me. I further convinced her that we should have children. She wonders now if I drugged her into her current situation. But back to the point. Now I do need a room of my own, and it is expensive, but it’s not about changing things up as much as it is about keeping them the same as they were.

  34. I began my first career as a journalist, the idea of earning a living being the major impetus on what I hoped would be the road to becoming a successful novelist one day. The last part is still a wink and a prayer but getting closer. The advantage of working at a major daily newspaper was that a. you wrote amidst the din of the clacking typewriters, ringing phones, raised voices, and overall chaos of a newsroom. b. you wrote now. Waiting for your ‘muse’ to strike you…yeah, that was going to fly. c. you wrote to fill a specific space i.e. you return to the newsroom after covering a huge fire thirty minutes before the presses roll and the city editor tells you you have eight inches to fill on the front page. Needing a special place to write. Give me a break. I could write in the middle of Union Station, as the Titanic was sinking, as my plane is going down, as the zombies break down my door (okay, maybe not then). If you have the fire in the belly, like your examples of Mary Higgins Clark, and Ray Bradbury, you just friggin’ do it wherever. You don’t need no stinkin’ badges to write.

  35. I just *discovered* you on the Pen On Fire podcast from last Fall – excellent nuggets of info,Betsy! THX! I’m immersed in a pro se Opposition trademark case in the US Patent & Trademark Office, now in its 7th year; its filings/Briefs are my finest pieces of writing so far—unfortunately never to be seen by the public.
    My non-fiction manuscript will be back in gear again when this is all over (Summer of 2012) but you have given me much important information and a renewed sense of inspiration and hope!

  36. Nothing wrong with finding a place, physically or metaphorically, of one’s own to quiet some of the noise, but it mostly comes down to shutting off the CD in one’s head that is blaring the song “You can’t write here. Go somewhere else.”

  37. Are all artists ‘artsy’?

  38. I love writing at cafes with a little back ground noise and the occasional friend saying “hello”…but writing at home works too, so long as it’s quiet…at least for serious editing, I need quiet. I don’t have an office, not even at home…so the dining table is my haven…albeit an imperfect one.

  39. You are so, so right Betsy. That’s the worst thing about a panicked, depressed state (and that’s the time – I find – when one looks for excuses to bail) – you can never, ever get away from yourself. For the record, I don’t have any kids, and I do have a very beautiful room of my own, but a year ago, I was convinced that the only thing that would save me was quitting my job and renting rustic little cabin the middle of the woods. Thank god I didn’t. I would have thrown water on all my Gremlins.

  40. I actually write best when there’s a lot going on around me. I get a lot done at work, in our control room, with lots of talking and shouting going on. (Totally with the permission of my workplace, of course! Happily they allow us to do our own thing if we don’t have anything going on in our section.)

    I can write at home too, which is easy because I live alone, but I don’t get quite the volume done that I do at work.

  41. You sound right to me. When it’s there, it’s there wherever you are.

  42. Any place relatively quiet is enough for me; often this is more a matter of turning off my phone and not checking my Facebook every fifteen minutes than anything. I’ve gotten lots of writing done at the office (sorry boss!) and on planes, I don’t need a cabin in the woods or an MFA program.

  43. I am a total cliche who writes in coffee shops because it’s the fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to ensure I’ll get a clean table space to myself for my writing sessions. I can and will write everywhere. I’ve done some of my better writing on airplanes or in noisy airports or on the bus or in a waiting room while the girl across from me texted nonstop on a keyboard that beeped with every keystroke.

    I think when people claim they need a special space to write, it’s partly because they are afraid to write and not having the perfect space lets them put it off.

    With that said, I do fantasize about the cabin in the woods. Or even just a big study all to myself, a room only to be used for my writing and nothing else. (The luxury!) I think it could be nice, and I think it could help, and I think I’d save money on all those drinks I buy at cafes. But necessary? No way.

  44. Once I had a place to go– a super cheap room over a thrift store in a very small beach town north of San Francisco. Quintessential artist’s garret. No internet, no phone, no television, no friends, no kids, nothing. I’d go there for the weekend and pull a marathon. But the last time I went, the place was crawling with bedbugs. Mutherfucking bedbugs. So now, I wait for the rare moment when the house is empty to get to work.

  45. When you want to find a new place mid-project, it’s the project itself you are attempting to flee.

  46. Love this. A writer writes anywhere and everywhere. I’ve written on my cellphone in a waiting room. — and I’ve written in the kitchen while cooking dinner. You make time, wherever.

    Great post.

  47. Lately I’m writing in the middle of familial chaos and it’s working. Although I did spend a little time in jail cell this past weekend. It was too dark to write though.

  48. I have no children, no pets, no one to disturb me not even a hubby, and I still get distracted but when I made myself write my first Kindle book in under 3 weeks (barely under 19,000 words but a lot for me), I found the right music and shut off the internet (for the most part) …. and it was the guitar and violin type music that helped me zone out. I can’t explain it but it’s not the physical space so much as it is finding the mental space….. thank you for this post.

  49. Totally agree. Jack-off and smoke dope sounds nice but that is running away from work. And if your writing has become work, you are fucking up. Sounds to me like lazy writer who is, as you wrote, a goner. Like so many people in this world that want to be famous for something, the dream is often confronted with the reality of that dream and when that happens…well, to be honest, I don’t know. But, I am going to find out. If it is the last thing I do. I don’t want to be a nice person anymore. I don’t want to please all the people I meet any longer, I no longer want to fit in. I want to writer a good story that I would want to read after I’ve been jacking-off and smoking dope and the only place that will give me peace is the library. It’s a vicious cycle.

  50. Finished my first novel, fourth complete revision, in June. Agent loves it and has sent it out. Here were the places I composed it: dining room table-last 2 years; rented office space before that for 2 years; living room couch before that for 3 years.

  51. A reasonably spacious room in an orbiting hotel with gravity–that might be nice.

    Basically I agree. If you’re going to write, you have to find a way to write. (Not the same as finding a place where it’s comfortable or easy.) This is especially true when you’re in the middle of something, when shirking and excuse-making and equivocating can surface.

    Good post. Thanks, Betsy!

  52. I remember, before I was able to go to college, working construction and scribbling story notes on cardboard flaps. During lunch i wrote in my notebook the whole time. Now – a lot of those guys are foremen now, or running their own construction companies. I have two books finished and a career in television and film.

    You are who you are.

  53. I’ll be right back. I need a bathroom break. I am so full of myself.

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