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The Importance of Place: Where Writers Write and Why

A destabilizing element in an otherwise secure space may be helpful. Poet Andrew Motion sits at a glass-topped table. "Although the sight of my legs crossing and uncrossing can add to my nervousness when I'm working," he says, "I like the slightly vertiginous feeling it gives me—as if I were staring over the side of a boat." On the other hand, disturbances in the work space can affect the writing negatively. During a time when she was having problems writing, novelist Rachel Cline consulted a feng shui practitioner. When Cline described the pages of old manuscripts stacked up behind the chair in her work space, the practitioner said, "That's the problem—all those papers, one on top of another. Each one's like a little knife ready to stab you."

For some writers, establishing a transitional space means finding a way to be alone but not solitary. "The whole thing about writing is how to be able to withstand solitude," says Francine du Plessix Gray. For years she had a writing room across the courtyard from her husband Cleve Gray's studio, but after his death she found she needed new rituals to stave off the isolation. In warm weather the author now works outside at a weathered wooden table beside a small pool of water. In winter, she sits in the old part of her house, in the library by the fire, which she keeps burning all afternoon long. "The natural elements of fire and water are my best companions," she says. "There's something primal, archaic, shamanistic about being within sight of those elements."

"I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come," Toni Morrison told Elissa Schappell in a 1993 Paris Review interview. "And I realized for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space I can only call nonsecular.... Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It's not being in the light, it's being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense."

Many writers choose libraries, intermediate spaces that aren't totally isolated but are quiet, protected, and controlled. Herman Melville and Willa Cather wrote at the New York Society Library; Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, and George Bernard Shaw all worked in the famous Reading Room at the British Museum. Shaw described his ritual in his diary:

When I lay too late in the mornings (which is most often the case) I did not go to the museum until after dinner.... I made a stand against late rising by using an alarm clock and actually succeeded in getting up regularly at eight every morning until the end of the year, when the clock broke and I began immediately to relapse. I got a new clock, but did not quite regain my punctuality, which, by and by, made me so sleepy in the afternoon that I got into the habit of taking a nap in the Museum over my books.

Novelist Anne Landsman is a member of the Writers Room in New York City, a nonprofit organization that offers desk space to writers who prefer to work in a shared environment. "I work best in situations around other people who are creating," says Landsman, who's been a member since 1994. "Everyone's a writer. There's nothing aberrant or unusual or out of place. It says Writers Room on the door. It allows you to be what you are. I'd be happy if they provided work clothes with Writer on the back. I love the signing in, the routine. It gives you permission to take a deep breath, to realize that writing happens the way everything else happens. Writing makes me feel sufficiently vulnerable and it helps to be with other people. Another comforting thing is you see people having different kinds of days."

Preparing to work, deliberately and intentionally, can help build the bridge between inner and outer worlds, whether a writer leaves the house or not. Landsman says her preparations begin with reading on the train to the Writers Room. "By the time I'm at the Writers Room, have set up the desk, maybe made a phone call, or a cup of tea, I'm ready. You know how cats and dogs circle in their beds at night? It takes me between five and twenty minutes. Then I turn on the computer. It's like taking an elevator down; I've gone to that other place."

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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