Illustration: Istvan Banyai
Years ago I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with my boyfriend at the time, and initially we shared the office, back-to-back, each working away at our computers.
But he was a newshound, and he'd read Internet news extensively while I was writing, making thoughtful grunts at each article. Months went by like this, and other times he'd give up on the news and I'd hear him typing away behind me. Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. I couldn't ask him not to type; it was his office, too. But the distraction was overwhelming.
And the office space felt too big to me, anyway. When we had looked for a place to live, I'd been intrigued by the idea of writing in a hall closet, creating a little writing chamber all my own. Some of the apartment buildings in Hollywood were endowed with beautiful, substantial closets, with tiny windows and sometimes even a built-in shelf, perfect for the printer! Ours turned out to be windowless and fairly small, so I gave up and hung my clothes in it. A year later, unable to bear the drumming of fingers on keys, I drove myself to Target, bought a standing hanging rod, took the clothes out, cleaned up, placed a card table at one end, and, with some geometric maneuvering, shoved a desk chair into the other. By angling myself into the chair, there was just enough room to sit. We strung extension cords along the floor and ceiling, and hooked the computer up to a plug in the living room.
The first morning I stepped inside, I was dizzy with a strange new panic; the closet seemed too small, too dusty—and what was this ominous gray electrical box to my left? I kept the door half open. I told myself I'd give it two weeks, and then decide.
I don't remember when the two weeks passed. I wrote in that closet for more than two years.
I'd always assumed that when Virginia Woolf referred to a room of one's own, she meant a light-filled studio by a lake. But the truth is, there can be something very useful about a small, dark space. Large meadows are lovely for picnics and romping, but they are for the lighter feelings. Meadows do not make me want to write.
Writing can be a frightening, distressing business, and whatever kind of structure or buffer is available can help a lot. For almost 17 years now, I've been faithful to a two-hours-a-day routine, every morning, five or six days a week. I get up, sit down, check e-mail briefly, turn off my e-mail and Internet, look at the time on the computer, write the two-hour marker on a little pad of paper on my desk, and begin. Inspired by the highly regular routines of writers like Stephen King, Flannery O'Connor, Trollope, and many more, I tried to tailor mine to my own idiosyncrasies. In my rule book, I don't have to do anything except sit at the computer, but I'm not allowed to do anything else, and I usually get so bored I start to work. I generally stop to the minute, because I'm so ready to stop, and because I don't want to mess with the rules. The rigid time structure, much like the idea of the cramped closet, is freeing, and for me, the more I can externalize the ritual, the easier it is to submit to it. It's all a declaration against the regular dread I used to feel all the time when I wasn't writing. Once the structure was formalized, the dread diminished dramatically.
A number of years ago, I cosigned a contract with a friend, Sarah Shute, a very good writer who wanted to work on her stories more regularly but found it difficult to prioritize the time. Writing every day can be a powerful action, a gesture of belief in one's own imagination, and she knew it. "I just wish someone would order me to write every day," she said. "Because otherwise I just don't do it." We were painting yellow stripes in my office at the university where I teach. She paused, brush in hand. "Would you ever do something like that?" she asked.
Next: Creating a writer's contract
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