One of the most formative moments of my life was…
A few years ago I had to find a place to write. I’m not the kind to sit at home in the quiet. It gives me what I call Monkey Mind. I am a social creature, raised in chaos and noise and visual distractions.
I wanted a studio. A tiny one where I could have the option of quiet, but still watch the flow of humanity stroll by my window. Being someone who craves contact with others, I had to pick a spot where I didn’t feel isolated, but not be distracted by coffeeshop gossip and unhinged toddlers. I wanted to create my own silent movie. Make up stories about the people walking by. Play soundtracks. Come up with complex scenarios about the lives of complete strangers.
I’m writing fiction, so this is what I love to do.
For years, and another career, I struggled with the idea of writing. I did some all my life. Wrote a play in the third grade that was a mash-up of Robin Hood and Goldilocks. Bow and arrows, bears and a shotgun. It was a hit. Ran for a week during morning snack break. I knew I was going to be a writer.
Then I hit a dry streak. I wrote intermittently in junior high study hall, high school pep rallies, on crowed beaches and cafes in college. I required people in a humming hive to dive into the place of myself to write. All the images I ever saw of writers were sitting in a dark attic office or walking alone by the ocean, wind in their hair. Thinking. Alone. No one else seemed to dream of an author photo taken on the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
I was screwed.
Then in 2009, I was lucky enough to be included in my first week long writing event in the haven of the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop at the Hindman Settlement School. The experience spoiled me with the kind inclusion and generosity the writers there extended to the odd new girl among them. Beginners and bestselling authors worked shoulder to shoulder, intent with serious craft offerings and lots of love. It was perfect. It was five days of a communal kindness and inspiration that one could use a dose of every day, especially the hard ones.
I wanted to come back home and try to share a taste of this feeling.
In December 2012, I moved into a writing space that’s in an enclave of stores in East Nashville called the Shoppes on Fatherland. It’s a popular area; lots of foot traffic. I wanted my studio to be a kind of humane trap for other lone writers wondering the streets of Nashville, looking for shelter. Then I did something un-writerly.
I worked with the door open. Literally.
A shop-front window space allowed for public display of my wild, awkward leap from visual design to writer. Who knew how it should work, certainly not me. But it seemed important to expose myself to the many questions people have about what the place is about when they stumble across my studio. It helps me clarify what I mean to do. I had to really consider the why and how of dedicating this sort of time and money just to sit and make stuff up. The only answer I know is that this special little hut keeps a place for me, and I keep coming back to write. It has a spirit, a soul, so it keeps me accountable. Especially when I want to give up.
To be straight about it, this place is a kind of bait. It was in hope of finding a way to connect with as many people as possible over the solitary journey of writing. Some days there’s a steady stream of friends and strangers who walk in the door trying to figure out what the heck I’m doing writing in a what looks like a store. Most like the space and many feel like there is something here they need and want. The ones who do, return. We sit and write and talk and write some more.
That’s what it does. That’s it.
Others just stick their heads in to ask where they can get waffles and hot chicken.
I love having company in my studio, but lately I find I need more time to myself. It’s hard to believe. But the day comes when you must pull into your work, lock your door, and dig deeper. Go for the place that tips the scale toward the soul-rending depth we need as multi-sensory creatures. Try to become that writer. That narrow and deep cut is only done by oneself, day after day, one blind step of faith after the other. Alone.
If there is one thing that terrifies someone who thrives on contact with other humans, it’s the idea of isolation. I’m looking for a balance between camaraderie and seclusion.
The other reason I picked a storefront as a studio was to make a point about the realistic efforts and the unheralded hard work of writers. The idea was to plant the seed in the minds of shoppers on the street, that art requires showing up every damn day and doing the work. Even when you feel like you’re stumbling and failing, you have to drag your ass to your room and do the work. Our culture has forgotten this. So this is a kind of shameless, subtle Performance Art.
You cannot make art if you think it’s a hobby.
The general populace doesn’t understand the dedication it takes to produce 300-plus pages of a book they consider entertaining enough to pay for and take to the beach. Some eager soul is divinely happy to sit alone pulling the story from their body, one fragile string at a time.
Those things don’t fall out of a vending machine. Not yet.
The spot we pick is important. You’re gonna need a portal. In my tiny 200 square-foot writing studio, I have a ridiculously soft and enveloping leather chair. I call her Carmen. She was sitting in a friend’s curated furniture shop and it was love at first sight. She had me at Friends’ Discount.
A lovely place to sit was important because I am not by nature, one who sits. When I’m writing here, my body dissolves. It absorbs the physical me and lets my mind float out on a tether where I can be with the people, places and creatures that are kind enough to speak to that phantom of myself. It’s the one part of me that simply asks, “Who are you?” It knows to shut up and listen. If I think too much about how my legs are sore from a workout, or my eye hurts because… allergies, I drop the link. Physical awareness is a distraction I will cave to every time. I love my chair, Carmen the hypnotist.
She’s my favorite drug.
For a lot of wonderful years, I’ve worked in the TV/film industry as Production Designer and Art Director. Still do, but less. This job means you’re responsible for imagining, designing and then bringing forth a 3-D world that allows a real place where people and their stories can exist. I have learned to be a World Builder. When I found the right space for my writing studio, it was natural for me to put a lot of thought and effort into the world where I planned to develop my skills to become a better writer. Every color, every object, each smell I bring to this personal place has a reason and a job in helping me achieve this. The music I listen to is specific on some days, completely random on other days to keep my brain flexible and curious.
Photos on the wall are ones I took, and some passed down from friends and family. A favorite bridge in Paris. A fun night out with friends. My Grandmother Frank smiles down at me with her pet crow on her arm that chews on a Pall Mall. I start each writing session saying out loud two words that help me stay on the story path: But and Therefore. I burn some sweetgrass.
Of all the specific objects I surround myself with, one stands out because it has been with me most of my life. It came to me the winter I turned five. I was playing under the huge cedar tree that spread over our backyard. It was my spot. It was magnificent.
Trigger Warning: As a child, I had invisible friends.
My pals favored visiting me under the big cedar. They sometimes made suggestions about the little chairs and beds I made for fairies out of willow twigs. This visit, the girl one handed over a beautiful blue rock that looked like a lumpy Earth, about the size of a nice biscuit. She said this would be the last visit I’d remember. She said they were awfully sorry, but I was growing up. The rock was to keep me from forgetting…something.
I have to have the little blue rock on my desk. Sometimes I try to remember why.
If you are looking for your own writing space, I’m pretty sure it can be anywhere that puts you in the frame of mind that keeps you coming back, every day. It should push you, open you up, but offer safe harbor. It should make you mourn for it on days you cannot be there within its arms. Find a place that feels like new love for an old flame, or first glance at a familiar stranger. Every time I walk in my studio door, the first thing I say is “Hello.” I can tell it’s glad to see me.
It’s our thing.
I have met many wonderful people by leaving my door open on good weather days, fellow travelers on this path and others whose curiosity was struck by the idea of an actual writing space.
“Do you actually write in here?” many have asked.
“Yes,” I say, “I’m trying.”
Some stay to chat and gift me with personal insights on the miracle of human experience. Others politely back out the door, move on round the corner for waffles and hot chicken.
Can’t say I blame them. It’s hard work up in here.