Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Still Life With Cigarettes and Hat: The Importance of Where and When We Write

Michael Poore
I'm writing this article at the Grindhouse Café on Broad Street, in Griffith, Indiana.
That's how I like to write. In a space with music. A friendly, social space, with people who are leaving me alone. That's my ritual.
If you're a writer, chances are you have a ritual, too.
Your ritual is your way of drawing a pagan circle, so the magic can happen. I used to make a little still life out of myself: me, my computer, cigarettes, a can of diet pop, hat-of-the-day either on my head or off to the side. In thirty-five years it hasn't changed much.
I wonder how important the ritual really is. I mean, does it help me write better stories? Does it help me enjoy the process more? Is it nesting? (I'm not fond of monkeys. My family evolved from woodpeckers.)
Some people have a quiet writing space at home. Janine, for example, writes in her tiny, gloriously messy office, in the middle of the night. She'll wake up at midnight, and write ten pages before going back to sleep. My friend Ted keeps a home office, and nothing but writing materials are ever allowed to touch his writing desk--no bills, no misplaced happy meal toys or loose change. It's like holy ground. Mark Twain had a whole mini-house built in his backyard. These are people who separate the muggle part of their lives from the art-making part of their lives. Hunter S. Thompson, on the other hand, wrote in his kitchen. He also ate there, paid bills there, made phone calls there, and shot himself there.
Other writers have a quiet space away from home. Maya Angelou keeps a tiny hotel room, containing a desk, a Bible, and some wine. Annie Dillard had Tinker Creek (I wish I had a creek. Don't you?).
There are about ten million studies proving that timespace rituals like this are a big help in producing quality brainwork. It's considered an important study skill for kids...set aside a 'homework corner,' and do your homework there at the same time every day. Grades go up, generally, when kids do this. So basically, if you sit down to write in the same place and time, every day, your brain will learn to flip the writing switch when you do this ("Oh, we're at the handpainted desk with the cool, twisty lamp, and it's six in the morning...better fire up the Magic Buddha neurons!").
The problem here is that we live in a hypertopian age, and we don't always have the luxury of choosing our writing timespace. Joyce Carol Oates recognizes this. I read an article once in which she said we basically have to be ready to take advantage of whatever chances come our way. Got 13 minutes between the laundry and Market Day pickup? Sit down and write. Don't worry about the cigarettes and the lucky hat or whether there's a happy meal toy on the desk. Just sit down and do it.
I have always struggled with finding some middle ground between these approaches.
I prefer to write in a café. I wrote a whole book in the café at Borders, in Southlake Mall. But I don't need that, necessarily. Last year, I wrote a whole chapter on a school bus going to a middle-school state championship basketball game, with kids screaming and throwing things all around me. A serious chapter, too, with people getting drunk in a hospital room where a child was dying of cancer.
What does that mean, that I can do some of my best work waaaaay outside of my ritual space?
I'm not the first writer to explore this, of course. Years ago, I read an interview with a successful young writer who said that she had tried writing in all sorts of places--in cafés, at friends' houses, in bus stations, in buses--and I was captivated by this quest of hers. What did it mean? Most writers go through this, trying to find their own particular way. Was she--are we--taking advantage of opportunity? Writing, more than almost any other task, can be done anywhere. But I also have to wonder if it isn't something we use to accomplish that other task at which writers excel: putting off writing.
Sometimes, when I'm making a big deal out of my ritual, I realize that I'm focusing on the fun of being a writer, not so much on getting stories written. I realize that I have spent an hour or more getting coffee, getting a muffin, checking my messages, doing Facebook, getting coffee, doing Twitter. "Look at me!" I think to myself, forming little mental pictures of myself, in my café, doing writer stuff...except not writing.
Here's what I've discovered about rituals and writing: rituals are nice and fun, and can be helpful. But real writing, the good stuff that happens when you are 'in the zone,' is its own ritual. I'm talking about the kind of writing that happens, for me, when I realize my coffee cup has been empty for an hour, when I forget to eat, when I have to be told that the place is closing. When I'm sitting at the table in my own home, surrounded by cats and dogs and happy meal toys, and don't realize that the window is open and it's raining in the dining room or that my stepdaughter is on fire.
Focus...writing itself...may be the only kind of ritual that really counts. Focus is, according to some article I read, the same thing as hypnosis. That's all hypnosis is, intense state of concentration. Kids do it when they play video games. Readers get that way when they read. Ulysses S. Grant was famous for this kind of thing; he'd be working on correspondence in his tent, get up to fetch something, perhaps an inkwell, and never straighten up, walking around his tent hunched over.
That's ritual. That's writing.
It has its drawbacks, like any extreme. Like the time years ago, when I lived in a house with several other young writers, when I woke up with an idea, and raced straight for my keyboard and wrote and wrote. Eventually, I thought: "Man, I've missed breakfast! It's almost lunchtime!" I got up long enough to rush downstairs to the fridge, saying 'Hey' to a couple of my housemates and their girlfriends, grabbing a slice of pizza and a cup of coffee, then climbing back to my upstairs loft, back to my computer. I was just getting started again, after one bite of pizza, when my buddy James climbed up and cleared his throat, and said, "Dude, you do realize you're naked, right?"
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Michael Poore is the author of Up Jumps the Devil (Ecco Press, 2012). To learn more about Mike, visit

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