Friday, April 4, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"

PERUSE THE INTERWEB for writing advice, and something you'll often hear is that you need to set up a proper office: an orderly writing space to which you can steal away at a set time each day and be creative.
   But the funny thing is that productive, working, successful novelists often do their writing someplace other than that "absolutely essential" office.  
   When The Paris Review visited Ernest Hemingway in the 1950s at Finca VigĂ­a, his home outside Havana, he had a workroom in a three-story tower that stood near the corner of his house, but preferred to write in his bedroom, standing before one of his bookcases, the windows thrown open to cool the room. Descriptive writing was done by hand, in pencil, on onionskin paper placed slantwise across a reading board, but he would shift to a typewriter when writing dialogue.
   Likewise, Samuel Langhorne Clemens' home in Hartford, Connecticut, was designed with a study that was absolutely state-of-the-19th-century-art. But when his daughters began using it as their play space, the author known as Mark Twain retreated to the one area of the house where the children were not allowed to go—his billiards room. For the remainder of the time that he lived in that house, he did all of his writing there.
The neighborhood Starbucks workspace
of James Scott Bell, award-winning
suspense author and #1 bestselling
writing coach. 
   Nor is this trend exclusive to writers of a bygone age.
   Southern-California novelist James Scott Bell (the same James Scott Bell who wrote Plot and Structure, one of my favorite writing books) has a nice, modern, well-appointed office, but when he is working on his fiction, often as not he does what novelists have done for a century or more: he writes in a coffeehouse. 
   In Jim's case, that coffeehouse is his neighborhood Starbucks, a place he frequents with such regularity that he always sits at the same table near the window (perfect for people-watching), and the staff and he are on a first-name basis.
When New York Times bestselling
author Terri Blackstock needs
fresh air and quiet, she prefers
to write in her car.
   Other writers have less conventional places of refuge. Terri Blackstock has written something like 43 books in just the past two decades, including her newest thriller, Distortion, released just last month. Altogether, that adds up to literally millions of copies in print, and in her home she no doubt has an office worthy of a writer of that stature. But when she wants to escape household distractions and write in the quiet and the fresh air, she often moves out to the driveway and works from the front seat of her car.
   As for me, when I lived in Michigan, I had an office that took up nearly the entirety of the basement of our old farmhouse. At one end was a fireplace, flanked by bookshelves, with a leather sofa and a matching loveseat facing it. At the other was my writing nook, which contained my computer, my office chair and more bookshelves. In between was a daybed, perfect for catnaps when I was on deadline.
   That was great during the winter, when the wind was howling and snow and sleet were rattling against the windows. But when the weather warmed and the sun was out, I so resented being cooped up that one Saturday morning I drove the pickup to Home Depot, filled up the bed with lumber, screws and concrete mix, and brought it home to build a deck under our willow tree, creating an airy, green-walled grotto in which to work.
The wicker chair on our lanai
where I've written most of my
recent work; note the day bed
and squeaky toys for Tinsel,
my editorial assistant.
   These days, in Florida, I have an office with multiple computer screens and a desk chair so ergonomic that, every time I sit in it, I feel as if I am about to have my teeth cleaned. 
   Now, I do use that office; I use it for writing some of my nonfiction, for doing my taxes, for marking galley proofs, and other clerical stuff. 
   But when I'm writing fiction—and some nonfiction—the scene of my crime is usually a big, comfortable, and use-worn wicker chair on our lanai. I write, feet propped up on an ottoman, serenaded by birdsong and the rhythmic snoring of our dog.  Most days, I am out there well before sunrise, happily tapping away and adding, slowly but steadily, to the word count.  
   And the time spent there is productive: my most recent book, The Novel & The Novelist: An Insider's Guide to the Craft, was written entirely on our lanai.
   Point is, if you're of a mind that you absolutely must have a well-furnished office in which to write (and we have all been of that conviction at some point in our careers), I want you to know that you really don't. 
   Truth be told, I have lost track of the number of writers who have shared with me that they built such a thing, and then, upon sitting in it, felt under such pressure to create brilliance that they couldn't write a single word. 
   So they retreated to the kitchen table, to the local library, to a picnic table in a neighborhood park or the swing on their front porch, and started creating fiction in the friendly informality of that setting. And even among those writers who can write anywhere (including in the office), productivity often requires an occasional change of venue.
   So don't wait until you've constructed the perfect temple of prose in which to begin your novel. Just write. 
   The place where you are sitting right now would probably be perfect.  

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