It’s not about finding the perfect moment or the right location; the perfect writing environment is wherever and whenever you find your way to the page.
“Write while the heat is in you … The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with.” — Henry David Thoreau
Maybe it’s a comfy couch in front of a large window overlooking the ocean.
Maybe you’d prefer a room with no windows, soft lighting, and no interruptions.
I know for me, it used to be the corner of a bustling coffee shop — that one table with the rickety chair and a view of the community bulletin board, flayed and quartered with a colorful mishmash of concert posters and flyers for yoga classes and pet sitters.
The perfect writer’s nook is as individual as the writer. Not only that, it can change as the writer changes. In my life, I’ve been inspired by coffee shops, pubs, even hotel lobbies. Also effective – planes, waiting rooms, and — in a pinch — your car during a 15-minute break on a rainy day.
Harry Potter and the Writer’s Nook
“It does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live. – Albus Dumbledore
During my recent visit to Edinburgh, I carved out some time to follow in JK Rowling’s footsteps and trounced from the Balmoral Hotel to Victoria Street (the inspiration for Diagon Alley) to Greyfriar’s Kirkyard (where I snapped a selfie with Tom Riddle’s grave). I finished my impromptu Harry Potter tour with a hearty soup, a pot of hot, inky Scottish tea, and a buttery, crumbly shortbread cookie at The Elephant House (aka “The Birthplace of Harry Potter”).
Wiling away an hour or so atop a stool in front of the cafe’s large, street-facing windows, I scratched out a few words in my travel journal and inadvertently ended up in about a hundred tourist photos as fans from around the world posed for their souvenir pics. The coffee shop was just the right amount of cozy and bustling; humble enough to eschew flashy mentions of its place in the Harry Potter legend. I can see why Rowling chose it as a favorite writing spot.
There is No Perfect Moment
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” — Ernest Hemingway
So are you gunning for that Pulitzer? Maybe the Booker prize is more your speed? How about a movie deal and a round of interviews on late night television. You think if you just adjust this one adjective, or lay out an intricate, interlaced plot full of twists and turns or just hit the right note, you’ll get there.
I hate to break it to you, but perfection is often the enemy of success.
“The best sentences don’t sell books (or magazines or whatever),” writes Chris Brogan. “A string of reasonably not bad sentences with useful and engaging information sells books.”
We all dream about having the perfect conditions to create. We rationalize setting aside our writing and other endeavors by telling ourselves that once we get all of our ducks in a row, we will find the mental and emotional space to finally commit to that novel, play, photography class, etc…etc…etc…
But do we really need a perfect place to write? After all, Scott Turow famously penned Presumed Innocent on the subway during his morning and evening commutes. Since Turow was working as an attorney at the time, I’m sure those were long workdays, yet he found the energy and the time regardless.
Other successful writers also faced relentless responsibilities and still found the time to pen to paper. Octavia E. Butler woke up at 2 am to write, before leaving for a myriad of thankless jobs including telemarketer, dishwasher, and even potato chip inspector. Stephen King supported himself as a janitor, gas station attendant and a worker at a laundry facility. And let’s not forget Helen Keller, who despite being deaf and blind, published her first autobiography when she was just 22 years old.
Find Your Inner Ruthlessness
“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” — Franz Kafka
In a 1956 interview with the Paris Review, William Faulkner was asked to describe the formula behind the making of a good novelist. He cites demons and discipline — and talent — as main ingredients before honing in on a certain level of amorality and savagery.
“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art,” he says. “He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written.”
Keep Searching and Stay Flexible
“I always start writing with a clean piece of paper and a dirty mind.” — Patrick Dennis
Humans love their habits. They make us feel safe and comfortable, but habits and routines can be as deadly as Oz’s famous poppy fields. It’s a short trip from comfort to complacency. As writers, we need to make sure we don’t dull our senses or get too caught up in going through the motions (though sometimes going through the motions is what will get us to the page).
If you have the perfect place to write, there’s no need to abandon it, but maybe shake things up by visiting at different times of the day. If you don’t have your nook marked out — or if you feel up to the challenge — try a new spot that’s markedly different from your old haunts: noisy instead of quiet, bright instead of subdued and atmospheric. I wrote one of my favorite poems on the back of a museum map during a tour of the Getty, while Van Gogh’s Irises (and the gawkers it lures) peeked over my shoulder.
The Art of Noise
“You’ve got to be stubborn about it, keeping faith with your work in spite of all the distractions.” — Wesley McNair
When my best friend had her first child, she decided he would learn to sleep in noisy environments. Rather than set up white noise and put the entire house on silent hours, she laid him in his crib and let life ebb and flow around him. To this day, that kid can sleep anywhere.
Train your inner writer to create under all kinds of circumstances. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to invite interruption instead of avoiding it while I was writing. It can be heartbreaking to lose a train of thought because of an ill-timed phone call or sudden emergency, but those breaks can actually reenergize your writing and even pull you out of a rut you didn’t realize had claimed you.
Finally, make sure your writing environment aligns with the different stages of your process. Most likely, when you first begin the chatter and kinetic ambiance of a coffee shop will inspire and energize. Later, as you edit and revise, you may want a quieter setting more conducive to reflection and strategy. In the last stages, when you’re almost ready to put your content out into the world, you might want to explore a writer’s group or conference.
While first saying that his time spent managing a brothel provided a solid working environment, in that Paris Review interview Faulkner concludes that the only environment a writer needs is a place with peace, solitude, and “whatever pleasure he can get,” which, for Faulkner, meant quiet mornings, the chance to get social in the evening, and access to paper, tobacco, food, a little whiskey.
I second the whiskey!