Friday, February 15, 2013

The Write Place

As well as working out what to write, why we want to write it and how and when we’re going to do so – which is no small feat in itself – we also need to decide where to write. This may seem the least difficult item on this list, but for many people finding a place to write is a constant challenge.

I heard of one established writer who opted for living on a houseboat with his family. Personally I can think of few things less conducive to writing than living on a houseboat with one’s family, but there you go. One friend of Cafe Aphra told me recently that she has taken to sitting in her car during her lunchbreak at work and scribbling down whatever she can in her notebook between bites of her sandwich. Personally, I have found airport departure lounges to be unparalleled spots for writing. Bizarre, perhaps, but true.

So what are the most important characteristics of a good writing spot? For me, they would probably be: light, calm, space, a view and other people in the background. Preferably with a window looking out onto trees or streets or both, though a good view is not essential so long as I can see a bit of sky.

I have found that I don’t need to be in solitude to write. In fact, I think it often helps me not to be alone, depending on what I am writing. I do understand that for those around me it may be a little off-putting if I start laughing, crying or muttering in response to something I am writing, or if I start reading bits of it aloud to myself to hear how they sound. If those people are complete strangers, however, I am less likely to be inhibited by this knowledge or even to remember that they are there.

Perhaps this is why writing in public places seems to work best for me. Is there something voyeuristic about doing something that is in many ways so private in full public view? Perhaps. But I do find that a certain amount of background noise and movement obliges me to concentrate and block everything else out and therefore helps me to get more done.

To illustrate my point, I recently lived for a year in a remote village in a large sunny house with a garden and fruit trees in Portugal. Idyllic, you would think. “This is it,” I thought, “the perfect place to write”. Yet I must admit that I wrote very little while I was there. I would find endless excuses. There were always other things that could ‘usefully’ be done (such a dangerous word that, ‘useful’). Bits and bobs of freelance work, upgrading my website, answering emails, cleaning the house, shopping for food, cooking, gardening, playing with our then new kitten, loading the washing machine, hanging the clothes out, stacking the dishwasher, putting the dishes away, even filing tax returns... Yes, anything except writing.

I learnt that I needed something to prevent me from distracting myself. Perhaps I shouldn’t need this, but as they say, “You gotta work with what you’ve got”. I now know that an externally imposed time limit of some sort works miracles and I have taken to entering writing competitions purely in order to be given a deadline.

That, and being in a physical environment where I am surrounded by strangers and a certain amount of background noise. Both of these force me to concentrate. On the noise issue it’s a delicate balance, though. The key word is: “background”. It’s easy for the limit to be surpassed by a particularly loud voice, laugh, phone conversation, music or TV.

A few public places that have worked for me:

1. Trains - because they offer you a table, a window, a view, you’re surrounded by strangers and if you get a seat in the quiet carriage you don’t have some annoying fool sitting in the seat just behind you yah-yahing into their mobile phone to distract you.

2. Public libraries - depending on the library. A library can be a great and inspiring place to work, surrounded by beautiful books. Not, however, if it’s too warm, stuffy and silent (soporific), full of giggling students (very annoying), or if it has fluorescent lighting.

3. Cafes - in the UK, France, Italy, Portugal, Austria, Germany and many other European countries, but sadly not in Spain, where I am currently living. TVs showing football matches or music videos (or both) are ubiquitous in Spanish cafes and, in addition, the Spanish generally talk several decibels louder than most of their European counterparts.

... But more about the institution of the “literary cafe” in my next blog....

4. And finally, yes, airport departure lounges! These have lately proven to be one of the most productive places for me to write. In fact, I have even considered catching the bus to my nearest airport just in order to sit in the airport cafe with my laptop. Somehow, though, I suspect it won’t be quite the same if I’m not actually waiting to board a plane.

So what are the conditions that make departure lounges work for me?

  • There are other people around, who are strangers. They force me to focus on what I’m doing and block them out. This helps prevent me from distracting myself or from drifting off into a daydream.
  • There is the welcome pressure of an externally-imposed and non-negotiable time limit (boarding the plane).
  • There is no Internet connection to distract me with my emails, unless there’s a free airport wifi connection, but usually there isn’t. (I have purposefully not signed up to connect my mobile phone to the Internet.)
  • There is nothing much else I can ‘usefully’ get on with (i.e. prioritise over my writing) because I am in a state of limbo until I reach my destination. (So this exempts me from having to feel guilty about writing when I ‘should’ be doing something else.)
  • Most of the time, I have been running around like a headless chicken in the run-up to my departure, getting things ready for the trip. When I have finally checked in, there is nothing more I can do. If I have forgotten something it’s too late, so the best thing is to sit down, pick up a book and read, or pick up my laptop and write.
  • I also find that headspace suddenly becomes available and thoughts start flowing in about my writing. I get ideas again and feel that urgent itch to rummage through my rucksack for a pen.
  • Finally, the thought occurred to me that this last point about headspace – or inspiration – might be related to the feeling of freedom I associate with travelling and being in a state of ‘limbo’ between two places. When I am neither, really, in one country nor another, I am free of the roles and identities I associate with both. I don’t have to be the teacher, editor, translator, daughter, girlfriend, friend, granddaughter, godmother, niece. Like Superman, I can nip into the nearest phone cabin and change into my costume for my other, ‘secret’ identity: I can be the writer, or at least pretend to be one for a while. I can be the writer I don’t allow myself to be the rest of the time, because I am being all those other things instead. 

What about you - what’s your favourite place to write? Do you work well in cafes and public places, or do you find that writing in solitude works best? And, crucially, have you ever tried writing in an airport departure lounge?

James Joyce waiting for a coffee in a cafe in Pula, Slovenia. 
Photo by Istvan.