I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately (okay, two) about the importance of a good writing space—the perfect studio, the cabin in the woods, the coffee shop that blocks wi-fi, a room with natural light, and so on. And I just want to say that while this kind of place is nice, I have never needed this in order to write hard and write well. I have written on a bus, on a train, in the middle seat on an airplane, in my mother’s attic, on a park bench, under a tree, in my kitchen, in my living room, in the old greenhouse in my back yard, in my bedroom, in the bathroom, in the spare bedroom, in other people’s spare bedrooms, in a seedy bus station, on line at the bank, on the beach, in the fading light of the desert, and in my car (yes, while I was driving). My first published story was handwritten on a wet legal pad in a tent in Patagonia, with 70-mph winds outside. I can write anywhere, is what I’m saying. Like Snoopy, I could write on the roof of my house.
This is not to say that I don’t understand the need for a good space and quiet time, to have everything in place before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. I’m just saying that when it comes to my own writing, I don’t care about the where, when, or how. I care about the why and the what. (I’m writing this on the back of a quiz one of my students failed, and in about ten sentences I will be forced to continue on a blank page in the address-book section of my daily planner.) To me, people who fuss over their writing spaces are the kind of people who like everything well-organized and in place, and that helps them to write. I get that. I admire that. But there are also people who use this obsession over space as yet another way to delay or avoid actually writing. (“I can’t write if I’m not in the right space”; “I would write but this place is too loud”; “I would write but I forgot my laptop”; “I would write but I’m so busy at work”; “I would write but my kid is sick”; “I would write but I have to cook dinner”; “I would write but . . . oops hang on, my friend is texting me.”) Fuck all that. I’ve known people who spend more time talking about why they’re not writing than they spend actually trying to write, who tell everyone they meet the plot of their next book (“It’s all in my head . . . I just have to write it down”) or tweet out promos for their last book or live-chat with other writers or go out drinking or do just about anything instead of actually opening their laptop. What is writer’s block, anyway? It’s a nice term we’ve given to what is, essentially, being a scaredy-pants. It blames something else instead of ourselves. It’s saying, “I seem to have been afflicted by this disease called writer’s block–don’t you feel sorry for me?” instead of “I have chosen not to write lately because I’m scared of what comes next.”
To write is to face your fears. To write is to blindly enter a dark familiar room where someone has rearranged the furniture. To write is to pry open a box your brain has spent years nailing shut. “I have writer’s block” means “There’s a monster in the room but I can’t see it, so I’m just going to stay out here where it’s safe.”
Look: If you want to be a good basketball player, you have to go to the gym. Every day. If you want to be a great painter, you have to paint. Every day. If you want to be a great guitarist, you have to play the guitar. Every day. If you want to be a writer, then shut up and write. Every day. As Ron Carlson has often said, “The writer is the person who stays in the chair.” What he means is that the writer doesn’t look for excuses (a cup of coffee, doing laundry, answering a text, checking email) when things get hard; the writer sits there in the midst of the unknown (the alleged “block”) and either waits patiently for the next thing to come or writes through the hesitation, the fear. Yes, there really is a monster in the room. But you have to go in anyway. You have to breathe in the dark. And then turn on the light.
So yes, it helps to have light. It helps to have a room of one’s own. It helps to have a nice space in which to practice your craft–inspirational images, your favorite books, natural sunlight, a cup of tea. And yes, it’s good to work on creating that kind of space for yourself so that it’s easy to write when you’re ready to write. (My favorite is Rita Dove’s cabin outside her home in the Virginia woods, where she composes her gorgeous poetry without phone or computer.) But until you have such a space, or when you do have such a space but you can’t be there for some reason, or when you have that space but you’re not “in the right mental space,” guess what? You still have to write. Wherever and whenever. Write, and write, and write some more. Until you’re great.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work.