Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Writer's Geography, II

Life at Hollywood studios disagreed with many fine writers, notably F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. The studio heads wanted their writers to work in offices at the studios, where the passing producers could hear the typewriters banging away as a song of productivity. Neither of these folks were inclined to produce on schedules, nor to hammer at the keyboard unless they had something to say.

Legend has it that Faulkner once found himself blocked, and finally asked if they would allow him to work at home. Since having Faulkner wokring for the studio was a matter of prestige, they reluctantly agreed.

One day director Howard Hawks needed him. After a series of frantic phone calls, they finally reached him at home--back in Oxford, Mississippi.*

Some writers, like Faulkner, seem to be rooted in a place, and need to be there to work at their best. Others are stimulated by places, but can write about them from a distance; think of Flannery O'Connor scribbling away about the South while ensconced in snowy Iowa, Wodehouse nattering on about Jeeves and Wooster from New York and Paris, or Willa Cather telling tales of the prairie from her apartment in Greenwich Village.

I find that new or unusual places generate ideas and enthusiasms, but if there's any linkage between where I live when doing the actual writing and the quality of that writing, I haven't found it. In fact, I seem to write best in featureless environments with minimal input. If I'm placing a scene in, say, Santa Barbara, California, then doing my writing in Santa Barbara only complicates matters by giving me extraneous details. The truth is, the Santa Barbara in which my story is set is not the Santa Barbara of the real world, but the Santa Barbara of my mind, and I have to believe that the concrete details my mind has stored up as representing Santa Barbara will be the best for evoking Santa Barbara in the mind of a reader.

At home, one of my desks faces a wall, and the other faces a window with the shade and curtains drawn. Much of my writing has been done in hotel rooms--the more generic, the better. I need to be looking inside my head, not around at the world.

Georges Simenon had the same approach, but to a more pronounced degree. To write his novels, he came up with a sketchy outline; visited his doctor to be pronounced healthy enough to tackle a novel; and then booked himself into a random hotel room where he proceeded to hammer out the book in anywhere from one to four weeks. (The fiery pace--and his concern about whether or not his health could sustain it--was at least partly owing to the steady use of amphetamines during these writing jags; his speed was at least partly due to, well, speed.)

I'm not sure it matters where on the globe I reside while doing my scribbling. In many cases, there seem to be advantages to being in a place unlike the one where the novel is set. This shouldn't be too astonishing; after all, writers set their stories in other time periods, in worlds that don't exist, or on undiscovered planets. It would be inconvenient if they needed to be in those environments to do their work.

But that's just me. There are writers who can't work well unless they are immersed in the bustle of Manhattan, and others who can't work well unless they are shut up in some hut in the Great White North. Some, if they are writing about modern Rome, need Rome right outside their doorstep so they can dash out and examine the cobblestones so as to better describe their shape and texture; others do best at describing Rome from afar.

Do you have a best environment for writing? Does it matter where you live?

Do you write well in hotel rooms?


Neil said...

Maybe that's where I'm going wrong. I do a bulk of my writing on the train. Perhaps there's an ideal location for me and I haven't found it yet. In the meantime, that London-Brighton keeps on a-chooglin'.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Neil--

Do you notice a sudden improvement when you pass thrugh certain towns or by certain stops? Does Tooting Bec call out the genius in your soul?

I'd never thought of writing on the fly as a way of checking for one's optimal location. Sort of like dowsing for water.

Neil said...

All I know is I usually hit my flow just before I'm due to get off, regardless of the destination. Fortunately for me my train's a swift one and steers well clear of Tooting.

Janet Ursel said...

Being easily distracted, the less stimulation, the better. I do my best brainstorming lying down or in a recliner, eyes closed. There's no way I can keep my mind on any specific activity while going for a walk, for instance. On a train? Not a chance. In a coffeeshop? Difficult. Music and people, two major distractors. A hotel room might work. I'll have to try it.

Jen said...

I LOVE writing on trains. Airplanes are right out. Airports, themselves, are fine, but something about being locked in a steel tube with 47 screaming babies sucks the creative life right out of me (except creative potential homicides; I get good at those.) Hotel rooms, no. Coffee shops, yes. Favorite spot, desk in my living room. Second favorite spot, Half Price Books on 75 and Northwest Highway. And I love my laptop. Don't know what I ever did without it. Incidentally, although the whole world uses Word now and even my law firm has moved into Word 2003, I still write in WordPerfect. What's up with that?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Yep, I'm easily distracted, too. And music makes it impossible for me to write, whether or not I like the music.

I suppose I'll end my writing days in the kind of room the Dalai Lama might design. Odd, since I don;t think I write his sort of books.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

Well, I envy you--especially the coffeeshop bit. Some folks are amazingly productive in coffeeshops--I believe Aliya Whiteley does most of her writing there--but I spend all my time staring at the people and eavesdropping on conversations. Drop me in a coffeeshop and a sqirrel crossing the road seems to have god concentration cmpared to yours truly.