The Problem of Change

Alarm clock Crossposted to the Deadline Dames.

For the first time in my life I have an office, a room of my own to write in. I finally have it arranged reasonably, too–an actual desk, shelves of reference books, the printer on its own table, supplies neatly shelved. Outside my window I can see the nest that may have held baby hawks this last summer; stripped of its greenery, the tree it was in is instead robing itself with moss. The cedars murmur and let loose a shower of silver raindrops when the wind rises. I’ve hung up the picture of the samurai and a print of one of the few Picassos I like. I have my canvas map of 1860s London next to me. The Bannon & Clare series bible is within easy reach, and everything is organized to a fare-thee-well.

And…well.

I can hear the eyerolls from here. Go ahead, Lili. Tell us how you’re having trouble writing in this lovely nest you’ve created. Poor little you! Enjoy it! Stop whining!

It’s not that I’m having trouble, precisely. It’s that I’ve spent my life writing in the spaces-between, and having actual space now is somewhat…unsettling. It’s like having a variety of the bends. I’m used to contorting myself into the smallest possible ball and having to fight tooth and nail to concentrate long enough to get a chapter in. Working for so long in those pressure-cooker conditions, no wonder I’m feeling a bit bug-eyed now that the lid’s been popped and I’m where I set my sights on being.

I am not complaining, just to be crystal clear. I love this. I would not trade it for anything. I certainly don’t want to go back to that pressure cooker, no way, nohow. I endured being married to a man who didn’t want to work, with two small children to feed and oh my God what am I going to do? I would sooner dig my own eyes out with cafeteria sporks than go back, I worked like hell to get out.

It reminds me of the Tombs of Atuan. To be reborn, you must die. It’s not as hard as it looks from the other side. Change is scary, and change in an area that defines a lot of me–writing is not just something I DO, it is an integral piece of my identity–is exponentially more terrifying than just the garden variety hey, I gained a couple pounds or something.

The conditions under which a writer writes become their own set of necessities after a while. The engine that drives creation has varying levels of complexity (and no, that doesn’t excuse Speshul Snoflake-ism; there’s a whole blog post there but it will have to wait) but two constants, just like a car: it needs periodic maintenance, and it needs fuel. If it is broken in under certain conditions and those conditions change, its tune-ups and fuel probably need to change with it.

Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about. I rarely hear other writers talk about difficulty during a change in writing spaces or rituals, but I’m sure I can’t be the only one. (Or, you know, maybe I’m an alien freak, that’s not entirely out of the question.) The only cure I’ve found so far is sheer persistence and habit, the same as always–ass in chair, fingers on keyboard. The fact that the chair is now an office chair instead of a papasan and the keyboard is an actual keyboard instead of a laptop balanced on my knees doesn’t matter.

Or maybe it does. When you’re used to working furiously, shutting out all the noise around you, fighting hard to claim and catch your own little slice of the world, the sudden freedom and quiet is overwhelming. Maddening. All that pressure, all that focus, is a searchlight with a fiery glow–you don’t feel the heat unless you’re standing right in front of it, and then it’s unbearable. Finding just the right distance from the searchlight is trial and error, and it takes knowledge of one’s own working style and comfort levels.

I know I can write in bathrooms, stairwells, between the demands of people needing to be taken care of. What I’m less sure of is how to deal with it when I actually have space and the demand is that, just simply, I write. I’ve moved the office around a couple times, searching for the right configuration. There’s a proper desk–never written at an actual desk before, my previous writing table was a nightstand–and my back is not to the door. Everything I need is within easy reach, except the comfort of habit and familiarity.

A human being is a complex system, writing is a complex system, and when the two get together all sorts of weird and wonderful irrational things happen. Managing that weirdness ona day to day level is the only way to produce reliably. First it takes the willingness to do so, and the absolute refusal to quit despite discomfort. What I’m left wondering is, how difficult is the refusal to quit despite comfort itself? I’m reminded of Bukowski commenting that a man writes better on a full stomach than an empty one, and Julia Cameron’s insistence that the myth of the tortured artist is just that, a myth.

Before, I felt guilty because writing was stealing time and attention–my upbringing had raised me to insistently believe that my only value was how much I could take care of others and negate my own desires. Now I feel guilty because I have this wonderful office, this space all my own, and I have the gall to find things just as difficult. Only the scenery’s changed. The problems are still there, because they’re mine, I’ve paid for them, and isn’t that what Stephen King says? What you pay for, you own. It could be that this is just the same old seductive timesink of procrastination, that Lernaean Hydra of the creative life. The only cure is to go straight through, to get to work and stay there.

But I would be lying if I said it was easy. So much about writing is just stubbornly refusing to know when to quit.

What about you, fellow penmonkeys? Do you have trouble when your writing space changes? If you have, how did you find your way through it?

Comments

  1. Jean Marie Ward chimes in

    I’ve always been a gypsy writer. I take my laptop whichever space provides the most comfort or opportunity. If it’s a bed, fine. If it’s my desk and office chair, equally good. Sofa, coffee shop, sure.
    The flip side is, I never had to write in a stolen corner–except for that time my boss was so anti-electric typewriter, he exiled me to the closet with the teletypes. Tells you how long I’ve been around. LOL (Yes, I engineered a spectacular comeuppance. It’s what I do. But that’s a story for another day.)
    Greg and I made sure all our dwellings had “private spaces” for each of us. A grand luxury, I know. The only change/requirement that ever registered was the result of working too long in Pentagon cubicle farms. I can’t seem to write without a window. I have to be able to turn my head and see the sun or the moon–even if it’s through the sheers–or it just won’t work.

  2. Laura Anne chimes in

    My writing space seems to change constantly, even without an actual office-move – I’ve found that shifting my personal position can also change my outlook on a project, so I move from desk to chair to table to sofa, and then around again, depending on what I’m doing. But it also takes a day or two before the new setting starts to click. So I totally hear you on the topic of ‘wait, this doesn’t feel familiar, I’m not entirely down with this yet.”

    My thing is noise (not sound). People who say they need to go somewhere utterly quiet to write boggle me, because I’ve been writing to the white noise of the city for so long… (when I lived in the suburbs, I needed to put the tv on in another room, to mimic the low mutter of a busy office, or traffic). Take me to the most beautiful, evocative retreat in the world, and I’d better be able to hear wind or ocean, if you want me to focus. And yet, I rarely listen to music: that’s distracting!

    Writers. Even weirder than most folk.

  3. Sarah Wynde chimes in

    Oh, God, yes! I wrote so much when I had a full-time job. All day long, I would be planning for that treasured two hours in the evening, plotting out what I’d do and how I’d use it and trying to stretch it an extra ten minutes by a lick-and-a-promise on the dinner dishes. And then (long story), no job. Now the hours stretch in front of me and I could be, should be, writing like mad. But… it just doesn’t feel the same. It’s not a secret treasure anymore.

  4. weyodi chimes in

    If i had a dedicated space i would probably have that same problem. As it is my problem is instrumentation. I write out longhand first then transcribe but much as well meaning people buy me moleskin notebooks, hand tooled leather blank books, I look at these lovely objects and my mind goes blank when I imagine putting words in them. I need school notebooks, the rattier the better, or better yet the backs of envelopes.

  5. Julia Ross chimes in

    I can’t speak to this as a writer, but for a good portion of my life, I was a 911 dispatcher, and I don’t know if it’s changed much, but in those days, long, long ago, dispatchers were treated much like the family embarrassment, whoever that happens to be; we were to be heard, and only because it was a necessity of the position, but NEVER seen, and we worked in the smallest most cramped space available. It was a sub-basement, and I, at 5’3″ could stand flat footed and reach up and touch the ceiling,and you couldn’t walk through the place without bumping into someone. Eventually, they moved our headquarters to what used to be a hospital. The radio room was moved to what used to be the nurses chapel (it had been a religious hospital) which had 20′ ceilings and was one large open room. Everything was new, new computer floor, new furniture, new computers, etc, and there was so much space you could reach as far as possible in every direction, and not hit another person, or in some places, another thing. We luxuriated in the space, at first. But, I worked 3rd shift, and in the wee small hours of our first night in this fabulous new place, I realized that we, there were about 7 or 8 of us on a shift, had slowly but surely migrated our way to a spot where we could all see and touch one another. We were suffering from culture shock, and we had no idea how to happily occupy all that space. Quite simply, we had gotten lonely in our own little corner of the world. We made it through that night, and eventually we became accustomed to our new surroundings…and as spaces are wont to do, the longer we were there, the smaller it got. I don’t know if this is helpful or even relevant, but when I read your post, this is what I thought of.

  6. Stephanie chimes in

    For years my parents forced me to study in a quiet room, to help my focus they said.

    You know what helps my focus? Controlled chaos combined with controlled noise and I can write. Uncontrolled chaos with random noise? Not a chance.

  7. SHAY chimes in

    I am not a writer, save for the odd spat of poetry. I am however an artist. Mostly pencil or pen drawings. I work best with uncontrolled chaos, uncontrolled noise.. some of my best work I have done in the back corner booth of some scungy bar some where.

    I just got my dream, bought a new house, my hubby set up a studio for me…wonderful natural light space. I love it….but I can’t seem to step a foot into it. Maybe because its beautiful, pristine and I know the moment I do go in there and get into some serious work its gonna look like a bomb went off. I have the studio for a year….haven’t worked in it once yet.

    go figure

  8. Kelly McCullough chimes in

    Changing writing spaces is tough. The thing I find that helps me the most is to preserve the bits of my physical environment most central to the actual writing. I’m a prone writer. I like a chaise or a very broad and high footstool for my couch or chair. I love a view if I can get one, and I like having cats where I can see them. In summer I like a porch or other semi-outside space. In winter I want to be warm. When we add an office onto the house this spring those are things that will inform the design of the space. A big flat open area where I can put a chaise-type writing chair, perches for the cats, lots of windows so I can see the outdoors, heated floor to keep me toasty in winter, no desk or table—those are in my not-writing office. It will be a new and dedicated space, but it will replicate the things I like to have for my writing.

  9. particle_person chimes in

    I find it VERY hard to do work at my apartment. It’s too quiet and has too many distractions; I need the bustle of people in the background. But not talking to me, and not just two people either – it has to be a crowd. Two people talking to each other and no other noise is extremely distracting. I can only focus on their conversation, not what I’m supposed to be doing. Twenty people talking, however, becomes background noise and makes work/studying easier for reasons I can’t put into words. This means that when I have something I absolutely MUST finish, I go to a café or a restaurant. Libraries are second best, because of those two people who won’t shut up next to my carrel. The other thing about cafés is that you must sit still and sit down. Never underestimate the power of being forced to sit in one place until you are done.

  10. Taryn Blackthorne chimes in

    Maybe it’s just your guilt for having something for yourself kicking in? It’s your space, after all. I moved home when my mom got sick and had to write in between running errands for her. When she got well enough for me to actually be out of sight of her to work, it took me a month to get comfortable in a space of my own again.

  11. Tomio Hall-Black chimes in

    So if I sound too much like a flake, pass it off as what will become an endearing eccentricity once I get the novel in my chest out….

    I can only write if I am enduring a type of psychic pressure to create. If there is no pressure; then the writing is stale, if it comes at all. Changing to a more roomy environ – or suddenly having tons of time to write – takes the pressure off, making it harder to produce.

    The best place for me to write is with a bookcase looming over me, taunting me with knowledge that I do not yet possess.