On the Virtues of Being Able to Write Anywhere
Compared to other novelists I know or have read about, I’m something of an anomaly: I’m a novelist who can write just about anywhere.
While I enjoy having a dedicated space for my writing, an actual home office, “a room of one’s own” as Virginia Woolf put it, I’m not one of those precious novelists who can’t write unless the feng shui is perfectly balanced, the sound of rain is softly playing, and an aromatherapy candle is burning. No, sir…I can write, and have written, just about anywhere.
I developed this ability during my first job after college, as reporter for the Millbrook Round Table. The Round Table was one of several newspapers under the umbrella of Taconic Press, and I wrote in a newsroom among 5–6 other reporters and 3–4 editors. There was always a lot of noise and activity going on in the newsroom—the police and fire scanner blaring, reporters talking, printers printing, etc.—and I had to learn to shut out my surroundings and simply write. This ability proved even more important a couple years later when I wrote for the Poughkeepsie Journal.
At 24, I wrote my first, complete, unpublished novel in a janitor’s closet in my principal father’s high school in Oxford, New York. I typed it on an IBM Selectric in that closet, on a table wedged between a slop sink and a bookshelf that held 20 years of old school yearbooks. There was a filing cabinet in the room, and on top of the filing cabinet sat a decades-old can of Hawaiian Punch. I was substitute teaching for an English teacher out on sick leave for several months, and between classes, and after school, I holed up in that closet and wrote the novel. However, rather than go into great detail about the experience, I’ll let you read the short story I wrote about it (which I also wrote in that janitor’s closet, during downtime from the novel), and which was published online in 2002. This is a PDF of that story, “The Novelist.”
My first published novel, Nick Chase’s Great Escape, I wrote between 1996 and 1998 in all manner of places: my tiny, Portland, Maine apartment; my Freeport High School classroom, during 7th period study hall; a Portland Chinese restaurant and the Portland Diner; on a nonstop flight to San Francisco to meet my fiance’s parents for the first time; in my future father-in-law’s dining room, seated at a high-backed, Mission-style chair; on a cruise ship, during an overnight Portland–New Brunswick cruise; on a ferry between Rockland, Maine and Vinalhaven Island; and in the passenger seat of my car, while my wife drove, because a character in the novel—a British novelist named Winston—could only write in a moving vehicle, and, being in a “method-writing” phase at that time, I wanted to see what that was like.
Since then, I’ve written stories and sections of novels in every conceivable location, which is why, whenever a so-called writer tells me he would like to write, but he can’t because he isn’t “inspired” by his surroundings, I chuckle and walk away. “Inspiration” and the perfect environment are fantasies; real, working, do-it-every-day-no-matter-what writers know better.
I’ve written in library basements. I’ve written in apartment building laundry rooms. I’ve written in my apartment kitchens at the dining table.
I’ve written in five-star hotels and a few fleabags. I’ve written in restaurant pantries and walk-in refrigerators. I’ve written in a newspaper darkroom. I’ve written in bars in Manhattan, Boston, Washington D.C., Orlando, Scottsdale, New Orleans, and Missoula, Montana.
I’ve written in an old woman’s attic and a child’s treehouse. I’ve written in a remote cabin in the Rockies and in the exercise yard of Alcatraz.
I’ve written in dentists’ offices and doctors’ offices. I’ve written in two apartments across the street from fire stations. I’ve written above a pawn shop that was raided by the FBI. I’ve written in classrooms full of students, ranging in age from kindergartners to college seniors. I’ve written on buses. I’ve written in a helicopter while flying over the Grand Canyon (only to take notes on the view).
I’ve written poolside in a cabana, and backstage on a folding chair. I’ve written in pubs and poolrooms in England and Scotland, and cafes in Paris and Normandy. I’ve written on a bench at Versailles and atop a log in the California Redwoods.
I’ve written in IKEA, on one of the kitchen display tables while my wife continued shopping. I’ve written in many cafeterias, including ones at IKEA, Merrill Lynch, J.P. Morgan, Vassar College, Middlebury College, Harvard College, the University of Maine, the Smithsonian, the Museum of Natural History, the Louvre, Sharon Hospital, Mass General, the Chatsworth Estate and the New School. I’ve written in a lot of restaurants, now that I think about it, my favorite writing haunts over the years being Ann’s Restaurant (cafeteria style; now closed) in Boston, the Millbrook Diner, and Momiji (Rhinebeck, NY).
Finally—one of my favorite settings—I’ve written in front of hotel lobby fireplaces in Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park; Lake Placid, NY; a ski resort in Quebec, where Ian Fleming wrote one of his James Bond novels; and an inn in Highland Scotland.
I started writing this piece this morning because it occurred to me just how fortunate I am to have developed the ability to write anywhere. Of course I prefer my surroundings to be quiet, and after I discovered their existence in 2000 or so, I made sure I always had a cache of noise-cancelling earplugs in my writing bag. I like the places where I write to be quiet, but I’ve learned not to make my productivity as a writer dependent on the outside conditions being ideal, because they never are.
For veteran novelists what I have to say probably comes too late. But to young or aspiring novelists I say this: Write everywhere. Become writing, so that it’s simply a natural extension of you and isn’t tied to a specific location, desk, noise and activity level, etc. And if you always write using a computer, start using a pen or, even better, a pencil, so you aren’t handcuffed to technology. If you can develop this ability while you’re young, it will serve you well your entire writing career.