Devotion - Tidbit #9 - The Space to Write

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Devotion - Tidbit #9 - The Space to Write

Unread post by fireflydances » Sat Oct 13, 2018 12:03 am

The Space to Write

Patti Smith by Philip Montgromery for The NY Times

Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the wants of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed. All seeking an emptiness to imbue with words. The words that will penetrate virgin territory, crack unclaimed combinations, articulate the infinite. (87)

This tidbit focuses on those external and internal places writers require to locate, unearth and pull out streams of words. I know this reality well. I am a writer, spending hours in the act of writing. It is a weird and solitary pursuit. And it is indeed difficult to locate that space wherein the words will flow.

All writers love being in the thrall of words; we are willing victims pleading "yes, more please." But often the words are present, lined up and waiting, but the writer is not ready. It seems the nubby center of the thing -- what the words are to do, how they are supposed to line up -- is missing. Your protagonist looks at you balefully (you promised you could do this) -- (I can, you mutter back). But it's not enough to have the words, the characters, the setting. It's the spark you must unleash, the next great act of creation -- do this now.

Where does that spark come from the reader asks?

It's in the gap between things, caught in the air, under a shoe, perhaps wrapped around a curl of hair. I like to believe the idea knows itself but neglects to inform the writer, just to enjoy the sight of her desire: chewing her lip in front of the computer screen, sitting in traffic (furrowed brows), walking in the woods breathing in the green air, aware of the tingle of words along her fingertips.

There are two secrets: patience and vacancy. The idea waits for the writer to give up her prosaic scribblings and agree to be silent. The writer's mind must become a vacant stage, an abandoned field in the woods, because empty space is a vessel to hold the idea, like cupped hands.

Emptying the mind is both extremely hard and ridiculously easy. You can be acutely busy rooting out every stray brush of a thought -- those weeds of distraction -- but emptiness will always elude the busy. The trick requires a great deal of neglect: not caring to think, not caring not to think. All thought replaced by all sensation replaced by that fine blankness of being simply and purely present: sky without clouds, horizon without image. On the now gloriously empty stage, in the crack between thoughts -- the idea stands up.

Writers do all sorts of things to create this moment.

Hunter Thompson, Rum Diary

Hemingway at his standing-desk, Life Magazine

Hemingway considered the craft “a private, lonely occupation.” He wrote in his bedroom at what he referred to as a ‘work desk.’ This was basically a jerry-rigged affair -- stuffed chest-high bookcase, topped by typewriter and over that, a wooden board. He stood in his slippers as he worked, writing in longhand on onionskin typewriter paper, persisting page after page until “the writing is going fast and well, or when the writing is, for him at least, simple: dialogue, for instance.” (Paris Review)

“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love.” (Paris Review)

A special place can be important; and it can also be irrelevant.

There are writers who require a certain environment -- a cloistered room, a blank wall, a window, a cocoon surrounded by the familiar. Marcel Proust wrote from his bed in a room lined with cork to insulate him from sound. Maya Angelou routinely left her home to take up residence in a rented hotel room. “To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning.”

Nabokov used the backseat of his car to write out his notes for Lolita while he travelled across the US, [it was] ”the only place in the country with no noise and no drafts.” (Golla). Agatha Christie did her best thinking in the bath tub where she felt the warmth of moving water encouraged the flow of ideas.

The Elephant Tea House where JK Rowling wrote her earliest Harry Potter books

Others prefer a public space. The idea for Harry Potter came to JK Rowling while she was delayed on a train. Rowling also states, “I can write anywhere. I made up the names of the [Harry Potter] characters on a sick bag while I was on an airplane.” (Ahlin) The same was true for Simone de Beauvoir who simply carried her notes from place to place, often surrounded by the chatter of café customers as she worked on The Second Sex. In Devotion Patti mentions writing while traveling between Paris and Sète. My own theory regarding public spaces is that the general low hum of such an environment offers just enough stimulation to occupy that part of the brain which is easily distracted. And thus, the writing brain is free to focus deeply.

Beyond surroundings, the writer needs and searches for a certain state of mind in which she or he can be totally absorbed in the task at hand. We can consider this an internal space. One that is more dream-like and also more driven.

Stephen King in his writing space

Here is Stephen King talking about his process, "There are certain things do if I sit down to write... I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming so not different than a bedtime routine.”(Ahlin)

Haruki Murakami's Writing Space

Haruki Murakami, author of many wonderfully surreal and immersive stories, is known for maintaining a rigorous routine sometimes lasting up to six months.

"When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity." (Ahlin)

Murakami was recently interviewed by the New York Times about his latest book, Killing Commendator.

Asked about where he got the idea for this story, Murakami said, “I don’t know. I picked it from the depth of my mind somewhere. All of a sudden I wanted to write the first one or two paragraphs. I had no idea what was going to happen next. I put it in a drawer on my desk, and then all I had to do was just wait.”

“I’m a realistic person, a practical person, but when I write fiction I go to weird, secret places in myself. What I am doing is an exploration of myself — inside myself. If you close your eyes and dive into yourself you can see a different world. It’s like exploring the cosmos, but inside yourself. You go to a different place, where it’s very dangerous and scary, and it’s important to know the way back. “ (Lyall)

What writers are talking about can be called ‘flow’ that state of focused energy that allows for total concentration in the moment. The same sort of mind space that an athlete searches out. A key element of flow is the loss of reflective self-consciousness. King talks about “a way saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming.” Murakami says sometimes he has no idea were an idea has come from, “I picked it from the depths of my mind somewhere.”

The poet Allen Ginsberg often used the phrase “first thought, best thought” in making clear the immediacy of a process that opens the self to the flow of unanticipated ideas. So important -- avoiding reflection, avoiding our natural tendency towards sorting, prioritizing, refining. Here is short video in which Ginsberg describes his process:


Some years ago I wrote a piece that captures what I believe happens during the process of creating. There is a sort of magic to it, as though you -- the writer -- find yourself surrounded by a universal source of creative energy. You bow to it and allow it to move through you. Of course I don’t actually “hear whispers,” but that metaphor best describes the experience of ideas coming into the mind, and if we are lucky, we manage to get them all down.

I want you to know,
there is nothing
rational connected to
what we do with words.

In the act of writing we pour out
an elemental substance.
It pools on the table and
we bend into it.

No poem belongs to the writer.
It comes from them, but they cannot claim it
or know it completely with the mind
--- present but un-possessable.

Strings of syllables live on the tip of my tongue,
they tingle on my fingers
they move alive inside of me.

I hear them in my head,
they whisper and I write.


Ahlin, Charlotte. "The Daily Writing Habits of 10 Famous Authors" Bustle. November 14, 2016.

Golla, Robert (editor) "Conversations with Vladimir Nabokov" University of Mississippi 2017.

Lyall, Sarah. "Haruki Murakami Says He Doesn't Dream. He Writes. NY Times. October 10, 2018.

Oppong, Thomas. "Daily routines of Nikola Tesla, Mozart, Hemingway, Woody Allen, Maya Angelou, van Gogh, Stephen King, and Nabokov" CNBC. February 7, 2017.

Plimpton, George. "Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction, No. 21" the Paris Review, Spring 1958.
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

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Devotion - Tidbit #9 - The Space to Write

Unread post by marija » Sat Oct 13, 2018 9:52 am

Hey Firefly
That's really interesting. Thanks a lot for researching this all. :hug: :noodlemantra:'s not easy, to be different..."

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Devotion - Tidbit #9 - The Space to Write

Unread post by SnoopyDances » Sat Oct 13, 2018 9:00 pm

:agreesign: Very interesting, indeed.

I don't think I could :writer2: in a busy restaurant, like Patti and others. I have found I can :noodlemantra: in the restaurant at slow times. One, I feel guilty for taking up space in a :eat: to just read, so I go after the busy lunch hour. Two: Reading slows me down. Otherwise, I'll :mort1: too fast which isn't healthy.

And I noticed in the pics that the writers all work in messy surroundings. :yikes: That won't do for me at all! :nosmile: I'm a neat freak. I'd have to clean the room from stem to stern before I could empty my brain and concentrate. :perplexed: And I have a terrible time emptying my brain! :hypnotic:

Guess that's why I'm not a writer! :lol:

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Devotion - Tidbit #9 - The Space to Write

Unread post by fireflydances » Sun Oct 14, 2018 10:35 am

Some writers do require a cleaned up environment. At least as they begin. Although I have to say I can't imagine HOW Ernest Hemingway was able to write his books on the narrow space surrounded by chaos. We all find what works for us.
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies