A few weeks ago, at the Fiction Writing Intensive offered by UC Berkeley Extension, writer Jane Anne Staw spoke of the five components of a writing practice. The first thing you need, she said, is a place. A real, physical location where you feel the most relaxed, the least anxious. She asked the students where they wrote.
A home office.
A chair in the kitchen, as the morning light moves across the table.
At night, after dinner, when the house is quiet.
A parked car.
“Good.” Jane Anne nodded. “Whatever works for you. It’s important not to judge.”
I thought of my office, its paper-strewn surfaces, its piles of magazines and books. I keep envisioning a quiet weekend of catching up on old issues of Poets & Writers and stories ripped out of old New Yorkers. The piles keep growing.
When I moved into my flat, I was thrilled with the fact that I had an office. For years, I had written on a desk in the corner of the living room. When people came over, I threw a festively-colored blanket over the computer and the piles. Now I had an office all to itself, and no need for the bright woven blanket. No need to cover the piles.
Or was there?
When I’d moved in, I’d taken pleasure in placing the desk – a long slab, a door without a hole for the knob – on top of file cabinets. I bought and assembled Ikea shelves on which I arranged my books alphabetically by author, fiction here, memoir there, poetry and writing and travel over there. I angled the linen arm chair against the bay window, where the dappled light would fall on my arm in the afternoon as I sat there reading.
It was perfect as a writing room, the kind of safe space Jane Anne talked about. I had all the physical components in place. I wrote there. And I paid bills, graded papers, spoke on the phone.
Soon, my safe haven of an office felt more, well, office-like. I started carrying my laptop to the dining room, to write at one end of the dining room table where I didn’t have to see the Rolodex or the curled-up roll of stamps or the piles of bills. I wrote the final draft of my memoir, The Water Will Hold You, at that dining room table, in fact, surrounded by unpacked boxes.
And that’s where Jane Anne’s second component comes in. Yes, we need a physical space, but what creates safety is often internal. Close your eyes, she said during her talk three weeks ago. Breathe from your belly.
Her talk took place right after lunch, never the best time for guided meditation. I fell asleep. But not before I heard her ask us to think of a place in our minds, a place we felt embraced and free, a place where we receive life and stimuli. Writers are often alone, she reminded us, but we are connected to life, to something larger, when we write. Where do you feel that?
I had a moment of panic. My office did not come to mind. The beach? Such a cliché. The bench in my back yard when I was growing up where I’d go to hide from everyone else? Nyah, too freighted. The more I tried to think of the one perfect spot, the heavier my lids felt. And then it came to me: an Adirondack chair under a crepe myrtle tree on a spot of grass in Sonoma County. There, I felt – for the fifteen minutes or the hour during which I sat in the chair – such calm and focus and spaciousness, such a sense of possibility that, compared with my running-around city life, time seemed to slow. That’s it, I thought! Too often writing becomes a task, another item on a day planner of items. Write. Go the gym. Laundry. Shop. Pay bills. Grade papers. Plan class. etc.
The best writing, the freest, comes when we can suspend – to whatever degree possible –the tasks and necessities that surround us. I’m not advocating giving up on them. Philip Roth can write seven days a week because Philip Roth has someone to do his laundry and errands and shopping. Good for him. The rest of us have households to maintain, jobs to hold down, relationships to nurture, and phone calls and emails to return. I’m often happy for the errands and the break they provide; it’s good to be out in the world. When we’re out there. The rest of the time, we need to find a way to still the obligations, to make them sit quietly and wait outside the door, like well-behaved cats. (I know, it’s an oxymoron. That’s the point.)
I’ll say more in weeks to come about the other three components of Jane Anne’s advice. In the meantime, find her book Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer’s Block. And go find your space.