In this Year of Writing, our intrepid author attempts to clear a spot — on the table, on the calendar, and in her brain — to get some work done.
My husband and I live in a relatively small house with few interior doors. I have an office in the basement where I do his and my business paperwork (yes, I’m the unpaid secretary of one business, president and sole employee of another), and other un-fun things like taxes and bill-paying. A combination of those unpleasant associations and the fact that it’s the basement makes me feel like I’m being punished when I have to spend time down there.
Thus, my writing space is upstairs, where it’s brighter and more open, and also smack in the middle of our living space. I’ve set up shop at a lovely, beat-up old dining table that sits between our living and dining rooms. I’m scanning it now in despair; it’s a complete eyesore, and my stuff, stacked in piles by project, has begun to migrate to other flat surfaces in the area.
I can try to tell myself that I don’t actually live like this, but who would I be fooling? (Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give, recently posted a Twitter thread about hiring someone to clean up her workspace; she says it’s the best thing she’s done for herself in a long time.)
Since I started writing with more seriousness about 10 years ago, my husband has taken to drawing little cartoons of me, usually stick figures with goofy heads. He always draws them wearing earplugs. As I mentioned: small house, few interior doors. And even though there are “only” two TVs in the house, when either one is on — as it inevitably is when he’s home — the sound is virtually inescapable.
Space and time: the two halves of the writer’s holy grail. Their lack is what we seem to bemoan the most. Certainly it seems that every writer’s fantasy is to have a tidy, isolated space, separate from the rest of humanity, and stretches of uninterrupted time in order to fully concentrate on writing.
I am forever in awe of the women who are able to create stunning stories and novels even as they have small children at home. Really, Celeste Ng (just to pick a random example), how is that possible?
Of course, there are plenty of essays by writers who’ve finally secured both space and time, only to be driven a little bit insane by the silence and the empty minutes ticking by with nothing to show for it.
Everything you need to understand about writers is contained in a single “Pearls Before Swine” cartoon, where Rat (my alter ego) sits down at 8 a.m. saying he’s going to write 10 pages today, after which he spends the entire day doing everything but writing, then sits down again at 8 a.m. saying he’s going to write 20 pages today. Yup.
Part of my objective in my Year of Writing is to clear space — physically, virtually, and psychically — in support of my objectives. That includes taking a step back from my volunteer work in the writing community (the same volunteering I wrote about last time in this column), meaning that I will be handing over leadership roles to others and stepping into smaller, supporting roles. With luck, that will also allow me to box up lots of notes and office supplies and hand them over to the next person, which ends up being a twofer, space-clearing-wise.
As we move from spring into summer, the writing community generally slows down just a touch; conferences and festivals don’t start up again until fall, but summer is the high season for writing residencies. These residencies sound seductively magical in the literature, but I’ve discovered that I don’t do well (for myself or my writing) when I’m surrounded by someone else’s structure in a space that’s supposed to allow me to write. For many creative types, the environment gives them a big jolt of energy that amps up their creativity; for me, it’s an energy sink.
So I’ve decided to do my own writing residency. Next week, in between a trip to Rockland, Maine, with a friend who is looking at houses, and presenting some workshops at the Historical Writers of America conference in Providence, Rhode Island, I will be hiding out in a little cottage — just me, my laptop, and I — seeing what I can do to whip this current work in progress into something that’s more like a credible draft. If it works out well, I may just do it again later this summer.
I’m feeling practically giddy. Wish me luck that I make the very most of my room to write.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics Circle and writes a monthly column and reviews regularly for the Independent. She was chair of the 2018 Washington Writers Conference and is president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association.