Could you spot a writer in the wild? How do we write? The traditional montage includes someone typing merrily away on a keyboard, behind a closed door, with nothing to interrupt the transmission. Like clockwork, or an assembly line, the finished prose goes from mind to fingers to screen to an audience in a smooth series of fortunate events, all predicated on the writer getting enough peace and quiet to invoke the ritual. In effect, fulfilling a vocation.
The myths we create
This easy fantasy doesn’t hold up to the real schedule of most writers. That kind of stasis may work for capturing the still shot of the novelist you’ll find on the back cover in the lower left, but the modern writer is not sedentary. She often fits a writing project into several other passions, gigs, and social contract-type requirements. Anyone who has written to a deadline while raising a child or caring for an aging parent understands the full-contact nature of writing. Life slaps your notebook out of your hands, steals your pen, and generally talks to you incessantly about people you don’t know doing things that do not matter.
In response to these material facts, I think about writing spaces all the time. When I teach, I remind students to consider their writing spaces. I even do writing exercises where we visualize the space – where is it, what’s in it, and how often can you get there? We draw maps, we talk with our hands, we make plans for that space. We compile lists of supplies required in the space. The space must have dedicated hours of use. I tell them creating these spaces supports the development of your ideas. However, if truthful, I would reveal that I came up with the make-your-space exercise while driving to class. I wrote it out on a napkin parked on the shoulder – not in park, just foot on brake, napkin on steering wheel.
I’ve found that action breeds creativity, not sitting quietly in contemplation. I want that for my meditation space, but when it’s time to write? I need just the right balance of motion, food, people, and shiny objects. I don’t have a dedicated writing space. Rather, I’m dedicated to finding the space to write, wherever and whenever. Establishing the habits to better accommodate writing anywhere and anytime accomplishes more than a dedicated room or special time each day in my experience.
The clock ticktickticks
The universe only provides so many free moments to write. Which is why I wrote my first novella during office hours at my day job, mostly in three places: my cubicle, my car, and Coffee Depot. I carry zero guilt for letting my employer pay me to complete that book. Creative expression should always take precedence over employer productivity. In my mind, there are few things more American than shirking your work duties and trying to write the Great American Novel. To do both simultaneously is patriotic one could argue.
At the office I had a computer, a printer, and lots of flexible time. Writing a book in a modern office is easy since the actions look like normal work functions – reading, typing, and printing. You may even appear more productive than peers because you will not be sneakily clicking through your social media feed on your phone, but flagrantly typing away at the computer they told you to use. I’ve found subversive action to be good for the creative muscles; consider it a form of plyometrics for your problem solving factory.
My writing process in the car had two forms, one more active than the other. Lines or ideas that came to me as I drove were scribbled down on the backs of business cards or brochures. Recently, I even wrote the opening pages for a short story about trash on a Wendy’s take out bag. Forget hands at ten and two, writers learn to keep their knees at eight and four. Less dangerous was editing in the car. For that activity, I would leave the office with an updated printout, find a shady place, do a few hours of edits, then return to the office to update the soft copy.
Coffee Depot is where I wrote when I wanted human interaction and caffeine. I found plenty to love at this convoluted, multi-story coffee shop at the corner of Mission Inn & Vine, in Riverside. A converted train depot, it was huge, perhaps the largest footprint for a coffee house anywhere in the Inland Empire. Their sweet crepes, a specialty of the house, fueled many writing sessions. Conversations and people watching provided inspiration for some of the novel’s characters, and even a few plot points.
Last Artist Standing
Today, that employer I gave 80% to is bankrupt and in a fraud lawsuit with the federal government. My transportation has probably been recycled into several other products. Coffee Depot had a great run and then closed their doors when the owners relocated to LA. But my novella lives on, at least on Amazon, and on Cellar Doors’ “Local Authors” shelf! And that’s plenty of where and when for this writer. Where I wrote mattered. Who gave me that space was less important over time.
Larry Burns teaches at Riverside City College and his most recent book, “Secret Inland Empire: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure” is available now. Connect with him on Facebook @LarryMBurns
Below is the original blog that I wrote in the weekly column, “Inlandia Literary Journeys in The Press-Enterprise last month.