The office

I think there is only one way to write fiction—alone, in a room, without interruption or any distraction. —Paul Theroux

Franzen's cheery office. (Time magazine)

Mr. Theroux would approve of Jonathan Franzen’s office: bare-boned to the marrow.  Nothing on the walls.  A meager table and chair that would be at home at an Amish antiques roadshow.  An old laptop with no games or other “distractions” installed and no access to the Internet.  Not content to just be without service or even remove the wireless card, Frenzen superglued a cable into the jack and then cut it off at the tip.  Drastic.  But he believes writing is sitting down and doing it, no excuses, eight hours a day no matter what, even if you throw out the pages afterwards.  I imagine a Starbucks run would be an utter blasphemy to him.  I hope he never gets the faint urge to tweet: he might cut off his own thumbs.

I’m not sure that strict atmosphere would work for me.  I would like to ask Jonny, Don’t distractions sometimes inspire you?  They sure do me.  A number of my situations and characters are inspired by real people I’ve run into, real incidents I’ve seen as I’ve sat writing, in public.  I don’t think writing has to be solitary at all.

I once worked for an advertising agency owner who thought that in order for you to be productive, you had to sit in your office facing your computer pounding away eight or nine or ten hours a day.  This misunderstanding about creativity is probably one of the main reasons that try as he has, he has never broken into the really creative tiers in the industry.  Everything he turns out is tired and cliched, other people’s sparks that he grabs at as they flicker out.  That’s what you get when you make your writers face the wall earnestly all day and night, until they are numb.

La Dolce Vita Gelato Caffe, Fort Collins, CO. (Click to enlarge.)

writer-friend in North Carolina likes to write in coffee shops.  Just like me.  When she used to live in Fort Collins, Colorado, she wrote at this lovely place, a coffee shop so cozy that I must admit I am envious.  There’s something about coffee shops that are both communal and private.  One can be alone and with company at the same time.  The only thing I dislike about some of them is the music today’s pierced, tattooed and low-waisted baristas choose to play, music that sounds like a garbage truck exploding.  (“It’s indie thrash metal-industrial resampled through a wood-chipper,” one will tell me, as if that explains…anything.)  I much prefer the white noise of vague conversation.  And there are always characters to observe.  Coffee houses attract them like a magnet.  I’m sure others think I am one.

Others feel differently.  “I can’t imagine working in a public place,” says novelist Beth Gutcheon, “for the same reason I find social events exhausting, if delightful and absorbing: The mental equipment that records dialogue and is always listening for the way people express themselves has no off switch. So all I would do trying to work in public is harvest aimless gobbets of what was going on around me. I can’t sort it out and arrange it into patterns until I’m alone and not going to be interrupted.”

John Steinbeck decided, late in his life, to attach a camper shell to a pickup truck and roam America.  (Later Charles Kuralt would make a career of this.)  He wrote Travels With Charley: In Search of America as he traveled, his “office” being his camper.  He said he traveled searching for fresh inspiration, although his eldest son says the real reason was he knew he was dying and wanted to see his country one last time.

Mr. Steinbeck on the road.

Steinbeck’s office sure looks inviting to me.  With a killer view that changes every day, solitude and yet people just a short distance away, and a pot of coffee brewing on the stove (or maybe a bottle of Tennessee whiskey in the cupboard), what more do you need?

Benjamin Franklin wrote in the bathtub, because he liked to.  So did Jean-Paul Marat, but in his case it was because he had nasty skin lesions and the tub was the only place he found comfort.  Until the day he was murdered there, that is.  Hemingway wrote standing up, something I can’t imagine doing.  Then again, in Europe it’s vogueish to take coffee breaks standing up.

Some people have really impressive home studies.  I have a writing/computer room myself, but I don’t use it much.  I do my fine-revising here, where my big screen is helpful, but for earlier drafts where spontaneity is more important, I like to sit in a coffee shop with my little netbook computer and its battery that runs for ten hours on a single charge.

Oddly, my writing room isn’t, as many other writers’ rooms are, filled with rows and rows of books.  I get most of my reference materials these days from the Internet, and most of the books I do have in my writing room are from before sources such as Wikipedia, Google Maps and Dictionary.com appeared.  My reading library is in the living room, so my writing room is actually fairly bare, unlike those of many writers.

And now, rather than talking about work, I guess I should actually go do some…

But first more thing about Mr. Theroux.  He also says, “I am probably a crank, as most writers are.”


One response

  1. Great post, John.

    I’ve been writing for over a decade now and I have a certain amount of fluidity with where I write. Sometimes I’m here at home where I have several quiet “spots” that I can write in, sometimes I gravitate to a coffee shop when the solitude has gotten to me, or sometimes I drive to the nearby national forest and sit by my favorite river. The writing is consistent, no matter the place. My only requirements are that it needs to be reasonably quiet and I have a cup of tea.


    January 31, 2011 at 7:39 am

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