We all know how Jane Austen wrote her books in the parlor, that most public of spaces. When she heard someone approach, she slipped her pages unobtrusively beneath the blotter. J. K. Rowling famously wrote her first book at a café, ignoring the loud chatter, the jostled table, the spilled coffee, the constant draughts from the door. Those stories are not mine. I can’t write that way.
When I quit my day job to write, decades ago, I lived in New York City with my husband and daughter. I wrote in the guest room. I didn’t quite take it over—it still had a bed, and I moved out when we had guests. But it had a desk, and during the day I shut the door and sat at that desk. There was no view—my desk faced the wall, and the window looked out on a sort of air shaft. It was perfect. I felt sequestered.
The next year we moved into an old farmhouse in New York State. I wrote in a small room under the eaves on the third floor, up a narrow flight of stairs. This was also a sort of guest room, with a bed. Beside me were windows looking out toward the barn, but my desk faced the eaves. No one came up to the third floor, and I had no phone. This was before the internet. I was sequestered and solitary. I couldn’t hear people downstairs, I couldn’t hear footsteps or conversation.
I sat down to write first thing in the morning, and I wrote until sometime in the afternoon. My daughter was at school, and my husband was at work. Since I wrote while the house was empty, you’d think I could have worked in the dining room, which faced the road and the driveway. It was a big pleasant room with a long sturdy table. But I couldn’t work there, in the front of the house, right next to the kitchen. It was too public.
War veterans experience something called hypervigilance, a mental state of continual alertness for danger. I have a minor version of this, a writer’s version. For me, danger lies in the sound of a footstep, a spoken word. Anyone could destroy the fragile construction I have to make each day.
Writing is a bit like inflating a vast oxygen tent contained by a thin filmy membrane. Each time I write I have to breathe life into this, slowly blowing it larger and larger, making it more and more substantial, giving it shape. The sound of anyone’s voice, an approaching step, arrests me. I waver, and the whole filmy construct trembles, shudders, and then deflates, sliding into nothingness. It’s gone.
I wrote in the guest room on the third floor until my husband, for my birthday, gave me a copy of A Room of One’s Own and offered to redo the top of the garage for my study. It would be my own space, separate from the house, and up a flight of stairs. It was away. For twenty years I wrote in that study. I wrote Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, A Glimpse of Scarlet, Asking for Love, This is My Daughter, Sweetwater, and A Perfect Stranger. Finally in 2005 we sold the farmhouse.
Being really away, of course, is the best. At MacDowell, the artists’ colony, especially in the winter, my sense of awayness was absolute. I worked on Sweetwater there, and Cost. The studios had no phones and no internet. No one came to visit without permission. No footsteps, no approach, except when someone arrived, once a day, with lunch.
Of course I can’t live in an artists’ colony, so instead I go as far away as I can. I’m back in New York City now, during the week. I have my own study, with a phone and a printer and the internet. When I write I leave all this. I go down the hall to the maid’s room behind the kitchen. Here is a small bed, a chair, and standing lamp. I shut the door and sit on the bed.
We built a summer house in Maine, and I asked for a study in a tower. The rest of the house is on one floor; I’m on the second. My room is mostly windows, with views of woods and water. It has a phone and a printer and the internet. On the walls are paintings by friends, a drawing by my husband. A narrow spool bed stands in one corner, piled with books. On my desk are a pair of binoculars and a photograph of me and my dog on a sailboat. The views are wonderful, but I am nearsighted, so I can’t see much unless I use the binoculars. If something interesting is going on—a pileated woodpecker in one of the fir trees, or a brood of mergansers in the cove—I grab the binoculars. But most of the time I don’t look outside. I don’t listen to music: For a while I tried writing to Tosca, but I stopped hearing it after the opening chords, so I quit. I work in silence.
Mostly I write in my study, but near the end of a project I move away. I often start my books in the summer and finish them in the winter. When I was finishing Sweetwater, I went to Maine with my dog for the month of January. The house was silent and the woods were still. There was no danger of footsteps, and I worked without interruption. With Cost, the last stages took place during the summer, and I moved away from my study and into the sleeping loft behind it. This is even farther away from the world, a long dim room, high under the peaked roof, with slanting eaves and one low window. It is bare and shadowy, like a wooden cave.
There I spread out the chapters on the floor in a grid, so I could see them all at once. On top of each was a page from a yellow pad with my marks and notes and questions for that chapter. The novel took over the room. No one came up there, and the closer I got to the end the less I lived in the outside world. Cost was about a heroin addict, and I was consumed by the peril and urgency of addiction. I worked late into the night, and finally I began sleeping there. I brought up trays and ate meals alone. When the book was finished, and I’d sent it off, I was finished, too. I stayed in the loft and slept and read the last three Harry Potter books. I was away.
I envy writers who can work on a plane or sit at a café with a yellow pad or scribble while the kids are sitting at lunch. I can’t do it. Hypervigilance is a nuisance. But then writing itself is kind of a nuisance, don’t you think? It’s like something visited on you at birth, a blessing or curse.
Here’s how it is: You will feel the need to set everything down. You will watch everything that happens in the world. You will listen to every conversation, think about every exchange, pay attention to every storm and every sunset, every argument, every wary truce and fierce embrace. You will want to know how surfaces feel, how weather affects things, how children advance into their lives, what it’s like not to want to cook. Sex, death, boredom, everything.
You can call it a blessing, I suppose: You’re never bored. You’re always interested in what’s around you. Or you can call it a curse: Writers get no time off. There’s never a moment in which we’re not measuring experience against knowledge, searching for something new. For me it’s simply how it is: I don’t know another way to move through the world.
As a writer you learn what’s best for your work: where you sit, what you will listen for, what disturbs you. Whether you have hypervigilance.
Years ago we rented a summer house in Maine, with a tiny room off our bedroom. My husband used this as his dressing room, and I used it as my study. It seemed sensible: When he was there, I wasn’t, and vice versa. The arrangement lasted three days. The rule was that no one could come in when the door was shut, but it turned out that everyone believed the rule only applied to others. So I moved away to the third floor, into a tiny maid’s room with a wooden table, a metal cot, and a tattered cotton rug. It was too far away for people to bother me. That’s where I began my book on O’Keeffe.
During the brief sharing period, a family member who shall remain nameless opened my door for the third time in half an hour. I finally said, “Would you please stop coming in! I’m trying to work.”
“Oh, all right,” this person said loftily. “Sorry. I didn’t realize you were so easily distracted.”
It didn’t feel like being distracted. It felt like being tortured. Every time I saw a face and heard a question, I had to abandon my world. Instead of churning my way through a furious exchange between two people who love each other but want desperately to kill each other, I had to think about the snow tires. Afterward it was hard to reenter that landscape. And the interruption made vividly clear which takes priority, daily life or my work. My “work,” if that’s what you call sitting alone in silence, wrestling with words.
So, okay. I’m easily distracted. I need a cave, a loft, a cabin. Distance and silence. No footsteps, no voices. I need to be away. Only then can I set down my version—so carefully observed, so scrupulously and lovingly rendered—of the world I’m trying—with such dedication—to exclude.