At the moment, I’m writing in a cafeteria full of adult nerds who are parents of teenaged nerds, some of whom will likely be running the country twenty years from now. We are at Mason High School in Southwestern Ohio, judging a speech and debate tournament. I’ve just had a plate full of terminally greasy fried chicken and some vegetables that I plucked from a black plastic platter. The cauliflower was brownish, the “baby” carrots desiccated and whitish, but it was either that or the wilted iceberg bag salad from Sam’s. Squirting Ranch dressing on them helped. Now I’m having some weak coffee in a styrofoam cup. I just had to put in my earbuds to block out the voice of the woman nearby who is recounting every minute, every vocal inflection, every gesture, of the speeches she just judged. Even though I currently have a bye, her diatribe makes me feel as though I’m living through yet another round of competition in real time. I turn up the music.
I write wherever I can. Every time I read an article or attend a writing workshop that stresses the importance of writing ritual: the room, the time of day, the equipment, the temperature, the tools, I want to give up. If that’s what it takes, I’m doomed. My ritual is that I don’t have one.
I used to write a desk in my kitchen, shoving aside to make room for my keyboard a basket overflowing with detritus: at any given time it might contain cafeteria lunch menus, field hockey camp brochures, unmailed Christmas thank you notes, empty jewel cases, a flash drive, a folder full of medical receipts, a box of stationery, a newspaper clipping, a school district calendar, a couple of school directories, a list of props needed for the winter play, an overdue DVD from the library, the rough draft of a homework paper, the course catalog for my daughter’s High School, and countless marginally functional writing instruments. This mountain of obligation and trivia — a pile that grew and shrank with the seasons — sat at my elbow and taunted me. You shouldn’t be writing. You have things to do. You are not afforded the luxury of creation for its own sake. Instead, you have created children, a home, a family. Now tend to them, dammit.
For several years, I tried to write in my office on campus. I shared a suite with three other faculty members. One of them was a poet who liked to watch the South Park movie on his desktop computer while he graded papers. I could not get much done with Cartman and friends singing What Would Brian Boitano Do? in the next cubicle. Another office mate spent hours on the phone with medical professionals, frequently bending my ear about her newest ailment. She was grandmotherly and smelled like talcum powder, but I was relieved when she finally retired. In short, it was not an environment conducive to the periods of uninterrupted, quiet reflection I imagined I would need if I ever wanted to write seriously.
I would start writing in earnest, I kept telling myself, when I had a place to do it: a sun-drenched study with a door, and a desk, and a Buddha statuette in the corner, and a computer that no one was allowed to touch, and a comfortable chair, and a coaster for my coffee mug, and bookshelves packed with every novel I’d ever read, and that cool old rug I’d seen at the consignment store, and…and…and. So a new house, I guess. And more money. Fewer kids. Time.
But in the meantime, over twenty years and in twenty-minute chunks, I had managed to write only bits and pieces of essays, beginnings of short stories, character sketches for novels that would never be written, blog posts for a blog that didn’t exist, letters to people who would never read them. I wanted to write, but I made every excuse not to. If I never published anything, no one could tell me not to quit my day job. I was afraid that what that drunken bitch at my husband’s office party had said might be true: that those who can’t, teach.
It was my husband who finally called bullshit one Sunday morning at the breakfast table. He had been gently nudging me for years, but I was never convinced that his admiration for my writing was inspired by anything other than love for the writer. He’s a scientist: a smart, talented, and very well-read man with a Master’s degree. How would he possibly know good writing when he saw it? That day, he shoved the Life section of the paper in my direction and jabbed with his index finger at a due date accompanied by a stylized fountain pen logo and submission guidelines for a fiction writing contest.
“All you have to do is send it. It’s a deadline. Finish something. Please.”
He had done this before, and was met with defensiveness, pleas for a sun-drenched study, reminders of the mountains of obligation and trivia. But this time–maybe it was life stage, or maybe I had simply run out of excuses–I listened. I finished a story that I’d started months before, and then I wrote another one, just for good measure.
I have been writing ever since, wherever and whenever I can. The wherever is usually in the wing chair in my bedroom; if I’m in here and the door is closed, my kids know not to interrupt me unless someone is bleeding. Sometimes I write sitting on the couch after dinner while my husband reads in the chair opposite me; we sip bourbon and rework sentences. Sometimes I write in my office. These days, it’s a cinderblock box with no windows and a fire door, but it’s all mine. A few days ago, I wrote the ending to a story that I had been struggling with while standing at the kitchen counter and barking orders at my kids. I knew that if I didn’t get it down right then, it would leave me. When I can steal the time to write in real seclusion, I have a coffee shop that I favor. The decor is sort of hideous, but there are lots of power outlets and they brew their coffee by the cup. Over my holiday break, I got in the habit of meeting a couple of other writers at a Panera near the mall. I could write a screed about my loathing of chain dining establishments and retail destinations, but all that matters is that the company is good. I like to hear my friends’ keyboards clicking, and sharing word counts with them every hour or so. It keeps me honest.
Now it’s a few days later, a snow day in the middle of the week. I’m in my wing chair. It’s found time, to be sure, but uninterrupted it is not. Snow days mean endless disruptions: the kids beg to make cookies; I field phone calls to reschedule appointments and carpools; I try to catch up on grading. It is late afternoon before I sit down to write, but the carpool that would usually interrupt my day has been cancelled, so the time finally presents itself. Everything outside my window is silver. The sky has been dark grey all day, but the trees shimmer in their new skins. More ice is on the way. Here is where I write.