Edith Wharton and Truman Capote wrote in bed. Virginia Woolf wrote standing in a room of her own. Philip Roth writes standing, but in a studio physically separated from his living quarters. Lesser-known writers enjoy passing such minutiae among themselves, details of how the legends write and wrote to make them seem tangible, human, and more than anything else, possible. Those struggling to write (which is all of us at some level) may then try to shake up their own writing routine by following such examples. Others think such pursuits are trifles, dodges against larger issues. Sure, the space and environment where one chooses to attempt one's work may seem trivial compared to such concerns as vision, voice, and imagination. But vision, voice, and imagination are only relevant if a writer can get words onto the page. There's a famous photo of Mark Twain writing—where he always wrote—in bed, a blanket pulled up to his waist and a cigar planted squarely in his mouth. It's worth noting he kept that particular bed (his writing bed) with him for thirty-two years from the time he bought it in 1878 until his death in 1910.
As a writing coach, one of the first things I ask clients is where, when, and and how they write. It almost always follows that those who are struggling to simply get words to paper in a regular, sustained fashion, whether they're new to the game or accomplished, cannot give me a clear answer. Or at least a good one. This lack of clarity on the subject points to the trouble, as well as to underlying issues. Finding an environment where one can consistently tap into a creative state is no small matter. It's the ground level of establishing a regular practice, and a regular practice is how large works get written. Nothing happens, or will happen to you as a writer until you find a way to bring pages upon pages, both good and bad, into existence. This is the work, and until you can manage it you are kidding yourself. Once you conquer this stage you may well find the hours long, only to discover that those hours have become your sanctuary, as have the physical spaces you inhabit when the words come to you. Through disappointments, loss, age, you will return to those hours and those spaces. You will have them, so long as you continue to earn them (by showing up), regardless of what "success" your creations find once they leave your hands.
The kind of space that works best is different for everyone, and it may change several times during your writing life. You may be fond of working in a library, only to find yourself after many years of success, blocked. If so, pay attention to your workspace. Does the room around you seem too large and still and quiet? If this is not a fleeting response, if it is present session after session, it may be time to find a different kind of environment. For whatever reason I work best in a public space, such as a coffee shop or a quiet bar. I'm one of those odd people in a corner scribbling away and muttering to himself while others are having a good time. I'm not proud of this. It's just what works best for me, and I'm shameless when I find what works best for me. I'd cross-dress if that helped fuel my writing. I'd wear a beanie with a propeller on top. But I've found there's something about the white noise of chatter that makes me feel both supported and connected. On especially good days snippets of conversation may even find their way into the work. But there are attendant dangers in each location (especially the bar—writers create in spite of substance abuse, not because of it), so manage yourself accordingly if similar environs work for you.
Many people find they work best in a less stimulating environment, such as a library, an office in an apartment, or at least a quiet corner in one's home. But if you work out of your home, I highly recommend you find an area where you're removed from the demands of your non-writing life. If your children or a spouse are constantly asking you questions, if cleaning the stove or vacuuming or returning that phone call suddenly seems critical during your work session, you probably need to locate a new space. Here's the trick: each successful day's writing (and by "successful" I mean you simply hit your mark for that day) in a particular space, whether in your home or elsewhere, will prove to you that you can write in that particular space. Your daily work will at first start to seem possible, then likely, then taken for granted.
Once this space is established, you will begin to transition into a creative state even as you approach it, whether you're aware of it or not. Afterward, you'll likely come away sated or relieved (if a bit tired), or at least happy that you got in a day's work. Excepting, of course, the bad days, and they will come, and you simply have to persevere through them. A safe, familiar, and comforting writing environment will help you weather such periods. However, if your space feels less like a sanctuary and more like an iron maiden, if you clench and fill with anxiety as soon as you approach your desk, then you should make some changes in your environment in order to make some changes to your process. I recommend you begin by addressing the sensual and ritualistic aspects of yourself that are too often ignored in our writing practices.
Start with a cup of tea or coffee. If you like flowers, consider placing a fresh cut flower on your writing desk each day. Eat a piece of fruit as you look over the previous day's work. Find a way to reward yourself for what you're doing. Maybe there's someone who has inspired or supported you. Frame a small photograph of that person and place it on your desk. Perhaps there's a rock you picked up along the beach that you've kept since high school. Roll it around in your hand while imagining a scene or tackling a story issue. Are you writing a period piece? Thumb-tack an album cover or a poster of a painting from that particular time above your computer screen, one you can disappear into when you look away from your computer or paper. Buy a new, more comfortable chair. Move your desk to a window. Many writers, myself included, need to be able to look away from the work and into the distance. Others may find they need to remove themselves from such a distraction. So be it. It's your environment. Get in tune with what works for you. Don't hesitate or apologize for it. Don't try to explain it, even to yourself. Just make the change.
Again, I can sense some writers sneering at such "easy" solutions. To clarify, I'm not saying addressing one's writing environment is the answer; I'm merely saying it's necessary. You can take a wannabe offensive lineman and work him in the weight room until he's thick as a tree. That may not make him a professional-level right guard, but it will give him the chance to be a professional-level right guard. There are a number of very specific skills, natural abilities, and a particular temperament required by such a demanding position. But he must first be made strong enough to stand up to his opponents without getting crushed. Until then you know nothing. And until a writer can produce sustained work, you know nothing. I would, in fact, offer that the capacity to produce sustained work—this need actualized on paper—whether experienced as torturous, effortless, or somewhere in-between, is the truest indicator of this animal we call a writer. Regardless, again, of the success of each individual piece in the world.
Such a skill, the ability—whether inspired or not (and particularly when not)—to write on a consistent basis over an extended period of time, is relatively rare, at least initially, even among the most talented writers. But it is a skill that can be cultivated through patience, discipline, and habit. If you are successful in developing it, it will bring rewards beyond the writing itself. There are tricks that can truly help, and paying attention to one's writing space is but one. But to do what a writer must do, which is to call upon the deepest self and, some would argue, even forces outside oneself, one must reach an almost preternatural level of focus. Which may not feel like focus; may instead feel like a door opening. It does take a particular kind of person to approach such a door and for it to open with little struggle. To become that person may take years of steady commitment. But so does meditation. So does Tai Chi and Aikido and Karate. So does maintaining a successful love relationship. In the end, as in most matters, it's all about the work.
Author's note: During one of the later drafts of this piece I switched seats in a coffee shop four times until I found one that felt right. Which may sound (and be) obsessive. But guess what? Then I started writing.