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Last week I came across an interesting website which invites writers from all over the world to post pictures of the places where they usually work (write). The collage of images already posted on the site under the series was an interesting one. A desk at a corner of a living room or basement, a table at a quiet café, a table at a busy café, a library, a park bench, a wooded cemetery, a moving train, a bus, a boat lapping on still waters – the range of choices was wide and fiercely individual.
Some writers had to be at their desk (or on a bus, train, or at their favorite table at the café around the corner) to get work done. Many thrived on solitude. Others had no trouble tuning out the noise of the world and hammering away at the keyboard in crowded places.
Hemingway famously said, “There is nothing to writing. You just sit at a typewriter and bleed.” Then does it matter where the typewriter – or computer or notebook – happens to be? Is there such a thing as the perfect place to write? Does the physical space writers occupy play a part in the creative process?
Many writers gravitate towards quiet places because solitude helps you focus. It is easier to incubate an idea and devote yourself to the hunt for the right words to express it when you are distanced from the distractions the world. Katherine Anne Porter did her writing in the countryside where she chose to live a hermetic life. Toni Morrison used to check into a motel to work on her books when her children were small. EB White picked a cabin by the shore, William Maxwell stuck to rooms that “don’t look out on anything interesting.”
Libraries have always provided writers refuge. They are unique – quiet yet not completely cut off from the rest of humanity – and writers rely and thrive on their hospitality. The Reading Room at the British Museum has been the workspace of greats such as Virginia Woolf, GB Shaw, and George Eliot. Willa Cather and Herman Melville sat down to work at the New York Society Library.
There may be no such thing as the “perfect” place to write but there are spaces that let a writer’s creativity flower and bring out the best in her/him. A space that sets you free, a place that lets you delve deep into your thoughts so you can string them together to create stories that move and excite readers. This could be a desk in a corner of your study or a shared space where a group of writers come together to work and to be in the company of likeminded people. Some writers produce their best work in the confines of their homes. Others may hop on a train or a plane to get the creative juices flowing.
Toni Morrison paints a vivid picture of the writer’s entry into the writing space in a 1993 interview with the Paris Review. “I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark – it must be dark – and then I drink coffee and watch the light come…Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”
In Morrison’s case, it is this connection with the light that eases her in. Andrew Motion finds sitting at a tall, glass-topped desk that gives him a “slightly vertiginous feeling” helpful when he is working on his poems. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir made a habit of settling down at their regular tables at Parisian cafes to work. Poet Catherine Barnett works from a booth at her local diner. Hemingway liked to write standing up. Balzac wrote in bed.
Every writer has a process and a place of choice. The place that lets one writer bloom may kill another’s creative impulses. Being confined to a fixed spot – a desk, a particular room, a regular table, a familiar café or a library – can work wonders for some. Being on the move constantly and rejecting the very notion of a fixed writing space is what works for others. There is no single definition that sums up the perfect place to write. It is as varied as the body of work that each writer creates.
Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, "A Happy Place and Other Stories" (HarperCollins). She received an honorary mention in the Anton Chekhov Prize for Short Fiction 2020 and was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Award in 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Gravel, the Santa Fe Writers' Project Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and "The Best Asian Short Stories 2018" (Kitaab, Singapore).