Where Writers Write

my studyI sit at the brewery around the corner from my house—I am lucky enough to have a brewery around the corner, it’s one of the blessings of living in the PNW— with my notebook, my newly acquired fountain pen and a glass of IPA. I could write for days in these conditions. It is blissful, nestled into my corner with the sun streaming in the windows. I would stay for days.

I read a book or an article somewhere once a few years ago about where writers write. It was fascinating to read and look at photos of my favorite (and least favorite) writers and their requirements for their writing space. I learned this: we are a particular breed; we all very particular in what makes our space conducive to put words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. Some people need silence and solitude, or a certain paper or pen or music. Some are peculiar only in their need for nothing particular.

I have been writing stories since I could put sentences together. My first memory of writing something for others was in 3rd grade. Mrs. Smith handed out bat-shaped, lined paper, about 5X7, and told us to write a Halloween story. I knew instantly that those six lines weren’t going to be enough for me so I asked for more pages. Mrs. Smith studied me closely and then handed over 2 more sheets of purple mimeographed bats paper.

I took my assignment home so that I could focus all my energies on the creation of my Halloween story. I spent several hoursn the project. I didn’t sit at my desk, the cute, child-sized cherry wood number that my dad made specifically for me when I was old enough to start bringing homework home. I never wrote or drew or read at that desk. Primarily it served as a space to house all my various supplies: my pencils, my crayons, my colored pens, my notebooks and cards.

My favorite spot to read and write was curled on the heating vent behind my dad’s easy chair. The vent was as old as our 1920’s vintage bungalow, heavy cast iron just feet above the furnace in the basement. I’d curl up with a blanket and roast my little behind on that heating vent with my books and pens and notebooks.

This particular story-writing project, however, took hours because I didn’t have enough bat-shaped paper, which meant I had to cut my own. Then, in order to make the paper look legit, I drew lines in purple colored pencil with a ruler. In retrospect, I tell this story and people ask “why didn’t you just write the rest of your story on notebook paper?” This never occurred to me. I don’t think I was trying to be precocious, or a brown-nosing student. Quite the opposite, in fact. I thought that maybe I could sneak this one by Mrs. Smith. I thought I’d be able to tell my story the best way possible (with more pages) and that maybe she wouldn’t notice that I used twice as many bat-shaped pages as she’d handed out. I was actually more worried about using more than the allotted pages, that I’d be in trouble for disobeying.

A few days later, after I’d slyly turned in my doorstop-like short story to Mrs. Smith, my worst fears were realized. Every day after lunch, Mrs. Smith would read a chapter to us from a book that we’d decided on as a class. It was my favorite time of the day, quiet and reflective after lunch, easing into the short afternoon before school was out. On this particular day, Mrs. Smith decided instead to read our short stories aloud. Simultaneously my stomach dropped and my heart began beating faster. I was thrilled with the idea that others would hear the words I slaved over, and terrified that I’d be called out on the carpet for my over-achieving, prolific words. I was proud of my story, desperately, anxiously seeking positive feedback, but the idea of everyone in the room listening to my words, critiquing them, possibly (probably) making fun of my overachieving sent me into a panic.

I waited until I saw my stack of pages up next—you could tell by the sheer size of the stapled pages—and asked to be excused to the bathroom. Mrs. Smith obliged, but my timing was off and by the time I slunk back into the room, she was just beginning to read my story. She joked about the weight of the manuscript and from then on, I was unable to hear anything else. I vaguely remember my classmates clapping at the end, but I only heard mocking. It wasn’t until later, in my bed that night, that I was able to absorb both sides. This was—is—typical for me. Unable to feel in the moment for fear of inappropriately emoting, I’d carefully place my experience in a box, wrap it up nicely and save it for later, when I’d open it up and allow whatever emotion it evoked to envelope me in the privacy of my own space.

My whole life I’ve tried to write at a desk. Because that’s what real, disciplined writers do. They write every day, at a desk, as though it’s their job. They diligently slave over their words in silence, without distraction. Every single place I’ve ever lived I’ve carefully crafted a study that reflects all the things that will inspire me to write beautifully crafted sentences that turn to paragraphs that turn into stories. I have a very particular and indecipherable system for placing my favorite books on the shelves closest too my workspace. I want certain photos on the walls, a particular rock I once found on display, my pens placed in a certain mug, another very specific iron star balanced on the shelf.

And then, I go work somewhere else.

I write in coffee shops and on trains and in libraries. Mostly, though, I like to write in bars. I nurse a beer or two, or a glass of wine (or guzzle, I supposed, depending on how things are progressing) while I scratch away in my very particular favorite notebook with a certain brand of pen. I rarely use my laptop on my first drafts, preferring to edit as I transpose. My favorite places to land have a few defining qualities. One, they are steadily busy but not raucously crazy. I like the background noise, but would prefer not to write in the midst of a frat party.  Two, I can snuggle into a corner preferably at the bar, but sometimes at a table tucked away. I like to observe without being in the center. I like feeling like I’ve created a cocoon in the midst of a big noisy world. Three, the neighborhood joints are the best. The same faces comfort me; I like being a regular. Even more, I feel like they are the extension of my home, my study, my living room. I like when I can make small talk with the bartenders or other patrons, but they know that I am there to work. I like the distractions of my neighbors and friends when I’ve put away my pen for the night.

There is risk involved. There is risk of judgment, mostly. Why the hell do you come to a bar to write? Bars are public houses—the third place, the place we go as an extension of our homes, our comfy space where we engage. Why would you seclude yourself with your notebook? The answer is simple—it is the way I engage, it is the extension of my home. The act of putting pen to paper makes this space comfortable. And the risk pushes me to create differently. Putting myself out of my own home makes my brain work in a higher gear.

I live in a teeny two-bedroom bungalow in Seattle. Space is limited. My husband is a painter and we share one small bedroom of workspace. I’ve recently realized that I selfishly take up space in our teeny little “art studio” because I am afraid that if I give up my bookshelf and unused desk I will give up my craft. I learn that the space that is uniquely my own is that which I take and create. I’ll never write well at home. I should sell the desk and use the money to fund my bar tab.