Sunday, November 9, 2008

Where do you write?

Somehow I've fallen out of the habit of writing at home. It began when Paul and I moved into an apartment in Manhattan, which is -- like the home of every middle-class person in the city unless you've been there forever or have fantastic good fortune -- tiny. Urbane, cozy and welcoming, but very small. I couldn't work there when Paul was working, because he's just too much of a presence; I can practically hear him thinking. So I started to go to coffee shops in the West Village, which worked well for me -- just enough background noise, usually nobody there I knew, other people working too so there weren't loud cell phone conversations. Of course, these places are full of other people thinking, but I don't have the same connection to their electric impulses that I do to Paul's.

Now I'm in Houston, and though I'm here by myself, I still can't work at home. Either I've forgotten how to sit still in my own space, there are too many distractions (wireless!), or my imaginative process has just adapted itself to circumstance and I haven't adapted back. Today it's a gorgeously sunny, cool Sunday, a rarity here, so all the usual places I'd go are packed, and I've wound up at a coffee shop in my neighborhood. I don't like the vibe indoors, so I am outside, at a table which does not inspire confidence in its stability, and some guys next to me (who just left, thank goodness) were talking about how they'd only date white girls with at least a GED. Now I think I can settle down to work.

Is this just me, or do you find you have trouble concentrating in familiar places the way you used to? My idiosyncracy, or cultural shift, or some of both?


Collin Kelley said...

Most of my writing is done at my apartment, because its quiet there and I love to have music playing. I've found the muse visits most often when I'm traveling -- siting in airports, hotel rooms, riding in cabs.

Nancy Devine said...

i'm at the public library now. i'm not sure if this is the best place to work or not. it feels like a clinic without sick people.

writing at home is hard, because there is just too much excitement pulling me away---laundry, dogs lounging in our bed in hopes that somebody will join them there, and yes, the TV, though i think all the election coverage has made even me sick of the tube.
i actually like to write at work in my classroom with the lights off. i kind of feel like a spy without any real danger near. what better way to become a better writing teacher than by writing.

Anonymous said...

i do find it more difficult to write in my more familiar places. however i have found that the real distraction from my writing are my cell phone or the tv. so i have taken to leaving my cell in another room while im writing(if im out i just put it on silent mode)and making sure i write in a room that doesnt have a t.v. that way i can focus more on what i love doing best.

Peter Kent said...

Do you find it makes a difference if you are creating or revising? And does how you work (with a laptop, desktop, or pen and paper) matter? These are all factors that impact my writing process. I almost always draft work in handwritten form, which allows me to be anywhere when something that might be worth capturing shows up. And since I don't use a laptop (yet), almost all revision work takes place in my small urban apartment at my iMac. I live alone, however. And that probably makes a difference.

It's interesting that Paul's presence (energy) throws you off balance relative to writing. When we're particularly attuned to someone's energy it can be challenging to separate from it enough to pursue our own course. I spend a fair amount of time with a close friend at her place. She's a poet, too. It's definitely the exception when we're together that any writing gets done. It happens sometimes, but to really get meaningful work done requires us to retire to our respective habitats or haunts/coffee shops.

I wonder if you might be onto something with the idea of a cultural shift in the ways (or at least places) that writers work. I don't know enough about how and where writers in prior generations composed, but I do sense that technology, along with a more peripatetic lifestyle in general (look at how many places you've been in the past 60 days!), is leading writers to work in some odd, different and necessary places.

And that may not be all bad . . . I mean, you aren't going to run into characters like the guys who want white chicks with at least a GED while working at home! Whether or not they become fodder or elements in any of your future work, of course, remains to be seen. But they're available now, should you want to use them. I think that's one of the primary reasons I work on creating drafts away from home . . . there's so much additional stimulus and potential to discover things I'd not likely imagine.

And, again, with a Moleskine journal and a pen, it's easy to walk around and find things. It's a little more challenging for the writer who composes drafts on a laptop. And what about genres other than poetry? Maybe that influences where people find it easiest to compose and revise, too. Interesting to consider . . . hope you did find a good space to write on this rare, cool Houston Sunday.

sireneatspoetry said...

I am currently rearranging my apartment because I am still a po-dunk student who has too much of a high-ish profile on campus to keep to myself much. Denver is pretty small for a city, so it seems no matter where I am, I inevitably run in to someone I know. The talking begins in the middle of some sentence or phrase... I have so many ellipses in my journals!

Public places rarely work for me, not even libraries! This is a bit disappointing, but it is what it is, I suppose.

I don't usually invite many people up to my apartment. It's built a bit like a studio, and the space is really just for me. I put things up on the walls and such to inspire me, or to remind me constantly what I need to be doing; symbols, images, mantras, sayings... I even leave books out in the walk way so I can remember to peruse them later.

So...hopefully, this intensive apartment rearranging of mine will help with the writing... If not, I have to come up with a better plan! I really want my home space to be the main space for such endeavors.

Leslie said...

It seems like more and more the only place I can write is at home. I often feel very self-conscious in public spaces, like "oooh, look at me the poet. watch me write." I always feel like I'm inside Merrill's Marsyas poem.

I do tend to get great fragments in transitional or temporary spaces like airports or hotel rooms, but mostly I scribble them in a journal and pretend I didn't just do that.

Unlike most people, my home is isolated—there is no TV to watch, I get one station on the radio, until a few weeks ago my internet was dial-up, I have no close neighbors. So it tends to be me, a cup of tea, the dogs, and a stack of books. Which is my ideal writing environment.

Otherwise it is at least a half-hour drive to anything—cafe, library, bookstore. The closest museum is expensive and an hour away and specializes in Norman Rockwell paintings (yikes!).

I used to love writing in museums. Now I pretty much write in the museum of me.

Mark Doty said...

Paul reminds me that I actally do sometimes write at home when he is writing, but only if I haven't planned to write, only if I just sort of sidle up to the computer and start playing.

I do not believe poetry could be written in a Norman Rockwell museum.

Paul Lisicky said...

Well, I do think my attention's much more fragmented than it was even two years ago. My guess is that anyone who spends enough time on-line knows what I'm talking about, though is ashamed to admit it, as if that compromised attention's a failure of intelligence and/or self-control. One of my students, who happens to love INFINITE JEST, held up the book in class two weeks ago, and said, wisely, this kind of thing couldn't be written now. And everyone in that room agreed. He didn't think that was necessarily a terrible development. This world is new to us; it's even new to my 21-year-olds, who probably feel much more permeated than their older siblings, whose imaginations were less likely to be shaped by social networking sites and political blogs and youtube, all of which require intense short bursts of attention.

Actually, when I'm able to carve out time for writing, I feel more oppressed by the expectation I've attached to it than I used to. I'm more likely to cave in, distract myself with, I don't know, writing a letter of recommendation. My real writing (whatever "real" means) seems to happen when I'm not trying. Twenty minutes before I teach. Waiting in baggage claim area for the suitcase to slide down the chute. Slouching on the train to Long Island with a notepad on my lap. And it helps to be in motion.

I don't think we need to be ashamed of any of this.

Mark Doty said...

That is so interesting; maybe our distractability or divided attention makes us differently productive, differently attentive? I am thinking about this in relation to Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York," which I just saw tonight and thought uncomfortably, remarkably brilliant.
Narrative, in the film, goes in so many directions, as if it couldn't be contained to a single line, or even to a few lines; it's a branching, glorious, blurring motion.

Laura said...

I've written many places--in my apartment, in the classroom while my students are writing, in the car with one hand on the wheel and not looking at the paper, in my cubicle at my old publishing gig. Mostly I think the wind just has to be right, wherever I am. So maybe we can blame everything on climate change.

A friend called to say I should mention that I have a deer's head hanging in my apartment, a rescued childhood relic that used to hang over my grandfather's Cadillac in the barn. She imagines that the deer's silent animal presence helps me write. Which it doesn't, although maybe if I concentrate...

anything but poetry said...

I wrote really well at desk jobs when I wasn't supposed to be writing, and I really think my poems got shorter because I was afraid of getting caught. I had to get to the point quickly so I could flip back over to another screen and pretend to be working. But the ideas always came in that long stretch of afternoon (after lunch but before going home). I don't know when I write now. I'm still trying to figure it out.

January said...

My writing sessions are more productive when it’s noisy. So I write late at night in bed, with my laptop on lap and the TV on in the background. But lately I've found refuge at my local Starbucks on the weekends.

As long as the kids are not around, I can write almost anywhere.

nat.alie said...

I write at work, mostly. Don't tell. Writing poems is so much more exhilarating when it seems rebellious.

Duncan Mitchel said...

I'm not sure I've ever done a lot of writing at home. Back when I was writing poetry, I was as likely to write it in my head while I was at work, and put it onto paper on break. My job as a janitor and later a dishwasher, was very good for that. Mopping a large floor is a meditative process, perfect for mulling over words and ideas. Poems are shorter than prose, which helps, but once I wrote a poem that turned out to be three (typed, single-spaced) pages long, revising it in my head as it grew, and I was able to keep it all in memory until it was finished -- whereupon it vanished and I couldn't have quoted it from memory at any length to save my life.

Even after I stopped writing poetry, I did a lot of prose-writing at work in the same way, often writing very busily at meals or on break. When I was working on a long project in the 80s, I did end up working at home where my books and other references were, but even then I'd be ruminating at work and making notes, jotting down ideas, that I'd expand at home.

I don't think writing elsewhere than at home is a product of new technology. I seem to remember that Christopher Isherwood said that while he lived in Berlin (1929-1930) he did most of his writing in coffee shops. Sure, it helps to have a laptop, but it's just as easy to lug around a notebook, which I've done pretty steadily from the late 1970s on. The Internet, while fun and often useful, is generally just as much of a distraction as anything at home, and with a laptop and wireless you can take the Internet with you wherever you go.