Where I Write: Authors on their Favorite—and Strangest—Work Places

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“Mom! Where are my cleats?!”

This is not conducive to writing.

Like interruptions to any work of focus, intrusions make the headlong forward motion of imagining a scene, dialogue, motive, setting, physical movement and internal turmoil grind to a screeching, asphalt scraping, brake-burning halt. Whether it’s emails, the ringing phone, or the work crew outside jack-hammering for a new water line, distractions make it difficult to focus on anyone’s inner turmoil but the writer’s own.

The choices are either to find a space with few distractions … or to find a mental space within that blocks those distractions. Both of those can happen in some pretty unlikely settings.

I asked some author friends for their favorite, intrusion-low places to write, and also for the strangest places they’ve ever written. Here are some of their answers:

Allie Larkin, author of Stay: “I write in bed or on the couch—sitting in chairs feels too much like grade school. On a recent writing retreat, I wrote in the sauna (not while it was on). It was small and dark and quiet, and I was writing about a character who lives in a motor home. Perfect.”

Sandra Gulland, author of Mistress of the Sun: “My strangest place was in a monastery in Mexico: not only was it a silent monastery, but the silence was in Spanish. I wrote some torrid scenes there, too.”

Therese Fowler author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald: “Strangest place: in an NYC taxi, using the notes app on my cell phone while stuck in traffic and inspired by a view of a gorgeous historic building. Favorite writing spot: the gardens at the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities in Southern Pines, NC. It’s the former home of novelist James Boyd (who, incidentally, hosted Thomas Wolfe and Scott Fitzgerald there, among others). Published writers can get residencies there for up to two weeks each year.”

Randy Susan Meyers author of The Murderer’s Daughters: “I write best when most alone. Best: in Provincetown sneaking out to get food from the market, wearing my oldest Gap sweatpants. Strangely, I find the older and raggier my clothes, the better my work. I’m incapable of doing decent work in coffee shops. Perhaps because I feel compelled to wear decent clothes?”

Nichole Bernier author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D: “Usually I write in a library or coffee shop. The strangest place is probably the basement bathroom of my parents’ tiny house on a lake, where I had an idea, but had to escape my children in order to get it down.”

M.J. Rose author of The Book of Lost Fragrances: “The strangest for me was rather the most difficult – I wrote most of a novel in and out of hospital rooms the year my husband was waiting for a kidney transplant. Before that I’d never been able to write anywhere but one chair/one room/ music/specific accoutrements. Then I learned how to be have-laptop-can-write.”

Kathleen McCleary author of A Simple Thing: “I’ve written in a dorm room during my 30th college reunion, but the strangest is probably in a canoe. I take an early paddle most mornings during our annual summer vacation in the Adirondacks and have brought my laptop, carefully wrapped up in a backpack, and sat on the floor of the canoe and drifted a bit. Not advised unless you are on a very calm lake and are not clumsy.”

Judy Merrill Larsen author of All the Numbers: “The oddest place was probably sneaking in writing while I was substitute teaching.”

The hands-down winner for Strangest Writing Locale goes to Martin Fletcher author of Breaking News: “A bit extreme, I guess, but I wrote the first two pages of my next book in a bulletproof jeep in the West Bank overnight waiting for a Palestinian militant group to take me to their leader. They never came but the two pages I wrote there hardly changed.”

For myself, I have a strange love for planes and trains. They’re not intrusion free—take out your laptop, start tapping away at something double-spaced and clearly not a spread sheet or power point presentation, and the person next to you is bound to ask, “What’s that you’re working on?” But after some polite conversation, I say, “I’m so sorry, but I’m on deadline” (whether I am or not). For me, there’s something weirdly energizing about being trapped in a small space with no internet and nothing else to do but get down to work for several hours. I can block out the lavatory trips of my row-mates, the conversation of the couple behind me, or the offers of highly processed snacks from the flight attendants. My intrusion force field goes high voltage.

My favorite place to write is in a hotel room somewhere, which I try to arrange every couple of months or so.  I like a nice open view of something nature-y. There’s a way in which my imagination expands into the space in front of me, and I find myself coming up with ideas that are more daring, quirky or unusual than when I’m home at my little desk. In 24 hours I can accomplish about 2 weeks’ worth of work.

Where is your favorite place to get some work of focus done? Where’s the strangest place you’ve ever worked?

Photo: Keiji Iwai Photography

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2 Responses to “Where I Write: Authors on their Favorite—and Strangest—Work Places”

  1. Juliette Says:

    March 22nd, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    I thought the “Spanish silence” was particularly funny, Michelle. And clearly, the author life is not nearly as glamorous as people may think, what with our writing in bathrooms and all. And you’re right, you should comment more – your thoughts are always interesting!

  2. Michelle James Says:

    March 22nd, 2013 at 9:44 am

    I loved this. From now on when I read I know my mind will drift to “where was this author writing this?” You will forever be squished into a seat on a plane furiously pecking away at your next novel. Allie will be in a sauna, Nichole folding herself into a tiny bathroom space, and Randy in a pair of sweats that have more than seen their day. I loved Sandra Gulland’s reference to the silence in the monastery being in Spanish. I can hear it. Wonderful blog post. I should comment more often, as I really enjoy reading these.
    Best Regards,

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