From Our Staff | October 02, 2008

Popular perceptions of writing often fixate on the image of the writer at work, and these images are, at their heart, images of place. We see the writer scribbling away by candelight with a quill pen in a mouldering garret, or typing idly while sipping a latte at a hip coffeeshop, or hunched over a bestickered and graffitied journal wiht a flashlight under the bedclothes. Well, some of these images certainly have roots in reality, but following on Dustin’s recent blog, we thought we’d ask where we do our own writing.

1. Robyn Allen, Intern

As an English undergrad focusing on literature and critical studies, not endeavoring to write the Great American Novel or just publish a modest book of poems, I often wonder about the diverse, particular and eccentric creative writing practices of my peers, mentors, and even the big names. I’ve read about the processes of some of my favorites–Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bishop, Toni Morrison–and observed those of my friends, but find it difficult to share in the zealousness of particularities, such as the all-important “place.”

Though the writing I do is of a different sort–mainly academic–I aim to fuse the scholarly with the literary and substance with artfulness, a challenge that satisfies my need for creative expression. . . Most of the time. However, I am merely a pioneering novice with high ambitions, still in the early stages of honing my technique and establishing a more systematic routine.

Because I do not have a designated space where I work, at least not one of relative frequency, I cannot share in the sacredness of those who do; those whose place sets the stage for inspiration, provides comfort and familiarity, and fosters the drives of discipline. I naturally resist regularity and rigidity (for better or for worse) and have a penchant for spontaneity and the unpredictable. So, one important prerequisite to productivity involves a constant change of scenery: propped up by pillows on the bed (insert any number of variables such as fan whirring, blinds parted, black tea ready and within reach), Ellis Library’s third floor desks bathed in light, Lakota’s un-EZ Boy furniture and heavenly coffee haze, or simply the floor. I’m a floor-sitter, what can I say?

The idea of this nomadic exercise correlates with the need for new perspectives (and shuffling between destinations keeps things fresh). The unpredictable nature of my writing environment encourages the essential activity of the mind. Keeping me on my toes, literary and metaphorically, changing places–and thus, mental spaces–helps to kindle creative energies. But though I may burn intensely for one long evening or afternoon, there is too much ash at the end of the day. I do envy those with more stable, selective, and, by virtue of ritual, sacred niches. I seem to thrive by wandering, but lack the discipline to wander internally without having to move my feet.

I often wonder if lacking a tangible “room of one’s own” detracts from my development as a more serious and successful (on my own terms) thinker and writer. And if so, how much. . . Now is when I stop theorizing and enter another stage in this learning process: researching the behaviors of literary mammals. Yes, there is a distinct sub-species. And, though the wild is ripe with exemplary models, I need only look out back to discover creatures of unusual creativity prowling McReynolds Hall.

2. Katy Didden, Poetry Editor

I saw of photo of Robert Frost last year and he was sitting in an armchair onto which he’d rigged a drafting board that fit over the chair arms-he was snug in the armchair-cage like a kid in a high chair, or like the Jetsons in their one-seater airplanes.  I always think of him as an upright man, so I thought maybe this was his secret for good posture.  When I write, I am always battling the “professorial c-shape” that you can observe on any college campus, where the shoulders of scholars round forward with the weight of their fact-heavy heads.  I spend so much time sitting and staring at my computer screen that my chin has an LCD patina.  So, I try all kinds of ways to be comfortable when I write, and lately I’ve been trying Frost’s method.  A person who rented my apartment before me left some make-shift radiator covers (sturdy slabs of wood, painted white), and I set one of these over the arms of an armchair in my living room.  Not only does this align my elbows so that I don’t have to lean down, but it also keeps me focused, and less inclined to jump up from my chair every five minutes.   Now if I could just build a Vermont outside my window…

3. Lania Knight, Editorial Assistant

I usually sit cross-legged on my 70’s-era pink sofa in my basement office to write. I have a view out to Hinkson Creek, which meanders at the far edge of my back yard. On clear, warm days, I write in the hammock that hangs between two oak trees near the creek, but most days are spent typing away on my sofa.

Several years ago, I had to complete a full-length play while on vacation camping at the Gulfshores National Seashore in Florida during Spring Break. Each morning, after eating breakfast burritos cooked over an open fire, I’d head to the stone wall that surrounded Fort Pickens, a fort built after the war of 1812, but which never actually saw battle. I’d sit on the stone wall every day while the rest of my family and the families we’d traveled with from Missouri played on the beach or snoozed in hammocks back at the campsite. Looking out on the Gulf of Mexico was a lovely way to complete my script.

The campground can only be reached by boat now–most of the roads were wiped out during Hurricane Ivan, including the long thin road from Pensacola to Fort Pickens. A year later, Katrina brought further damage. According to friends who went back last year, the wall is still intact, as well as the fort, but most of the trees are gone, and only a small portion of the campground is habitable. Someday I’ll go back too, but for now, my old pink sofa and the hammock in the back yard will have to be good enough.

4. Patrick Lane, Web Editor

I’ve always had a powerful attraction to places of transition. Waiting rooms, lobbies, insitutional hallways, train stations, airport terminals, and the like. Perhaps I have some energy-vampire tendencies, because I find I get the most writing done when there’s a lot of energy and activity around me, a place where people are coming and going, exuding a purposefulness that I can leech off of for my own productivity. These environments are energizing rather than distracting for me; indeed, my mind wanders far more in the casual, laid back vibe of coffee shops and cafes. Recently, I’ve done some of my best work in airports. The fact that I don’t fly especially frequently probably explains the glacial progress I’ve made on my current projects.

5. Marc McKee, Graduate Advisor

It’s tough to say where I write.  I grew into the practice of writing by reading my gods, people like Frank O’Hara, Dean Young, and Mary Ruefle in coffee shops.  I had to begin outside of the spaces where I lived, making notes on paper, waiting for something to catch in my head as I split my focus between coffee, books, and the bustle of the human beings as they made conversation at nearby tables or sassed baristas.  Writing for me is an engagement and a practice that begins well before putting pen to paper or fingerprint to keypad-some shape or energy has to be pawing or stirring, bull-in-a-china-shopping my interior.  Otherwise, I won’t have the energy to get through an entire draft, and the poem has little chance of surviving.  Back in the days of my coffee shop starts, I lived nearby, a block or so at most, so packing up and getting to my computer at home was not really an issue.  This was in Houston, where often I’d start at Café Brasil before hustling home to type out some piece of work generated by a stray thought, an overheard sentence, or a line from one of my books that seemed to open a door.  Then, it didn’t seem important where I wrote.  My desk was in what would have been the dining room of my apartment.  When I moved in with two friends, my desk was in the corner of my enormous room right by the window, upstairs.  When I moved to Tucson, our apartment had an office where my girlfriend (now wife) kept her drawings.  I had left my Houston desk behind, and operated on a weak table from Target that, after two years of writing and supporting the fluffy weight of my thoughts, bent a little in the middle.  In Tucson, we were lucky enough to have a patio where I could sit with a few books and a cup of coffee or blood orange sorbet from nearby Time Market before going inside to type something up.  Usually on my desk there is a coffee can from Café Du Monde in New Orleans with pens, pencils, and other stuff in it.  Always there are papers and books in precarious piles, piles which grow until I can no longer write and must clean instead.  Now that we’re in Missouri, we have another office, a little bit smaller, a lot more crowded with books, but I have a set-up that has become increasingly charged with meaning.  There’s a paperweight with a quote from Aristophanes on it: “Let each man exercise the art he knows.”  It was a gift from the first middle school class I visited as a creative writer in Houston.  There’s a carved rhinoceros that I took from my grandmother’s house after she died.  I sit in an office chair that I asked for from my grandfather’s house after he died.  The desk I use was once the desk of a dear friend’s beloved step-father, taken for $10 at the behest of his widow.  There’s a fire engine my friend Josh gave me, since he knows that fire engines are the closest thing I have to a spirit animal.  There’s a framed broadside my friend Murray gave me, a poem by David Clewell called “Jack Ruby Talks Business with the New Girl: Carousel Club, November 21, 1963.”  Recently, after looking at this desk, my friend asked me if I ever just started writing and then threw in all the things that surround me.  The answer of course is yes, because even if lately I’m not writing much down, I’m always writing.  But when I come to try to make the exhilarations in my head real on paper, I come back to this office, surrounded by this meaningful clutter, and try to arrange it in ways that make it nearly glisten.  And when this process is actually happening, where I am falls away, and this place, this noun, becomes a verb instead.

6. Dustin Michael, TMR Blogger

My writing space feels like a fossil dig. There are remnants of ancient things jutting to the surface here and there, lots of faint impressions. The desk, for example, belonged to my great, great grandfather, a Lutheran minister. It’s sturdy enough, even though the wood isn’t the best. There was a time when I considered becoming a Lutheran minister, myself; there was also a time when I considered becoming a scientist, which explains the microscope — still handy for those moments when the writing just isn’t working and the only thing to do about it is see what a nose hair looks like close up. The lamp, which doesn’t throw off much light, is from the office I shared with a now-deceased coworker and friend, and the shadows it dispels are mostly figurative.

I’ve been a dinosaur nut since I was a little kid, and I grew up watching those PBS dinosaur specials in which the host inevitably leads the camera through an empty museum display of fossilized skeletons and says something like, “…And if we listen, we might just hear the echoes of these magnificent creatures.” In some ways, I get that. I can sit down to write here and imagine myself to be like my ancestor, hunched at this desk, squinting by candlelight to put the finishing touches on the next day’s sermon; I can imagine myself back in the little office lit just by two monitors and this lamp, waiting for friend who isn’t coming. I can hear those echoes if I listen. It’s better for me, though, to sit down to write and become like the kid who wanted to be the dinosaur scientist — excited by the idea of a huge past with both looming monoliths as well as tiny fragments to examine by microscope in a landscape where everything reaches forward silently to connect with this moment right now.

7. Evelyn Somers, Associate Editor

In my head. 

That’s where I write, and then eventually I sit down and type it out and mess with it until it sounds good.  About 30 percent of the time the thinking is done in front of the computer (I used to write longhand first and then type it up later, but then I figured out it was a waste of time).  Even when I’m “writing” at the computer, much of the thinking has already happened.  Ideas don’t just pop out; they have to be chewed on and digested for a while-part of the thinking part: rumination  The thoughts that nag more or have an aura of rightness about them get written down in a long, free-form document that’s effectively a digital notebook of things too good to forget.  Later I go through and look at them if I’m stumped or if I want to incorporate them into whatever my current project is, but most of what I’m writing is simply present in my head when I sit down to type.  Sometimes I don’t know it’s there until it comes through my fingers, but then I recognize it because I’d already thought of it, not always intelligibly or logically.   

My home is a big, uncomfortable old dilapidated renovation project; there’s no such thing in it as an office.  The computer is in our bedroom, and I get up very early, while Brett is asleep, and type up the things I’ve already thought about.  There’s no glass of wine, cup of coffee, patch of sunlight or purring cat.  If the kids get up early I make them go away or go back to bed.  I can get pretty mean about it. The two essentials are food and motion.  I write best when I’ve just eaten.  Bread is the best thing in the world to eat if you want to think things up.  Most of what I think of happens when I’m walking or standing at a sink washing dishes.  Those are places/moments when my mind separates from the person walking or washing and comes up with surprises.

Next week: we consider literature in the light of economic crisis…