Sunday, November 23, 2014
On the Couch or...in the Coffin
So many writers swear by a special working spot where their creative juices flow effortlessly and abundantly, where their inspiration streams unabashed and the keys of their computers can never match the flying speed of their fingers. Some ensconce themselves in the noisy innards of coffee shops, while others prefer the serene quiet of a farthermost corner of a library (hellooo noise-cancelling headphones!), many require the rigid severity of a neatly organized desk, while many more do their best work lounging in their yet-unmade beds. The common thread marking these very different individuals as a kind of literary kin is their propensity to link their best creative moments to a place. A place which channels the drafts of new ideas, a place which commands the muses. A place too fantastical to truly exist.
I have always thought such stories tall tales in the vein of finding Shangri La, or the end of the rainbow, or the fountain of youth, in other words, all those amazingly blessed places rumored to exist at the crossing of the earth's ley lines, or on the bottom of a wishing well, or in an underground cavern of a crafty, green-bearded leprechaun. Always so conveniently out of reach.
So I resisted the temptation of a perfect writing spot, buckled down and wrote. Surprisingly, I found writing was a discipline that could be trained and honed, much like playing an instrument, riding a bike, or -- yes -- sleeping. I remembered my grandmother's stories of working night shifts as an emergency room surgeon on call. Over the years, she had developed an uncanny ability to sleep whenever and wherever she could and would fall into a deep slumber in a matter of seconds. Day or night. I tried to use her example as a model for my writing. Whenever and wherever. Writing became something that had to be done. A pleasure, but also a task. I wrote on the planes, in the trains, on a France-to-Ireland ferry abling across stomach-churningly choppy waters, while cooking, hiking, shopping and even during a friend's performance of La Traviata.
I still heard echoes of those tales. But, despite being a fantasy geek, I never gave them any thought. Never believed in them. (There's a limit to gullibility even for someone who writes about sentient feathers.) That is, until I discovered a magical spring of creative prowess right in the center of my own living room (now lovingly referred to by my family members as the writing couch). That writing couch, you guys, it's a thing of pure poetry. I kid you not.
It's uncanny, how such mundane a thing as a piece of furniture -- and not a new or imposing one at that -- can make you sink into your inner world, only to emerge with a wealth of ideas. As soon as I plop down on the now much-deflated cushions, the ideas surge. They stampede! Inelegantly, but eagerly. My shabby writing couch works the kind of miracles my good and proper desk could never manage on its (and mine) best days. I suspect that it may, in fact, be standing on the very crossing of the ley lines and rainbow tails or spilling over into a mystical land of whispering muses and wish-granting leprechauns. Whatever magic hides behind its cushions, it works. Of course, it does so in its own, capricious way; the ideas never follow my writerly will, preferring to flutter down the tangling, meandering routes of their own choosing. Which is okay. I am patient and can wait until our paths converge in a synergy of creativity and purpose. I can wait as long as it takes. Or, at least, as long as there's coffee in my cup and sugar in my system. (Or, definitely, as long as a toothy, weary leprechaun grudgingly keeps tossing patinaed wishing coins in the well of my inspiration.)
Sometimes when I find myself jotting ideas on the go, thinking of my lonesome writing couch, I wonder why does a place have such an impact on the writing process. Because the connection cannot be denied. The late poet Robert Creeley once said, "The necessary environment is that which secures the artist in the way that lets him be in the world in a most fruitful manner." Creeley himself required a "very kind of secure quiet," or, as he put it, "I usually have some music playing, a kind of drone that I like, as relaxation." In a sense, a place becomes a key, able to unlock the writer's inner world. The irony of this is that the place ceases to matter, as soon as the writer walks across the threshold to his imagination.
Of course, not every author found inspiration while sitting at a desk, on a couch or in a chair. Many renowned story-tellers chose the most unconventional places as perches for their literary pursuits. Here are some of the more unexpected ones (from an article by Celia Blue Johnson):
Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita on notecards while traveling on butterfly-collecting trips in the U.S.
D.H. Lawrence preferred to write outdoors, beneath the shade of a tree. He found a trunk to lean against wherever he went, from pine trees in New Mexico to great firs in Germany’s Black Forest. Discussing his predilection, Lawrence noted, “The trees are like living company.”
Gertrude Stein discovered that the driver’s seat of her Model T Ford was a perfect place to write. Shopping expeditions around Paris were particularly productive for the writer. While her partner, Alice B. Toklas, ran errands, Stein would stay in their parked car and work.
Agatha Christie had two important demands for the renovation of her mansion. She informed her architect, “I want a big bath, and I need a ledge because I like to eat apples.” Christie constructed her plots in a large Victorian tub, one bite at a time.
Sir Walter Scott crafted “Marmion,” his bestselling epic poem, on horseback, in the undulating hills near Edinburgh, Scotland. Though one might assume a leisurely pace is necessary for creative concentration atop a horse, Scott preferred to contemplate the lines of the poem at a faster clip. “I had many a grand gallop among these braes when I was thinking of ‘Marmion’,” he recalled.
Dame Edith Sitwell had a ritual of lying down before she set pen to paper. Rather than reclining on a bed or a couch, though, she chose to climb into an open coffin. In those morbidly tight quarters, the eccentric poet found inspiration for her work.
Marcel Proust spent his nights writing in bed. However, the busy Parisian street outside his apartment window began to take its toll on his nocturnal routine: Noise drifted up to his room while he was trying to sleep during the day. Proust’s solution was to line the walls with cork, and it worked.
Now, what is your magical writing place?
Not a part of the list, just a fun fact: Margaret and H.A. Rey built bicycles from spare parts to escape from a Nazi invasion in Paris while carrying the manuscript for Curious George.