Are Writers Really Better Off At Home?

Here’s hoping writers’ spaces reopen as soon as possible

As the pandemic rages on, writers, like most people, are stuck at home. With this circumstance has come a flurry of smug advice, often from people who obviously aren’t writers themselves. What are you waiting for? Isn’t this what you’ve always dreamed of—oodles of time to stay home and write? Get on with it! Turn out that novel that’s been kicking around in your head all these years. You’ve got no excuses now!

Those who deliver such advice don’t get the simple truth that time itself isn’t enough. Writers at all stages of accomplishment are highly particular about when and where they can be productive, and noisy homes aren’t ideal environments.

Stephen King has publicly denied what some people claim: that the pandemic and the social and economic upheaval it has wrought are comparable to the nightmare scenario depicted so vividly in The Stand. He’s right: the last I heard, reeking corpses weren’t clogging the Lincoln Tunnel, and the military wasn’t summarily executing radio hosts who contravened government orders. The coronavirus isn’t A-6.

At the same time, some people underestimate the severity of this situation for writers.

Closed and Open Doors

In his acclaimed hybrid of memoir and manual, On Writing, King offers useful advice. Describing his own creative process, King breaks it down into what he terms the closed-door phase and the open-door phase. The former is a deeply personal, solitary process where the writer focuses hard to seize what’s down there in the mulch of the mind and get the unconscious or half-articulated thoughts and ideas, the creative pulp, out onto the page.

The closed-door phase is where you might take an image that flashed through your mind, say of two planets in collision or a woman on a balcony or a Chevy half-buried in a sandstorm, and extrapolate, and develop the image to the point where it begins to resemble a viable creative concept, with a protagonist, supporting characters, a plot, symbols, and subtexts and themes. Turning the vaguest abstractions into scenarios that the writer can actually communicate to others requires an order of concentration that may not be possible when sitting in a noisy café or in a house or apartment where YouTube videos, Facebook, Netflix, and other temptations abound.

Obviously, some writers can work in such environments. But doing so right off the bat is tricky. The open-door phase usually comes later on in the process, after much of the really difficult developmental work is complete. It is, literally, a phase where a writer has gotten to a point where he or she can leave the door ajar and tell those who pop their head in what the project is and how it’s shaping up.

Having to stay at home conflates the two phases. During this pandemic, writers stuck in noisy, crowded houses may find it impossible ever to enter the closed-door phrase at all. Relatives and in-laws are everywhere, kids are running around screaming, dogs are barking, and privacy is hard to come by. The environment is not at all like that found in writers’ rooms, about which more in a minute.

What’s the environment like in a house full of distractions? The blank page stares up at you. The question of what will fill it, what could fill it, is as nebulous as your own imagination. Try to think of something and start writing. You’ve been looking at the blank space for hours now. Try. Come on. Try.

Oh, screw it, have a beer with your in-laws or play some Radiohead for a while and try later.

The Necessity of Struggle

Of course, avoiding hardship altogether isn’t the point. As a struggling writer, I find solace in what the late Harlan Ellison once said: It’s not supposed to be easy. Writers strive always to find new ways to describe things and to craft work that channels and reflects various influences yet stands apart as something unique and visionary.

If fine writing weren’t hard—excruciatingly so, at times—then everyone would be a great writer and there would be nothing special about the vocation. Literary prizes and awards would lose whatever modicum of meaning they have, leading to even more insufferably awkward cocktail receptions. “Oh, you’re a writer? Wow. So are the last fifteen people I just met.”

An adage holds that writers don’t like writing, they like having written. They enjoy admiring the unique thing they’ve brought into the world and take pride in having gotten through a hellish task. Henry Miller, in The Wisdom of the Heart, relates the fickleness of his own creative process. Passages in his work that may seem elaborate and lyrical were, in some cases, dashed off without difficulty, but passages that appear simple in style and diction were much harder to get down on paper than you’d think.

But some of us need a particular environment for this masochism.

Writers’ Spaces

What are writers’ spaces? Exactly what they sound like. A writers’ room is a privately owned facility consisting of a common area—a kitchen and lounge, with lockers and a phone booth or two—and a quiet area, a big room with cubicles and couches. In the latter area, members must silence their phones and refrain from talking and making any unnecessary noise.

Here, with distractions pared down to a minimum, writers plumb the depths of the subconscious, dredge up ideas, separate the promising ones from the non-starters, wrack their minds for felicitous phrasing, and do the dirty work of their vocation. People can just as easily waste time on Facebook in a writers’ space as anywhere else, you say? True, but you don’t get how some places are more conducive to creative work than others. Writers’ spaces are uniquely tailored for authors grappling with the psychological complexities of writing. Writers are there to do one thing.

Casualties of the Crisis

Here in New York, there was no shortage of writers’ spaces until just recently. During the many years I lived in Carroll Gardens, I became a member of Brooklyn Writers Space, which maintains two facilities, one on Court Street near the border with Cobble Hill and the other in Gowanus. I used the Gowanus location and found it a catalyst to productivity. Many of the short stories I wrote there have found their way into literary journals.

After moving to Williamsburg a couple of years ago, I sought out a space more convenient to visit daily. This I found in the form of Paragraph Brooklyn, which runs a facility on Withers Street, near the Lorimer Street subway station, as well as one in Union Square. Writers’ spaces don’t divulge exact membership numbers, but Paragraph Brooklyn, a relative newcomer (having officially opened in May 2018), was, at last count, at a few hundred members spread over the two locations.

Besides providing comfortable and distraction-free spaces, Paragraph Brooklyn offers agent and editor roundtables and workshops and organizes readings, happy hours, game nights, open mike nights, and much more. It truly fosters a literary culture for those who are serious about what they do.

At this time, Paragraph Brooklyn has closed, yet another casualty of the virus, and it is hard to say at what point in Governor Cuomo’s hazy and ever-shifting timetable for reopening we can expect it to welcome writers again.

Worse yet, the A/D/O Workspace, a stylish, thoughtfully organized space not just for writers but for creative types whose work involves production and graphic design, has announced that it will close permanently this month.

Unfulfilled Promise

I had come to think of these creative venues as unsafe spaces, that is to say, places where one never knows when a promising creative idea will assert its claims, rendering the writer powerless to get up and leave until they’re satisfied with the work, where a concept will jump out spontaneously and demand the writer drop everything to flesh it out, to bring what is latent to the fore, or, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “to force the moment to its crisis.” In the writer’s space, you can face your obsession and see what you’re made of. You may come up against the very limits of your creative talent.

Unfortunately, the term unsafe space may be more properly reserved for a noisy home where a writer may find it impossible to find the privacy and quiet to do what this pandemic has supposedly afforded time to do. That’s one of the bitterest ironies of the current debacle.

May writers’ spaces soon reopen, and, out of this hardship, a new resolve be born.

Writers

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020).

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