WHERE I WRITE #2: Situation/Coordinates, Venue, Witnesses


The list below is a register of the dates and locations of when and where the author wrote her memoir Revolution, published in this month.

Year: 1987
Situation/coordinates: While helping to foment the Communist revolution in Central America, the author, age eighteen, kept a record in several spiral-bound notebooks, from which she later lifted lines for inclusion in Revolution.
Venue: She wrote her entries while sitting on the ground outside her room at the hostel or on benches in the town plaza.
Witnesses: Her boyfriend sat a few feet away, often writing his own (sometimes contradictory) record.

Year: 1994 (The author’s first efforts at being a “writer.”)
Situation/coordinates: A (different) boyfriend and the author drove across the United States in search of a new place to live (reasons unclear, but have to do with the reception of a badly produced play written by the boyfriend).
Venue: She wrote in the mornings in motel rooms at the tiny desks or in the beds. During this time she wrote a story of thin autobiography that eventually became the chapter in the memoir titled “Peanut Butter.”
Witnesses: The boyfriend was usually nearby, asleep or doing something with the car.

Year: 1995
Situation/coordinates: The place the couple settled on turned out to be Birmingham, Alabama. The author wrote a story called “Bringing Bato,” not autobiography, but so full of autobiography as to be almost embarrassing. Passages now appear in the memoir.
Venue: The boyfriend and the author had desks lined up beside each other, and they’d both sit in the mornings and write before going to work. (This conjures up an image of calm domestic bliss that is so absurd and far from what was in fact happening, it almost looks like a lie, but it is the truth.)
Witnesses: It was during this time that the author began to “share” her work.

Year: 1999
Situation/coordinates: Inexplicably the author managed to get all the way through graduate school without writing a single new sentence that could be included in the memoir. But the year after she finished school, reinstalled in Chicago (again) (a study of the author’s life could be read as a series of mad attempts at escape from Chicago), the author began writing about the 1987 trip once more, drafts of scenes that would eventually wind up in the memoir.
Venue: She lived in Albany Park in a loud, mean apartment. She wrote in bed or on the floor.
Witnesses: None.

Years: 2000-2003 The horror years.
Situation/coordinates: In an effort to write a book and/or flee Chicago, the author went back and forth between Chicago and various spots in Central America and Cuba. She tried essays. She wrote articles and stories. She wrote many, many drafts of an autobiographical novel, sections of which she would later pillage for Revolution.
Venue: She wrote in notebooks in hot hostel rooms and on buses in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, and other countries. During one bizarre set of months she wrote in the middle of a rainforest on a table that a farmer she thought she might love had fashioned for her. While in Chicago she wrote in the mornings before work (horror work) at a desk, or in the middle of the night in bed (horror insomnia) in any one of several apartments. Sometimes she had her stuff in storage.
Witnesses: A variety of inconsiderate boyfriends.

Years: 2004-2005 Relative stability sets in.
Situation/coordinates: The author moved with a (different) boyfriend to Kansas.
Venue: She had TWO offices in Kansas, one for creative work, one for school and Internet. She wrote every day in her creative office, at a table belonging to someone who was now dead. She finished what by this time had become an utterly unreadable spy thriller set in Central America in the 80s. When her agent didn’t like it, the author gave up and quit being a writer.
Witnesses: Beleaguered boyfriend.

Year: 2006
Situation/coordinates: The author became a writer again and wrote her novel Vacation (in which somehow at the end of the book most of the characters wind up in Nicaragua or dead trying to get there).
Venue: She wrote the novel at a table on the 8th floor of Bobst Library in New York, and also in the back room of a hundred-year-old house in Kansas.
Witnesses: New boyfriend.

Years: 2007-2008
Situation/coordinates: [deleted] Venue: …writing in airports, writing in a rented room in Dumbo, writing on a piece of board in Pennsylvania…
Witnesses: Boyfriend, different boyfriend, husband.

Year: 2009
Situation/coordinates: The author had begun the memoir in 2008, in that fine line between marriage and divorce. In 2009 she moved to New Haven. She rented her uncle’s three-story condo—breathtaking, view over the river, high ceilings, fireplace that flipped on by a switch.
Venue: She had something like five offices, depending on how you were counting. 1. the attic, where the table looked out over the river, 2. the second-floor office, where the table looked out over the river, 3. the dining room, where the table looked out over the river, 4. the bed, 5. the other bed. There she finished Revolution.
Witnesses: Pleasant visiting boyfriend, appearing and disappearing.

Year: 2011
Situation/coordinates: The author currently lives in New York in a small two-room apartment.
Venue: Her office is one-third of the dining room table in a room which functions as everything except the bedroom and the boyfriend’s office—he does his writing at a desk a few inches from the bed.
Witnesses: The couple can close the door between them if they need to.

Deb Olin Unferth is the author of the novel Vacation and the collection of stories Minor Robberies. Her memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, is out now. More from this author →