Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A room with a view

PARIS – It is a dark and stormy afternoon. Not much light in the City of Light today. When you live in South Florida, as I do, it is easy to forget how early how early night descends this far north in November.

(Note: I’ve always wanted to write something datelined Paris and when I was a reporter the most exotic dateline I ever produced was Nassau Bahamas so forgive me for being so pretentious.)

I really am writing this at a French café and it really is cold and rainy here. But I am feeling all warm inside because I just banged out 967 words on my novella in ninety minutes. (Am calculating writing time not by wristwatch but on number of empty kir glasses on my table). Now, me writing almost a thousand words at one sitting is, as my sister will tell you, a mean feat. I am easily distracted from writing –- by laundry in need of folding, dogs in need of walking -- because for me writing is really hard. It never, ever, comes easy. Even with the lubrication of white wine and cassis.

So I am pretty pumped right now. (Okay, the kirs help). And I am thinking that if I could just move here to Paris and write in cafés ALL the time, I could turn out two, three, four books a year and start taking up more bookstore real estate, which James Patterson once said is the whole secret of making it in this business.

(Note: That last bit is not to be taken seriously even though I really did hear him say that once.)

I am sitting here at the Cafe Delmas, watching the rain and the little sparrows steal peanuts from my saucer and I am pondering that great seminal question that all writers do:

Do I need a nicer place to write?

Hemingway supposedly did some writing here at Cafe Delmas, but then again, in this town he's a little like Napolean only he didn't sleep everywhere he just just wrote everywhere. Hemingway had some pretty cool writing places besides this one, like this little place down in Key West: 

I like reading about where famous authors do their writing. (the Guardian runs a great feature called Writers Rooms; check it out.) Jane Austin wrote most her books in Chawton Cottage on her brother's estate on  this tiny twelve-sided piece of walnut on a single tripod (below). How such big books came from such a fragile desk I can't imagine. 
When George Bernard Shaw wanted to write, he holed up in a shed on his plain suburban property in a Hertfordshire village. It was a pretty Spartan place but boasted some nifty technology for its day -- an electric heater, a typewriter, a bunk for naps and a telephone to the house to call for emergencies such as lunch. "People bother me," Shaw confessed. "I came here to hide from them."


Virginia Woolf also had a thing for privacy. She wrote in a toolshed in her garden (below).  She called it her "writing lodge." She was easily distracted --  by her husband Leonard sorting the apples over her head in the loft, by church bells, giggling schoolchildren or even her dog scratching itself and leaving paw marks on her manuscript pages. A woman after my own heart...


I dunno. Maybe a "writer's room" is a thing of the past. After all, most of us today write on laptops and as the name implies we can carry our technology in canvas totes and park-and-plug-in anywhere we like. We move easily from our kitchen counter to a table in a Paris cafe with the flick of the WIFI wrist. Do we even need a special place dedicated to our work, a spot where, when we enter, our brains can detach from the outside world and wander the hills and valleys of the imagination?

Where do you go when you need to go to that world in your head? Where do you go when you need to get away?

14 comments:

  1. If I become blocked creatively, my first step is to go back to the basics: a fountain pen and paper. The bulk of my books are of necessity written in hotel bars (I don't like eating alone in restaurants), airport departure lounges and on airplanes themselves. There's also a Korean spa near my home where I find I can be hugely productive.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  2. Welcome home, Kris. Despite the rainy weather, I hope you enjoyed your Paris trip. I have a home office and desktop PC where I write, but I can also move around my house using my laptop and WiFi if I need a change of view. Sometimes I go out by the pool and use the birds and palm fronds rustling in the breeze as background music. I don't write in public because I am easily distracted. To let my mind churn, I do a brisk walk through a nearby pine forest nature preserve. And when I'm totally stuck for inspiration, I call my co-writer and tell her to solve the problem while I take a nap. :-)

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  3. I'm less distracted among strangers (they're easier to tune out), so a quick trip to a local coffee house usually gets my engines going. We live close to the ocean boardwalk, so I combine the coffee break with a stroll along the beach. Heaven.

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  4. Yes, as with Kathryn, I do well in cafes. I can tune out strangers easier than I can tune out the little voice inside me that would rather take a nap.

    I find that when I need to read the whole manuscript through in one sitting, so to speak, I go out of time. Hole up in a nice hotel somewhere, preferably with my dog, preferably on the coast. I love that.

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  5. Woops, well, I guess I'm going out of time, too, but I meant to write "out of town."

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  6. PJ, thanks for the link to the Writer’s Room feature in the Guardian.

    Over the years, I have found the work environment can have a positive effect on one's positive mental attitude. My main issues have been with chairs, lighting, and temperature. I don't care to write on a laptop, the keyboard is just not the same as my ergonomic wireless keyboard for the desktop. Consequently, I write in a dedicated room that also houses my model railroad.

    A few years ago, I read an article about using light boxes to deal with the effects of cabin fever during the long dark months in Alaska. It occurred to me that I was sitting in a dimly lighted room. I spun my chair around and there hanging from the ceiling was the answer -- banks of florescent lights over my model railroad. The lights already had color-balanced tubes that simulate natural daylight. After correcting a few reflection problems, the results were spectacular and uplifting. Now, I write with an abundance of light over my shoulder and when I need a lift, all I have to do is swivel to the right and I have a 180-degree ground level vista of the mountains and deserts of southern New Mexico, circa 1905. I believe it is more than coincidental this simple change in work environment corresponds with a significant increase in my productivity.

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  7. Lisa, I've tried the out of time thing a few times too. It's too hard to write outside the realm of time because while it all looks good sitting in the space between the space/time continuum, when I step back into the realm of time all the letters are piled on top of each other in a single spot on the page since if time stops relative motion stops too and everything is all done at the same time, er something like that. At least thats how my cousin Leonard explains it whenever he uses the time machine.

    Therefore, I write best in my cozy wing back recliner, late at night, with the lights off except for the lamp by my chair, and always best in winter (since the sun doesn't go away in summer up here in Alaska).

    according to Leonard being out of time for extended periods also has very strange effects on bodily fluids and temporary hair placement...best not to hang out there too long.

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  8. I loved the glimpse into all these writer rooms, and I'm SO jealous that you wrote in a Paris cafe! I usually write wherever I can grab a few hours, but I really should try to get out of the house more, maybe a coffee house, although that would mean writing on my tiny netbook which is worse than a laptop. Hmmm...I need to figure out something to make me more productive and to infuse my prose with magic. :-)

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  9. I sit outside on the deck in my rocking chair with coffee, cigars and my notebook and pen. That works quite well. In winter, I move down to the patio and light a big fire.

    I just built a new space in my cave/lodge with a big screen attached to my laptop, special lights and a comfy recliner. Then I fall asleep with the headphones banging out Joe Satriani and don't accomplish a thing.

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  10. Interesting!

    I am struck by the fact that so many of us wander and roam as the spirit moves us. After I posted this, I thought even more than maybe we have lost something by NOT being tethered to a dedicated writing spot. But maybe I am wrong about that. Maybe the new freedom that laptops have brought actually make us more productive?

    RG: I totally understand that light thing you deal with! My best friend in Michigan suffers from SAD (seasonal whatever disease...can't remember the name!) which is light-defective depression. Oddly, we in South Florida have a similar affliction that comes on in early fall because we spent so much time indoors in AC that we also get sun-deprived. (A shrink friend of mine told me about this)

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  11. And now...

    It is 6 pm on the east coast and polls are starting to close. I hope you all voted!

    Here's to a new tomorrow.

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  12. PJ -- Right on about the sun deprevation. I live in West Texas and stay inside way too much for the same reasons.

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  13. John, I'm trying to imagine writing in a Korean spa. I'd be too Zen'ed out! Lisa, I loved reading your "out of time." That's exactly the way it should feel when we're reading.

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  14. I'm very fortunate in that this last year my brother (a contractor) and the whole family built a writing cottage for me in the back yard. (We live on an acre). I've always wanted a Victorian room so that's how I decorated it. (You can see pictures of the building and interior as it went up on my FB page.)

    Nine people live in my house with three of them toddlers and writing in my bedroom just wasn't working anymore, even after 20 years of writing all over the house with kids underfoot.

    I finally have several book contracts and lots of deadlines but the stress was getting to me when toddlers are on my lap or pounding on the bedroom door.

    My cottage is a dream come true, plus an escape. Of course, my husband likes to call it "The Palace." Oh, he's so funny . . . ;-)

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