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The Importance of Place: Where Writers Write and Why

Other writers find busy public spaces more conducive to work. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had regular tables and hours at the Café Flore and later the Deux Magots, and knew they would be surrounded by people but not intruded upon. "It's a less lonely way to write," Russo said of writing in diners, in an interview on Barnes & Noble's Web site. "I'm less self-conscious when it's not so quiet.... I've always enjoyed writing in public spaces, because when the phone rings, it's not for you." Poet Catherine Barnett has a favorite booth at her local diner. "It's out of the way and protected. I like writing there because people take care of you."

I myself have found the lounge at the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York City, where my daughter takes a weekly class, a very productive space. There, amid the tiny girls in their ballet clothes and the dozing fathers, I am able to tune out the distractions and focus only on the work at hand.

Travel can provide another kind of transitional space. For some, the actual journey—the movement between places—inspires the writing. Poet Tom Sleigh likes to write on trains, which he describes as "meditative, calming, and interesting for the way the scenery keeps flashing by." In her contributor's note for "Mr. Sweetly Indecent," published in The Best American Short Stories 1998, Bliss Broyard wrote that her story "was written virtually in one sitting, while I was traveling from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Boston." She noticed an unusual greeting between passengers and opened her notebook.

I worked on the story while I waited for my plane, for the entire three-hour flight, and then kept writing in the terminal in Boston until I'd finished.... When I come to think about how the story came to be, it is the circumstances under which it was written that loom largest in my mind. The anonymous, unanchored feeling of being in an airport terminal and flying high above the earth liberated me from some of my normal writing anxieties. I followed the story where it took me, without thinking ahead about plot, character development, or really any thematic concerns. In retrospect I see that some aspects of where the story was written found their way into it: eavesdropping and voyeurism, a sense of traveling between separate worlds, and the feeling I often have while flying of a temporary suspension of my belief in how things are supposed to work.

Others actually take trips in order to write along the way. Erskine Caldwell, author of Tobacco Road (Scribner's Sons, 1932), ran a bookstore in Maine with his wife, photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White; when he needed time to write, he would take a bus from "Boston to Cleveland maybe, and get off at night once in a while to write. I'd do a story that way in about a week's time. Then for a while, I took the night boats between Boston and New York. The Fall River Line, the New Bedford Line, the Cape Cod Line, all going to New York at night. The rhythm of the water might have helped my sentence structure a little; at least I thought it did."

Then there are those like Eudora Welty, who "found it possible to write almost anywhere I've happened to try." (Welty preferred home because it was "more convenient for an early riser.... And it's the only place where you can really promise yourself time and keep out interruptions.") Robert Frost claimed famously to "never write except with a writing board. I've never had a table in my life. And I use all sorts of things. Write on the sole of my shoe." For some, the transitional space is actually more external than internal; they thrive on outside contact. Allen Ginsberg could write poems anywhere, anytime. "He isn't the least bit self-conscious," Creeley said of Ginsberg. "In fact, he seems to be stimulated by people around him."

Being in the world as a writer, to paraphrase Creeley, takes many forms. For me, different stages of a project have always demanded different settings. In the beginning, when an idea is just emerging, I search for the right place to incubate what is coming. Where are the characters going to reveal themselves? Do I want to be alone, or with others? To work in quiet or with background noise? Near the end of my project, these questions will not matter; I will perch wherever I need to. I'll work on the edge of a bathtub, in the car, waiting for my daughter to brush her teeth. Like the moon, the momentum and sheer bulk of my novel will pull me to it. In the middle stages I want something different again. I want a place where work has to be done, a library or office. This long stage is about routine and discipline—it's nice to be surrounded by familiar things because they suggest my life as a writer.

I was in the middle of a novel when, several years ago, my husband, the sculptor Peter Soriano, won a grant to live and work in Alexander Calder's house in the tiny town of Saché, France. The house was enormous—a farmhouse on steroids, we called it—and severely underfurnished. I could not get comfortable in that cavernous house, could not find a spot secure enough to work. I was also a little homesick. My novel was about an island in Maine, a novel in which landscape, and the character's attachment to it, played a big role, and the irony of working on that while feeling distinctly unattached to this place in the beautiful French countryside was not lost on me. Finally I moved a table into a corner of the bedroom. And so, while Peter was out in the studio and our daughter at the village school, I made a boat out of that desk, a bridge that connected me to my own New England landscape, and to the imagined world I was creating. Meanwhile, in the days and weeks that followed, the French landscape outside and its lovely slow spring was seeping in, and in my novel the bright and forceful Maine summer was hurtling out, and there, on that simple pine table pushed up against the bare white wall, I found a way to contain it all.

Alexandra Enders is the author of the novel Bride Island (Plume, 2007). She lives in New York City.

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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