This week, in “Things Writers Need,” perhaps the last of the BIG ideas: a sanctuary. If the series is to continue, it’ll have to start diving into the nitty-gritty, the finer, more specific things. Lots to ponder. But at any rate, the Sanctuary.
Let’s get one thing clear: writing is hard. To be specific: coming up with ideas is hard, writing the ideas down in a coherent and meaningful way is hard, making the time to write is hard, not getting distracted from writing is hard.
On a good day, writing is like chasing butterflies with a net that instead of a net uses bubbles. Just when you think you’ve snagged one of the buggers, the net bursts and you have to dunk your wand in the solution again. (That’s not nearly as sexual as it sounded coming out.) On a bad day, you have no net and must entice the buggers to land in your mouth using only the hypnotic ululations of your tongue. (Also not directly intended to be sexual.)
On a good day, you’re tracking the movement of radioactive particles through the vacuum of space, standing in your backyard with a whacked-together dish of ceramic and tinfoil hoping to snare quarks from the ether. On a bad day, meteorites are smashing your house to bits and your dish is on fire, and also the quarks are superheated and are burning your satellite dish to a cinder. Burning it for a second time.
On a good day, you’re on the Atlanta perimeter trying to catch somebody using a turn signal. On a bad day, the interstate has snowed under and everybody’s walking home. Except you’re still in Atlanta and the walk home takes a day and a half.
That is to say that if you’re going to write properly, you need supreme focus, free from as many distractions as possible. You need a sanctuary. A safe haven from the world. A bunker to protect you from the bombs, big and small, that blow up every day in your world. A soundproof chamber to block out the low drone of life. A treehouse you can climb into to escape the leaping jackals. A little bubble of air at the bottom of the ocean.
Ideally, this would be a room of your own. A room free of needless ornament and away from regular foot traffic, or maybe full of little bric-a-brac (is bric-a-brac plural?) that inspire you or fill your head with strange and wonderful ideas, and just off the hallway so that you can hear the soothing sound of footsteps as your significant other or your kids or your cats or your hamsters or the neighborhood dog approaches. A room that has no television, or maybe one that has a television receiving no signal so that it only plays soft soothing static, or perhaps one hooked up to a DVD playing old episodes of Leave it to Beaver on repeat because that’s what stimulates your brain. A room with no windows, or maybe a window overlooking the dense cruel cityscape below, or a window overlooking your children’s playground, or the soft contours of a white-sand beach, or the sweeping majesty of the Appalachians, or a painted backdrop of unicorns leaping over rainbows and farting out quarks for you to catch in your satellite dish.
Look, the makeup of the room is not a standardized thing; it should have the things that benefit the writer’s process in it, and it should forcefully reject anything that obstructs that process. Writers need a space that keeps their heads level. A space that can shut out the demons and distractions and the e-mails and the worries and the crises and the bills and…
Okay, I’m actually stressing myself out a little bit thinking about all the things that get in the way when I’m trying to write. The simple fact is that there is no end to the stream of things that will try to stop a writer from writing on any given day. If the writer is not equipped to fend those things off, they will sweep him under like so many tons of thrashing white water and deposit his soggy corpse with the rest of the broken dreams at the shattered delta of Unfinished Projects. A simple place to write is one of the best defenses for keeping those things at bay. It doesn’t have to be lush and finely furnished. It doesn’t have to be lined with polished mahogany or stocked with leather-bound books or busts of famous dead people. It doesn’t have to overlook a sunlit veranda or a tranquil garden. It doesn’t even have to smell like scotch and candlewax. It just has to be a place that makes a writer feel comfortable and safe and relaxed and creative. It helps if it has a door. But you know what? It doesn’t even have to be a room. It just needs to be a space where you do your writing. Thoughts are semi-tangible things, I think. Bits of them bleed out and seep into the walls, the floorboards. They mingle with the air, and discolor the carpet over time. You need that space to soak up the essence of your thoughts so that on the days when the ideas don’t want to flow, you can stew in those ambient thoughts to release some of the locked-in juices.
I’m lucky in that, at work, I can sneak a half hour at lunchtime, close my door and be alone with my thoughts in total silence if I like. I’m not so lucky in that my house (which my wife and I once thought so huge and cavernous) affords me no such luxury. Between two babies’ bedrooms, our bedroom, and a guest room (which has also sort of become a makeshift library and cat bedroom), there is no sanctuary to be found. The best I have is the use of the desk adjacent to the kitchen, which butts up against the stairs which are essentially the heart of the house. There’s no door, even, to shut the world out. Also, of course, when I’m at home, I’m Dad, which means I am always on call. So I have to make the most of my time at work and enjoy what little sanctuary can be had while I’m there.
That’s not to say that I can’t write at home. I can, and often do. But it only works because I’ve talked to my wife and she respects my time and space while I’m writing, provided I don’t ask for too much of it. It works because I take that time when the kids are asleep and don’t need my attention. It works, in short, because it has to work and because I make it work.
That said, when we ever get around to buying a new house, it’s gonna have to have at least a walk-in closet or something I can turn into a study. You know, in addition to the basement we need, and the bathrooms with reasonable fixtures, and the less ridiculous plumbing situation, and a lot fewer trees in the backyard, and a porch that isn’t falling apart, and…
Sorry, I got distracted.
What’s the most important thing inside (or outside) your writing sanctuary?