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The Importance of Place: Where Writers Write and Why

Conrad Aiken worked at a refectory table in the dining room; Robert Graves wrote in a room furnished only with objects made by hand. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up; D. H. Lawrence under a tree. William Maxwell preferred "small messy rooms that don't look out on anything interesting." Katherine Anne Porter said she got her writing done in the country, where she lived like a hermit. Ben Franklin wrote in the bathtub, Jane Austen amid family life, Marcel Proust in the confines of his bed. Balzac ate an enormous meal at five in the evening, slept till midnight, then got up and wrote at a small desk in his room for sixteen hours straight, fueled by endless cups of coffee. Toni Morrison found refuge in a motel room when her children were small; E. B. White sought it in a cabin on the shore. Due to her problem back, Penelope Lively works in an armchair, with an "ancient electronic typewriter" on her lap, while A. L. Kennedy finds comfort in a "monster black chair" in a room "the color of blood."

"For years, I couldn't write anywhere except at my cabin and my house and then my office in the granary, but two years ago I got liberated and wrote a novella in a motel in Montana," Jim Harrison told Nancy Bunge in an interview that appears in her collection Master Class: Lessons From Leading Writers (University of Iowa Press, 2005). "I felt splendid because then I wasn't locked into those places." How extraordinary that statement sounded to me when I first read it. Extraordinary because I, too, feel the necessity to write in a specific place, but also because I am constantly looking for a new place, for the place where I believe I will be able to work best.

Why do some writers prefer company and background noise, while others need isolation? Why do some need the magical monotony of sameness, and others the inspiration of variety? What does it mean for a writer to be locked into a place? What does place even mean to a writer?

The late poet Robert Creeley once said, "The necessary environment is that which secures the artist in the way that lets him be in the world in a most fruitful manner." Creeley himself required a "very kind of secure quiet," as he put it. "I usually have some music playing, a kind of drone that I like, as relaxation." Writers need to find a way to access creativity and that can begin with the physical spaces they occupy when they work. (Paradoxically, when the writer is writing well, is truly immersed in the project, this space dissolves and becomes irrelevant.) The writer exists in a kind of melding of literal and imaginative, at times oblivious to the actual surroundings, at times unconsciously attuned to external stimuli—music, scent, a familiar view.

In his 1951 essay "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena," British psychologist D. W. Winnicott wrote, "It is in the space between inner and outer worlds, which is also the space between people—the transitional space—that intimate relationships and creativity occur." While Winnicott had a cultural model in mind, this concept of a transitional space between inner and outer worlds helps make sense of how writers enter what Richard Russo has called "that psychic place where you need to be in order to do your best work." Each writer needs to establish the configurations of this creative space, which incorporates memory, imagination, intention, and curiosity, but also exists in the real world; at the same time, each writer must also negotiate how much protection this space needs from the demands of the everyday.

For many writers, the transition from waking to working needs to be as quick and unremarkable as possible; they speak of the proximity of their work spaces to their beds, so that their mornings can slide easily into writing. When Sherry Ellis asked Binnie Kirshenbaum about her personal ritual for an interview in the Writer's Chronicle, the novelist said, "Get out of bed, make coffee, stumble into my office, turn on the computer, and I sort of get started before I'm fully awake. It's a way of tricking myself so that I don't get distracted with the newspapers or e-mail or deciding it's a good day to clean out the closets." Toward the end of a project, Joan Didion slept in the room with her manuscript because she felt "the book doesn't leave you when you're asleep right next to it," and it was immediately available if she woke in the night to make changes.

Novelist Beth Gutcheon has breakfast in silence, with a section of the New York Times, followed by a bath with the paper's Book Review, also in silence, and then goes to her office for four or five hours of work. "I find it hard to settle down to work when anyone else is in the house, because they might pop in and speak to me," she says. "I can't imagine working in a public place, for the same reason I find social events exhausting, if delightful and absorbing: The mental equipment that records dialogue and is always listening for the way people express themselves has no off switch. So all I would do trying to work in public is harvest aimless gobbets of what was going on around me. I can't sort it out and arrange it into patterns until I'm alone and not going to be interrupted."

“The writer exists in a kind of melding of literal and imaginative, at times oblivious to the actual surroundings, at times unconsciously attuned to external stimuli—music, scent, a familiar view.”

Reader Comments

  • EDupree says...

    This article has been very enlightening for me. Maybe if I can find that comfortable place for myself, inspiration will come. Something always seems to provide distraction but this has given me an idea of how to end my writer's block.

  • rickrbc says...

    The article is so profound. I love the style and the great content. 

    I am doing a series on my blog about where writers write. Can I post your article if I give you credit and link back to this site.

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