March 24, 2016

Where the Writing Life Happens

It took three weeks to clean, paint and reorganize my office—my garret, my sanctum sanctorum. Part of that time was to transition this space from graphic design workplace to writing/teaching space, another part was to empty it out after 25 years of packing things in, and the other part (likely the real reason) was to avoid writing. How easy it is to be distracted from the hard work of writing, the persistence needed to allow the muse to visit and take command.

But there was positivity in all that reorganization: everything put into this office was intended to inspire, to remind me to work, objects I thought might allow for creativity, to narrow my focus from busy life to writer’s life. Dave Eggers, in a 2010 Washington Post article, asks, what does it mean, “the writing life?” He says we think about the romantic notions—the fancy fountain pens and green banker’s lamps, billowing summer curtains over a coffee-stained desk, vintage typewriters, upturned whiskey bottles, the metal mesh trashcans full of crumpled balls of paper. Eggers says. “we imagine more movement, somehow. We imagine it on horseback . . .We imagine convertibles, windswept cliffs, lighthouses.” I would add that some of us imagine literary lunches in New York, accolades at sold-out readings, and stepping out of the limousine on the movie’s glittering opening night. When I went back to school for an MFA in 2000, my head teased me with such notions.

After feeding the family or doing the laundry, after meeting the demands of a paying job, I read, seeking the keys to greatness in every paragraph, every line. I’m dismayed to learn not only how slow my reading has become, but how brilliant everyone else is. Being a writer is to always have that doubt, and that part of our work is to push up against it with every line, every word we write; to have faith in the work, to have faith in ourselves.

Dave Eggers continues his take on the romantic notions of the writing life: “I didn’t imagine quite so much sitting. I know it makes me sound pretty naive, that I would expect to be writing while, say, skiing. And I thought, okay, the writing life—damn that phrase—it doesn’t have to be romantic. It can be workmanlike, it can be a grind, and it can take years to make anything of value. But if, at the end of it all, there’s [a reader or a student] who holds the words to her heart and rides the subway through the night… thinking of what those words on a page did to her, then the work is worth doing.”

I look at the artwork, photos and ephemera I’ve surrounded myself with—talismans for creativity and productivity. They continue to hold interest for me, but they’re part of that romantic notion of this writing life that in reality comes down to one thing: the tunnel between myself and the page before me. It can be an inspiring place—a place that is often frustrating, sometime fruitless, often lonely, sometimes dark, often filled with unexpected energy and emotion, a place rich with discovery.  That’s where the writing happens—where nothing else matters.

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