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Journal, Day One

By Janet Holmes

I am coming off a very quiet time, unusual for me. Classes begin tomorrow (we’re remembering Martin Luther King today), but for the past week I’ve been able to go to my office and work on the course I’ll teach on the “Objectivists” or work on Ahsahta Press business more or less undisturbed by the phone or by people dropping in with questions. At home, my husband and even my dog were out of town (together, thankfully). I am rarely so isolated with my own thoughts and behaviors as I’ve been this past week. Yet for all the time I spent on the deserted campus, I didn’t write any poetry there.

A friend, a successful novelist, tells me he knows of no writers who have done the work important to them, their poetry or fiction writing, in an English department office. (“I think they’re toxic places,” he said. He shuddered.) I can’t think of any either, though I know many people who seem to be able to write in any environment. Back in the eighties, Natalie Goldberg advised poets to write in cafés, in spiral notebooks with cartoon characters on the covers so as not to take themselves too seriously—or at least that’s what I remember from my reading of Writing Down the Bones back in the day. God knows, there are plenty of folks at just about any Starbucks anywhere with open laptops or pen and paper doing something. Most of them look as if they’ve blocked out the world, and I know the feeling of intense focus or concentration that accompanies such a look. I probably look like that when I’m writing, too—but in a café I’m hard pressed not to people-watch, eavesdrop on the non-absorbed, or visit with friends. Those activities may feed my writing at a later time or cause me to make a note on a napkin of something interesting or a turn of phrase, but actually working on a poem seems impossible in such an environment. Maybe I could blog there, but otherwise I don’t think I’d get anything done. My filters aren’t strong enough.

[An aside: I’m suspicious of talismanic writing aids like that cartoon-covered notebook. Hemingway, they say, required yellow pads, sharp pencils, and that famous stand-up desk to draft his novels. You don’t hear about many poets in that boat, requiring specific objects. The romance attached to the rolltop desk, fountain pen, Aeron chair, leather-bound book, seems empty and silly to me. I could write (and have) on the backs of receipts, paper bags, and the white spaces in newspaper advertisements, as long as I have a place to do it. And I have no trouble composing work on the computer.]

I write at home in one of four places: at my desk, in a book-cluttered soi-disant “office” in my house, on a laptop; in a favorite chair with pen and pad; at the dining-room table on a laptop; and propped up in bed with either laptop or pen. Each situation requires solitude, so I move to where the solitude is. Another friend, a painter, used to have a studio in his home, but he found it impossible not to be distracted by the movements of his partner elsewhere in the house, and to make things worse his dog insisted on following him back and forth when he, as is his habit, paced. So he rented space for a studio elsewhere. It’s an ideal solution for some writers, too; John Cheever, for instance, dressed himself as a businessman going to work, walked to his rented office, and wrote his stories and novels. I seem to recall that at one point, his office was in his basement, but his routine didn’t change; he dressed professionally, walked to the back of the house and down the stairs.

For many of us, writing environments make all the difference. I know of several writers whose situations allowed them to rent what one of them called his “fiction factory.” I don’t come from that side of the tracks (what were my parents thinking?), nor do most of my friends. We have to hunt.

When I was trying to work on my most recent book, I found my home office filled with Ahsahta Press business and grading, and having let these non-poetry specters take over my space, I had to find some way to banish them so I could work on my poems. I was just learning to balance the dual duties of running the press and teaching, while trying to maintain my family life. Where to work on my book? The office on campus was out (too busy), as was renting myself a place (too expensive). I didn’t like using the library at school because of the likelihood of running into friends or students who’d want to talk. A friend lit on an ideal solution: the law library in the Idaho Supreme Court building. Let me sing its praises: there are carrels with outlets and even a row of deposition rooms that are never completely in use, small white rooms with a desk-shelf along one wall, outlets for a laptop, and a door that closes. All citizens have access. There are no books that look remotely tempting. None of my students or colleagues frequents the place. It is quiet. [Cue “The Big Rock-Candy Mountain.” Cue choir of angels.] It was not only possible to work there, but I felt my mind eager to get to work every time I approached the row of rooms at the building’s far end.

Two friends of mine (each of considerably more means than I) have designed themselves writing spaces. Each was at the top of a house with big windows, nice views. Both had bookcases. Both had music systems. I don’t expect ever to have such a luxury, but if I were asked to design something for myself, a special place that facilitated my writing, I think that short of a room-size version of the Bose noise-canceling headphones I tried not long ago at an airport kiosk, it would be something like one of those deposition rooms. Businesslike chair. A wall-wide desk to spread things out on. Any great views, shelves packed with poetry books, or access to music would distract me from writing, not help me. I would be in procrastination heaven. The little white deposition room in the law library was not architecturally inspiring, but for a year it gave me a place to do what I desperately needed to do during a time when I had too much going on in my life. Having a place where I didn’t have to block out distractions made a huge difference.

This semester Al & I will have two visiting poets (married to each other) living with us, Ahsahta will be running its sixth annual contest, AWP will occur in Atlanta, and I’ll go on a book tour with Kate Greenstreet (whose book, case sensitive, was published by Ahsahta), all things I anticipate excitedly. I’ve got that “Objectivists” grad seminar. I have a manuscript to mail around. Maximizing my number of quiet places will be important, and I suspect I’ll be back at the Supreme Court building within, oh, a month.

I’m happy to respond to comments or questions—later this week I’ll be writing about my own process, directing Ahsahta Press, painting . . . and whatever comes up. But if this can be a conversation, so much the better.

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, January 15th, 2007 by Janet Holmes.