Episode 11: Picking Your Space
In the second episode of the "honoring your creative space" series, we examine the art of picking the right physical space in which to create. Your preferred space may not be the room in your house with the most stunning view but the room where you can actually go deep and get lost in the trance of working. Which is the best space for you? Tune in and find out.
Today’s show is the second episode in a series called “Honoring Your Creative Space.” In this series I’ll be chatting about what you need to do in order to find, protect, and honor sufficient space in which to create. For convenience I’ll address you as a writer, but the same ideas apply whether you are creating novels, paintings, songs, or theorems. Today’s show, from an essay in my forthcoming book A Writer’s Space, is called “Picking Your Space.” Let’s begin!
Often the places that are available to us do not suit us simply because we are not inclined to write. One client, an American poet living in Amsterdam with his Dutch wife and their two daughters, could not write in his perfectly fine study because the silence was just slightly off, his chair was slightly ill-fitting, his desk was slightly at the wrong height, and his door, as it didn’t lock, was often opened. The very threat of that door opening stopped him from writing. He knew that he was being “neurotic” about all this, but he nevertheless clung to his certainty that his space was just not conducive to writing. So he didn’t write.
Of course his physical space wasn’t the issue—nor is physical space likely to be the issue with you. For example, a client of mine took one large step after another in order to position herself to write her book. She gave up her lucrative, 60-hour-a-week day job. She convinced her husband that they should move to a rural area where the quiet would be conducive to thinking and writing. They moved to a rugged, beautiful area, purchased a house with stunning views, and reinvented themselves, he as a consultant, she as an online content writer for websites. They loved their new life, they loved the fact that deer visited and that storms whipped through the valley. But she didn’t begin her book.
Every morning she came into her study, with its stupendous views through floor-to-ceiling windows and felt a kind of paralysis. So as to be doing something, she’d check her email, attend to business, and keep busy hour after hour until it was time to take a walk in nature or have lunch with her husband. The morning would pass this way, efficiently, productively, and sadly. The afternoon would prove even harder—more work accomplished, more sadness, more hours spent not writing her book.
She could perfectly attribute her paralysis. Her parents had criticized her. She didn’t feel confident. She hadn’t written a book before. She wasn’t certain what the book was supposed to be about. She found her writing workmanlike but not sizzling. Her husband was a little needy and distracted her with his presence. She had to do her online writing to make money. Part of her found her book not important enough to write. Another part of her found her book not interesting enough to write. She got headaches easily. She’d never gotten her two short stories published, which was demoralizing. People loved her writing but their praise seemed unearned and so she dismissed it—even turned it into criticism. Her paralysis made perfect sense. She had the list to prove it.
I learned all this and more in our first session. It came my turn to speak. I told her that I understood. I told her that she was making only one mistake. The mistake she was making was to think that she was writing a book. I told her that the word “book” had the iconic, mesmerizing power to snuff out the possibility of writing. She was inadvertently picturing her book among other books like War and Peace and Crime and Punishment, books that overwhelmed her and made her feel small and incapable. I told her that it was a big mistake to think that she was writing a book. In fact, what she was writing was a draft. The book would come later—perhaps much later—after countless pratfalls. She had no book to write, only a draft. Did she understand that effort and not excellence was the issue? She nodded telephonically.
She agreed that she knew what she needed to do: the work. And indeed she tried. But the startling vista that confronted her in her study, a vista so large and engaging that even if you turned your back on it you felt its presence and its immensity, hurt rather than helped her. The floor-to-ceiling windows, devoid of covering, let in too much distraction. She tried moving her chair, moving her desk, averting her eyes, but nothing worked. Finally she decided to poke about the house and look for another workspace. She came upon a small, windowless room, not much larger than a walk-in closet, stepped inside it, and felt right silence descend instantly. This became her writing space, the place where she actually wrote. Finally she began her novel.
Once you internally agree to get your work done, you can write almost anywhere; but that doesn’t mean that you can vanish into your writing as easily in one environment as in another. In our first small house, I had a windowless basement study that was perfect for me. In our next house, a big suburban one, I had a score of objectively excellent writing spots and none of them felt congenial. In the upscale city apartment that followed that house, we had panoramic views that proved paralyzing. In our current small Edwardian flat, a room at either suits me splendidly, the room at the eastern end bright in the morning, the room at the western end bright in the afternoon.
Clearly these are subjective matters. In her excellent writers’ companion The Writer’s Mentor, Cathleen Rountree explained: “Poet and novelist Sherman Alexie, author of Indian Killer and Smoke Signals, does much of his writing at 3 a.m. at an International House of Pancakes. Novelist Kent Haruf prefers a coal room in the basement of his house in Illinois. The room is about 6-feet-by-9 and has a single ground-level window through which coal was once shoveled. Eudora Welty said that she straight-pinned pieces of her stories together on the dining room table, as though she were pinning together parts of a dress.”
Barbara Sjoholm explained in Incognito Street: “I knew, the first morning that I woke up in Hamar [in Norway], in my room in the big wooden house that looked just like something out of a Carl Larsson painting, that I was exactly in the right place. The walls were wainscoted with painted blue gray wood, and the floor was painted the same color. The room had a single wooden bed, with a striped blue seersucker cover on the down comforter. Most important, there was a pine table in front of the window, a table for writing. The sun streamed in that morning on the table, where I’d placed my journal and typewriter, sunshine made brighter by the abundant snow outside.”
Which will be your primary writing space? Get up and start your investigations. Some writing spots are more congenial than other writing spots. Find your best spot; or create it, if it doesn’t exist, by pushing furniture around, by reclaiming the junk room, by doing whatever is necessary.
Here are four things to remember:
1. Be willing to write. No writing space will serve you if you aren’t.
2. Go on a vision quest and locate the place in your home where you will write.
3. Test out your writing space by writing in it.
4. Keep writing there.
That concludes today’s show. I hope you’ll come back next week for another episode in the series. To subscribe to “the joy of living creatively,” please visit personallifemedia.com, where you’ll also find my blog. You can drop me an email at [email protected]; and I hope that you’ll visit my website to learn more about my books and services. That’s ericmaisel.com—(spelled out).
Thank you for listening!