Find a Writing Room of Your Own
by Noelle Sterne
My writing buddy’s face turned dark pink as she shouted over her latté. “No one can write anything worthwhile without a private place!” She thrust her face into mine. “It’s gotta be your own!”
“Oh, please!” I replied. “All you need is the desire, will, and your stone tablet and a sharp tool. It doesn’t matter where you write!”
Our little debate embodies two often-discussed viewpoints about writing. Despite my vehement response to my friend, I have long puzzled about the most effective place to write. If you too are in a quandary, or lament you have no writing spot to call your own, I’d like to help you enlarge your perception of your own physical and mental writing places, spaces, and times.
One Place, One Room. Virginia Woolf’s well-known 1929 observation in A Room of One’s Own presents the ultimate prototype of one of the opposing views. Referring pointedly to the few women writers of her time, the solution, was, she said, the little matter of a stipend of 500 English pounds a year . . . and a room of one’s own. Despite women’s wonderful writing progress to date, the idea still clings.
Like Woolf and my writing friend, many writers swear up and down, usually without the elusive independent income, that the only true way to write is in the reverently dedicated spot where you worship regularly, surrounded by your favorite, comforting possessions.
My Room. At an early point in my writing career, I craved the same. I felt unable to use my desk at home for client work and my own writing, so I rented a room a few blocks from my apartment. With my host at work, I went to this writing sanctuary three times a week. It didn’t matter that the room was dingy and furnished in New York City street-treasure castoffs; or that all I saw out the window were the cracked bricks of the building next door; or that my host’s files sat on half the desk to make room for me; or that I made instant coffee from her battered pan and stirred the powder with her dime-store spoon.
In this room, I blissfully wrote essays, stories, poems. One day after about a year, she left a note on “my” desk saying she’d gotten engaged and would be moving out in a few weeks.
Many Places. I was sad, of course, but not devastated. I could have started looking for another room of my own, but I realized something momentous: the room had given me the gift of consistent writing and confidence enough to attempt writing in other places. Surprised, I saw that Woolf’s room of one’s own could have many mansions.
As many writers prove, we can and do write in all kinds of settings: libraries, restaurants, cafes, parks, laundromats, and locker rooms. I knew a novelist-businesswoman who completed her first multigenerational blockbuster in taxis as she dashed around New York City for business conferences – and without a laptop.
Some, myself included, have written in the supermarket line, at the dentist’s office, the beach, the boardwalk, the auto repair shop, on Sunday drives to relatives, at a mall table, during lunch and coffee breaks at work, and at church (don’t tell). Today, with laptops and iPads, and the thoughtful installation of WiFi in every mall and market, writers can type and save almost anywhere.
When my main writing tool was my marvelously peripatetic clipboard, I wrote on busses and planes, in vans or two-door convertibles, on park benches with takeout coffee and Danish (heaven!), and even on the subway, elbowed between swarthy strangers. For my children’s book (Tyrannosaurus Wrecks: A Book of Dinosaur Riddles), I wrote most of the riddles sitting on the ground under a tree facing the staid Columbia University campus, an irony my dissertation professor would’ve chuckled at.
One of my favorite spots near the university was the small, wonderful-smelling European coffee shop and bakery, pre-Starbucks and full of brooding intellectuals. The sympathetic expatriate owners glided among the tables with endless, generous refills. I savored a single daily magnificent Hungarian pastry on my glorious afternoons of inspired, furious scribbling.
As I started using the computer for work, and even though I loved writing in the coffee shop, I achieved the great transition to my own desk for writing. I’d spread a blanket over the client projects so I could work on my own pieces without distraction.
When you write at home, though, you need changes of venue. A prolific children’s author confided that when her words become momentarily congested, she takes walks around her yard, gets up to transfer clothes from washer to dryer, jogs up and down the stairs. Julia Cameron in Walking in This World related how hiking in the foothills of the Taos Mountains prompted solutions: “I knew what to write, how to write it, and that write it I should.”
Other writers who work at home “step away” by looking out the window, pacing up and down the porch or terrace, doing a few sit-ups or yoga postures, cooking, eating (a little), watering a few plants, dancing to one song while singing along at the top of their voice. I do five minutes on the stationery bike, straighten one pile, make one call, or grab one apple.
These many examples show that the one-place-one-space dictum can swell into many places and spaces, born of writers’ almost endless ingenuity, flexibility, and fluidity. Consider too the following.
Your Outlook. Enlarge your view of what writing is, and where and when it can take place. Wherever you are, jotting notes, doodling titles, listing a character’s facial oddities, working out a chronology, recording alternate plot decisions—they’re all part of the process.
Such tasks lend themselves well to modest chunks of time in traffic, on line, or during pasta bubbling. And they do count, advancing your project, clarifying your focus, reinforcing your theme, keeping you involved, and sowing fertile seeds for your next session.
Your Writing Time. Enlarge your view of writing time itself. Many still tout the classic stoic predawn stint before the day job as the only writing time that counts. I recently read of a novelist who finished his novel (later taken by an agent) by working from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. six days a week for seven months. At 9:00, he turned to his eight-hour day job.
I don’t know which I was more jealous of – his completing the book, his agent, or his self-discipline in getting up at that headachy hour. Unless I’ve got to be on a plane or speak to an editor at 8:00 in the morning, I can’t even look at dawn without knowing that only more sleep (please!) will ameliorate the slit-eyed grog.
I usually get going about 9:30 a.m. Then, after addressing client duties during the day, I often work on my creative pieces until 9:30 or 10:00 p.m., and my mind keeps sifting and sorting through the night. A very successful writer/editor admitted she rises at 10:00 a.m. and works until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. Your best writing time is whatever works best for you.
Your Mindset. A room of your own, finally, is a mindset. Virginia Woolf notwithstanding, your physical space does not dictate your mental space but reflects it. Reeducate yourself about workable space and time by reading about writers who aren’t tied to boundaries or conventions. Talk to other writers about their place-space-time variations, and experiment with your own roominations.
As you enlarge the possibilities, you’ll become more consistent in your writing and more creative about places, spaces, and times. And you’ll discover, with joy and gratitude, that you have a great many writing rooms of your own.
Author, editor, writing coach and soother, dissertation nurturer, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 300 writing craft, spiritual articles, stories, and essays in print and online venues. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle assists doctoral candidates in completing their dissertations (finally). Based on her practice, her current handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). Excerpts·continue to appear in magazines and blogs. In Noelle's first book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), with examples from her academic practice, writing, and life, she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com.