Last summer, the book project I was in the midst of was mapped out on a drafting table in my writing space: sheets of paper with lists and quotes, photographs and maps, excerpts from 19th century books on gold mining. Then, the old building I worked in underwent renovations and my wife had a baby.
The book, in its taped-up, mess-of-a-web version splayed out on the drafting table, was packed up into a wine box by some workers, and for the months that I spent at home on paternity leave it sat in a corner. Literal cobwebs appeared.
When I came back to the project, I had to find a new writing space, and once I did, I put the box on my hip like a baby and carried it inside, longing for the drafting table and Scotch tape of my old place.
I’ve talked to enough artists to know that I’m not abnormal—at least not among the abnormal artists that we are—in my finicky attachment to work spaces. I keep other work—reading student poems, sending stuffy emails—out of my writing space, as much as is humanly possible. I protect it, imagining being in it charges writing neurons my brain. So unpacking a couple years’ worth of work from a box in a new place was unsettling, both to me and to the book project.
This book is about the once-coded and still-racy diaries of my great-great-great-great grandfather (he wrote about his many sexual affairs, among other activities—gold mining, land surveying, execution witnessing—and he wrote them all in a code, expecting no one would ever read them; luckily—for me—a retired NSA analyst decoded them in the 1970s). I’ve been in the midst of research about 19th-century militia records and surveying tools and population trends, and yet, in this new work space—with all of my plans boxed up, and me coming off of a baby-filled hiatus—I found myself writing about fatherhood.
I didn’t expect a book about a 19th-century philanderer/farmer to become a book about my being a father. It’s a cliché, of course, that once you’re a parent, everything you touch becomes about parenthood. Yet, the more I let the new, empty space fill up my screen, the more connections that emerged between these new ramblings on fatherhood and the old writing on my ancestor’s complicated life.
When I’m inevitably asked that question every writer is asked after a reading—what is your writing process like?—I sometimes look back on my graduate-school self with longing. That guy, childless and jobless, wrote whenever the muse dropped down: in the middle of the night at home, early afternoons in coffee shops, avoiding other assignments in the library. Post-MFA, I realized I had to schedule writing time, had to carve out blocks on a calendar and affix myself to a chair, come hell or high water. My writing process became less about awaiting inspiration and more about putting in the time.
But the place in which I glue myself remains the one variable I allow myself to control. And in this variable, made of walls and light and sounds, I do find the muse working unexpected magic, if I’m attuned.
In my current writing life, I know that I can’t write a book like a nomad—drifting to different coffee shops and libraries every day. I have to stick stuff to the walls, have to talk aloud to myself. And yet, the exodus of my book materials has reminded me that an attachment to a place might limit me. Or, at least, it might narrow my vision so much that I’m unwilling or unable to follow seemingly disconnected ideas or narratives.
The takeaway, for me, is that I might get through rocky soil or stagnant waters within a writing project by simply relocating, by upsetting my reliance on the ambiance I’ve created. Some afternoons, when I’m stuck, I leave the notes and images, and take my laptop somewhere new. It’s unsettling—in all the right ways. Then again, this, too, may well be just another cliché: sometimes all you need is a change of scenery. So it’s possible that the real takeaway from this experience is simply that taking care of a baby has made me uncomfortably comfortable with clichés.
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