Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Table with a View

The other day, I was reading a story in the New York Times about an author's writing sanctuary. Despite living in a "Classic 8" on the Upper East Side, with multiple bedrooms and a kitted-out study, the author Roxana Robinson chooses to write in "an 8-by-10 space that faces a tan brick wall and was formerly a maid’s room. In d├ęcor and design, it is as spare as a monk’s cell."

Forgetting the fact that this author somehow can afford a vast Manhattan apartment with multiple options for her writing room (the key to this, it seems, is marrying an investment banker), I was struck by the fact that she writes best in a monastic, silent, tiny room with no view. It reminded me of the site Daily Routines, which documents the writing routines of famous authors. Reading through them, I'm struck by how many authors maintain schedules and writing spaces that are austere, severe, or downright dogmatic. They write alone, in windowless rooms, with no distractions. They get up at 5 a.m. and are writing before daybreak. They have their days planned down to the minute. They can't write unless the dictionary is positioned in the right place on the desk.

I, on the other hand, have a completely haphazard writing routine. Loosely, I try to be writing by 10 in the morning; my goal is to write six hours a day. Some days I don't start writing until after lunch, and then write late. Some days I start early and finish by lunch. And as to where I write -- that changes daily.

Sometimes, I write from home. Despite the fact that my husband and I have a spacious office -- a converted garage in our garden with ergonomic chairs and a huge built-in desk -- I tend to write from a reclined position on the couch. I'm sure it's terrible for my back and my wrists, but I find it comforting, perhaps slightly womb-like, to be entombed on the couch on a pile of pillows with the French doors thrown open to the garden and my computer humming in my lap. Sometimes, though, it's a bit too comforting, and I get no work done at all.

Instead, I head to a cafe, which is where I do my best work. There are a half dozen of them that I frequent on a daily basis, all carefully selected based on their chair-to-table height ratio (for ergonomic soundness), whether they have wall outlets for plugging in my laptop, the quality of their coffee (very important), the availability of free wireless, and -- most critical of all -- whether they'll tolerate me sitting around for up to four or five hours at a stretch. Thankfully, I have a number of great cafes in my neighborhood that are known as writer's hangouts, and are packed at any hour of the day with people tapping away on laptops.

Those authors who, like Roxana Robinson and the other "Daily Routines" writers, require monastic silence to work their genius would undoubtedly cringe at my routine. But I find that I work best with outside stimulus. I like the hustle and bustle of human activity around me: Human interaction fascinates me, and the sight of a woman carrying a child in a sling, or the sound of two men arguing about the bank bailout, or the banter and rhythm of the baristas taking orders from customers, often triggers ideas that I then translate onto paper. I never forget what human language sounds like; I can see, before me, how people move and interact. It's almost like using the world as my own private theater of inspiration.

If I need to tune the world out, I just put on headphones and drown out the noise with music. And I often meet with another writer friend, who has the same kind of writing habits as I do. We'll schedule a time and a cafe every day -- we call it our "virtual office" -- in order to keep each other motivated and on track. Together, we work in complicit silence for hours at a time, an oasis of creativity in the midst of the chaos of everyday life.

I suspect that if, like Robinson, I did my writing in a tiny cell-like room, my books would never achieve the vibrancy that I strive for. All the more power to her for achieving what she does in such a spartan setting.

I'm curious -- tell me about your writing habits, and where you choose to write?


PS: The photo was taken yesterday, at Casbah Cafe, which is one of my regular writing spots. Excellent lattes, gooey baklava, comfy chairs, and lots of plugs.

1 comment:

  1. The idea of writing in cafes has always been appealing ... somewhere between New York sidewalk tables in summertime and Parisian cafes near a university. The latter brings images of bright Deco posters or recollections of books describing foreign writers who flocked to the City of Light in another century, inviting us to become one.

    I've felt too inhibited to be comfortable in cafes, beyond reviewing the day's task-list over a medium latte. I do like being there: life is starting up for another day; people are stirring; the morning's potential seems brighter from that venue.

    I'm too self-conscious to write in a cafe: am I staying too long, taking up a table that two other people could have for conversation, wallowing in a self-image of "being a writer?" Do the anonymous people there think I'm narcissistic, full of self-importance, or maybe interesting? Why should I care what they think anyway? Yet this curious annoyance flits around my head, a pesky fly disturbing my concentration.

    So I think it comes down to the screen and my head: that's where I write, when I can get the two together, unencumbered by tasks and email and projects. I'm in my daughter's old room now, empty nesters as we are, and I don't even open the curtains most days. I just jump into the words on the screen, painting in inartistically chosen black type across 19 inches of cathode ray tube. Thoughts travel back and forth, connected through a line of light, until the words begin to take shape, to become meaningful paragraphs, each some part of a larger story that may or may not be told.

    In the early days of laptops, I thought my Tandy 102 would allow me to capture revelations on a mountain top or at a beach. Ever try reading a dark screen in the full-day brightness of a beach? In the mountains, I like to jump on rocks and think, not stare into a screen. A little notepad is great for capturing those fleeting truths that seem so clear on an altar of granite, else forgotten upon one's return to lower elevations and the silty streets of our most-of-the-time.

    All these scraps of paper-thoughts I need to assemble into something cohesive, in front of a computer, anywhere that's away from nagging distraction. So for me, it's really more the challenge of time than place.

    I haven't got that one figured out yet.

    jim chandler
    Kepler's Writers Group