Are you holding it fast?
Tunes for a Monday Morning

What makes a good writing day?

Dylan Thomas' Boathouse in Laughame, Wales

Inside Dylan Thomas' BoathouseDylan Thomas' writing hut, The Boathouse, in Laugharne, Wales

Tracy Chevalier:

"A good day? I get up, I wake my teenage son up, we have breakfast, and he leaves at 8. That’s the cue for me to go to my office. My writing life has shifted slightly over the years, but what works best for me now is if I start writing immediately. I’ll check my email to make sure there’s nothing I need to deal with right away, then I read what I’ve written the day before. That jolts me into continuing. Ideally, the day before I’ve left a little bit left in the tank, so to speak. Not like Graham Greene — he used to write 500 words a day, and if the 500th word was in the middle of a sentence, he’d stop. I’m not that bad, but what’s really useful is to have a little left that you haven’t quite gotten down on paper. Then I can use that in the morning to get started. A lot of times, if the writing goes well, I’ll be done by 10. Sometimes I’m still working at 6. It depends on what I come up against."

James MacBride:

"I get up around 4:30 or 5 at the latest. I usually go until I get tired, until about 9 or 10. Then I quit and monkey around. That monkeying around could be anything: research, working out, paying bills, flossing my teeth…I have a whole array of delaying behaviors that usually don’t kick in until 9 or 10. At 5 in the morning I’m too sleepy to do anything but try to think about what I was last working on. My mind is clearer. Through the day sometimes I’ll practice music. I push through the day, get my son to school. Then after dinner, 7 or 8, I’ll have a go at writing again, if I’m really deep into it.

"I can write anywhere. I was on the train this morning writing. I usually write the first few pages longhand. I used to write a lot longhand. I still write my first 20-30 pages longhand. Then I move to the computer, or I’ll type it — I still use a typewriter, too. I used to use a typewriter a lot more. I needed it early in my career. The computer makes you rewrite and just hit the 'insert' key. The insert key is deadly for a writer. You really have to push forward, know you’re going to discard and rewrite everything. Man, I rewrite everything. Even emails I rewrite."

Robert Stephen Hawker's hut, Morwenstow< Cornwall

The view from Hawker's hut

Above: Hawker's Hut, built by poet Rpbert Stephen Hawker (1803-1875) near Morwenstow, Cornwall.
Below, a writer's hut built by poet Robert Duncan (1919-1988), also near Morwenstow.

Robert Duncan's writing hut

Inside Robert Duncan's writing hut

Emma Donohue:

"A day like today started around 4 in the morning, because often my kids wake me by yowling in their sleep. Then I’m bolt upright, wide awake, so I figure I might as well use that time in the middle of the night, so I hop up and do a bit of work. More typically I would get the kids off to school around 8:30, then I rush to my computer. I wish that what followed was actual writing. That would be bliss. But I admit that I first make my way through a fast-growing undergrowth of business....

"I know you’re supposed to do the writing first and leave the administrative stuff for later in the day, but I can’t see my way clear to do the writing until I’ve answered those wretched new emails. When I think back to when I had infinite time to write, before we had kids, I don’t think I did my best writing first thing in the morning. I need to warm up. Maybe in fact, by devoting the first hour of the day to silly business, I’m saving the better creative time for later. But sometimes the 'business' takes all day; I look up and it’s already 4, and I have to rush off to the bus stop to pick up the children."

Louise Erdrich:

"I don’t like getting up early, but I do because of school — driving my daughter to school is a good thing about my day. When I get back, either I walk/run our dog or go straight upstairs and sit down in the same chair I’ve had since 1981 — just the right arm height for a board to lay across and then I can sit there and write. A friend upholsters this chair every fifth year, and it is currently covered in red mohair velvet. My cousin’s quilt drapes the back of the chair. I am sort of obsessive about having things around me from my family — these objects pop up in the books."

George Bernard Shaw's rotating writing hut in Hertfordshire

Inside George Bernard Shaw's writing hutGeorge Bernard Shaw's writing shed in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire. (It rotated to catch the best sunlight.)

Jane Goodall:

"The only time I have for writing is when I’m back home in England, in the house I grew up in, where all my things are, my books. Many times, I’ve got to try to get a lot of writing done in just, maybe, five days. That means setting the alarm for five o’clock. Desperately writing until breakfast, going back to write again. Always taking an hour off to spend with the dog. And in the evening I spend time with my sister — we own the house together and she lives in it with her family. Then I sometimes have to go back and write late into the night. It’s a very stressful way to write, high and edgy."

Mia Jian:

"Flora and I have four young children, so I write late into the night — the only time our home is silent. At three in the morning, I usually collapse on the narrow bed in my study, but am often woken a couple of hours later by one or both of our 3-year-old twins, who like to waddle down from their room and climb on top of me. At 8, I make pancakes for the children, then sleep again until 11. This is when the day really begins. I make myself a cup of tea, sit at my desk, phone my friends in Beijing, read for a while, then start thinking about what I am going to write."

Lev Grossman:

"I can’t write every day. I’m a binger. I like to go six or seven hours at a time, without a break, then go off somewhere and drink something."

Virginia Woolf's writing shed at Monks House in Sussex

Inside Virginia Woolf's writing shedVirgina Woolf's writing shed at Monk's House in Rodmell (near Lewes), Sussex

Margaret Atwood:

"I’d be lucky to have a morning routine! But let’s pretend…. I’d get up in the morning, have breakfast, have coffee, then go upstairs to the room where I write. I’d sit down and probably start transcribing from what I’d [hand]written the day before.... I don’t think there’s anything too unusual about [my study], except that it’s full of books and has two desks. On one desk there’s a computer that is not connected to the internet. On the other desk is a computer that is connected to the internet. You can see the point of that!"

Nicholson Baker:

"When I’m rewriting, and it’s progressing, I begin breathing audibly through my nose. I like to proofread in noisy restaurants, with my glasses off, staring close at the type. I love the feeling of sealing up a FedEx envelope — that soft, cool fibrous Tyvek bending around the corner of a block of page proofs — and sending it off. Lately, working on Traveling Sprinkler, I’ve been writing in the car, so what I see is whatever is out the windshield — usually leaves, other cars, fireflies. The dashboard is the desk, complete with coffee stains."

Vita Sackville-West's writing tower at Sissinghurst Castle

Inside Vita Sackville-West's writing towerVita Sackville-West's writing tower at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent

Khaled Hosseini:

"I find that writing a first draft is very difficult and laborious. It is also often quite disappointing. It hardly ever turns out to be what I thought it was, and it usually falls quite short of the ideal I held in my mind when I began writing it. I love to rewrite, however. A first draft is really just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and color. Writing for me is largely about rewriting. It is during this process that I discover hidden meanings, connections, and possibilities that I missed the first time around. In rewriting, I hope to see the story getting closer to what my original hopes for it were.

"I write while my kids are at school and the house is quiet. I sequester myself in my office with mug of coffee and computer. I can't listen to music when I write, though I have tried. I pace a lot. Keep the shades drawn. I take brief breaks from writing, 2-3 minutes, by strumming badly on a guitar. I try to get 2–3 pages in per day. I write until about 2 p.m. when I go to get my kids, then I switch to Dad mode."

Roald Dahl's writing hut

Inside Roald Dahl's writing hutRoald Dahl's writing hut at Gipsy House in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire

Karen Russell:

"I try to write 1000 words on a good day, about three pages. The reason for that amount, it feels right to me because most of the scenes I write are 3000-4000 words long. Not always, but on average. That means that I get 3-4 days per scene, which is good, because sometimes I’ll read it and feel — I feel different on different days, so it means I won’t have just one tone per scene. I have several different cracks at it.

"I’ll often be in the middle of writing and realize I don’t know what I’m writing about. For instance, today I’ve been writing a scene about a man who’s grafting apple trees. So I have to stop and look at my notes about grafting. Just now I was thinking, I still don’t really understand this. I need to order a book at the British Library and go and read it tomorrow. That’s what happens as I go. So what I’ll do is write a basic part of the scene, but for the grafting bit…I’ll put down three stars. Three stars in a manuscript for me means there’s something missing, I have to go back and fill it out. I don’t want it to stop my writing flow, but I’ll leave it aside and do the rest of the scene without it, come back and fill it in later. That’s a good interruption. A bad interruption is when I can’t focus and I wind up fiddling around online, having lunch with a friend, or something like that. What I’m aiming for is that concentrated time of focusing."

Henry William Williamson's writing hut

Inside Henry William Williamson's writing hutThe writing hut in North Devon where naturalist Henry William Williamson wrote Tarka the Otter.

"I know many writers who try to hit a set word count every day," Russell continues, "but for me, time spent inside a fictional world tends to be a better measure of a productive writing day. I think I’m fairly generative as a writer, I can produce a lot of words, but volume is not the best metric for me. It’s more a question of, did I write for four or five hours of focused time, when I did not leave my desk, didn’t find some distraction to take me out of the world of the story? Was I able to stay put and commit to putting words down on the page, without deciding mid-sentence that it’s more important to check my email, or 'research' some question online, or clean out the science fair projects in the back for my freezer?

"For me, a good writing day is when I can move forward inside a story, because I take so much pleasure in tinkering with sentences that I often have to fight my own impulse to dither and revise in order to keep the momentum of the narrative going. So if I can move in a linear way through the story, and stay zipped inside the story, not jinx myself with despair or frustration or over-confidence or self-consciousness, and be basically okay with not-knowing what is going to happen from one sentence to the next, that’s a great writing day. Writers are such excellent self-saboteurs, though. I swear, I can hijack my own writing day in a hundred ways — I can eject myself from a story because I’ve decided it’s 'going good.' There’s this excruciating aspect of joy, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, where you almost want to interrupt it. For me, the experience of losing myself in a character can feel intolerably wonderful. So I’ve decided that the trick is just to keep after it for several hours, regardless of your own vacillating assessment of how the writing is going....

"Showing up and staying present is a good writing day."

Michael Pollan's writing cabim in Vermont

Michael Pollan's writing cabin

Inside Michael Pollan's cabinMichael Pollan's wrote a book about building this writing hut: A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams.

Jodi Picault:

"On a shelf above my computer are five letters that spell out W-R-I-T-E. Just in case I forget why I’m there."

Neil Gaiman's writing Gazebo, spring

Neil Gaiman's writing gazebo. Minnesota

Inside Neil Gaiman's writing gazeboNeil Gaiman's writing gazebo, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Comments

Lots of sheds, a boat-house, some cabins and a gazebo. But best of all A TOWER!!! An honest to goodness tower!!! Of course there was someone who built a replica of a church to write in, which is pretty impressive, but nothing beats a tower!

Tonight I've decided I'm going to dream of a Writing Tower in which there will be books, (of course), an endless supply of beer and other goodies and also a sumptuous desk, carved and be-leathered and filled with quills, and ink and pounce-pots. And there I shall write of worlds and the-ways-of-the-worlds as yet unknown and undreamt.

The reality is I have a small writing/picture-making table in the kitchen, and last night it rained, so cats have danced their mysterious and muddy minuets over the preliminary drawings I stupidly left out. But if I had a Writing Tower, The writing Dragon would guard my work, its scaly coils wound around my desk like a literary Ouroboros which no cat would dare pass.

I love the Tower!! And quite a few of the other places...so sweet. I'm sometimes envious that a writer's space can be small. My studio needs are larger, larger even than I have, but I love my space. Its keeps me making smaller paintings than I might.

It's a bit OT, to just mention the photos. But how lovely it is, for you to have gathered and shared these writing places, with us.

Tessa~

I loved this. I used to write in a treehouse but the tree was lost in a storm. I visited Monks House last week with my boys and could sense Virginia Woolf sitting at her desk in that lovely hut. The sun was shining and the atmosphere was perfect. Thank you for collecting these for us. Karen.

I love the idea of a computer not connected to the internet. Now, where is that old laptop of mine?

Such lovely post!

I'm unsure if I'm drooling or if it's just a metaphor for the hunger I feel deep in my guts for a little house set in nature to call my own. Certainly, anyone confined to an apartment in a city, with no access to out of doors but to walk out into the streets, take a bus or train to somewhere green and expansive will surely understand. Sighing...but grateful for the views here.

What a beautiful collection of images and "writing days!" Thank you! So many of the writing spaces were so welcoming, and somehow, familiar. The writing days also. So illuminating to see that it is never *easy*, that routine helps, that good days are about showing up and getting inside the story.

Speaking of writing places, you made the Mag Challenge -- Magpie Tales http://magpietales.blogspot.com/2014/04/mag-217.html

Oh, I could settle right into Virginia Woolf's writing shed...

I love this post and all the photos of these writing hideaways. I wish I had one. I like to think that if I had a space like this, I might be more productive and actually get writing done.

grand tour, i love robert duncan's hut and neil gaiman's so much (well, maybe it's the marvelous shepherd, too).

Thanks so much for letting me know! It's lovely that my photograph is being used as a source of inspiration.

It's interesting to see who is drawn to which spaces. I like Dylan Thomas's and Robert Duncan's especially (those water views!), and the tranquility of Virginia Woolf's. I wouldn't want Vita Sackville-West's tower, however, which is a little too grand, too far away from the earth for me! (I am clearly a peasant and not a princess.) Sun-lovers should pick George Bernard Shaw's, if they don't mind a minimalist work space -- it's actually designed to rotate along with the sun.

I'm content in own little hillside studio, thought, and wouldn't trade for any of these...which is a nice feeling. Robert Duncan's is utterly enchanting, but I'd be forever worried about Tilly falling over the cliff.

I'd love to have two computers one day, for just this reason.

There are lots of lovely, cozy urban workspaces in The Guardian's "Writers' Rooms" series: http://www.theguardian.com/books/series/writersrooms

In the first cottage I shared with my husband, right after we got married, my writing desk was a counter wedged between the back door and the washing machine. Yet somehow things got written there...don't ask me how!

I'm a fan of *big* desks, where I can have tidy piles for each project (since I rarely have the luxury of working on one thing at a time) and many books to dip into for inspiration -- which is what I had in both my pre-marriage houses, Devon and Arizona. Yet despite having a perfectly adequate desk now, I mostly work on a tiny table by the studio sofa so that Tilly can cuddle up beside me.

The things we do for our animals....

I agree. I like small, cozy writing rooms, but a studio needs space.

Isn't Monks House inspiring? Did you go to Charleston too? The first time I went, I stepped across the threshold and burst into tears...I was just so moved to see a house in which every surface had been turned into art, yet all of it so scruffy and liveable too. I'm absolutely fascinated by Vanessa Bell, and wish I could have known her.

Makes me miss my Quail Hut.

Thanks so much for putting this beautiful photos and words together.

I've been meditating on writer's space a lot since I joined my husband in Wales from Florida with our small son. In some ways its easier: having a second parent and a companion to keep me company. But in other ways, it's harder, because I don't have the house to myself with only the semi-mute toddler, who is more like the birds of nature than what you'd think of typical human companionship--unobtrusive, even in his childish needs. But with my husband it's different. Harder sharing space. I've thought for the first time in ages about A Room of One's Own. We only have a small flat and next to no money, so I'm thinking about getting second-hand table for the back room and making that my "studio."

Other than that, I've been taking inspiration from your wood-walks and going on long, meandering walks myself, with just a pen and paper or notebook in toe. I'm much more suited to the British climate than the Florida one.

But gosh, someday I would love to build a writing hut. That's part of my far-away dream of living in a cottage in the Snowdonia where I keep sheep and homeschool my seven children and bring the liminal seasons in with bonfires and medieval saints.

Hi Terri, I've sent you an email about this post, please could you check it out and get back to me. Many thanks.

Angela, I haven't gotten it. Can you re-send?

I can relate to the kind of adjustment that you're striving to make now, having been used to living on your own (or, rather, without another adult in the house). During the 18 years before my marriage, I lived alone for six months a year (here in Devon) and shared a winter house with a woman friend for many years in Arizona. She's a writer too, and as quiet and introspective as me, so our daily rhythms fit together fairly naturally. After marriage, however, it was suddenly all completely different! A smaller house (I'd been used to so much space!), a husband who works in physical theatre (*not* the quiet rhythms of a writer!)...and then, to top it off, we suddenly became full-time parents soon after the wedding. (No, not a pregnancy, not at my age! Howard's daughter came to live with us unexpectedly.) And then we took on a dog as well...all in a tiny, tiny house.

I wouldn't trade my current family for anything...(and I don't refer to Victoria as "Howard's daughter" anymore either; she's both of ours, and goes by the combined name of Windling-Gayton)...but it has taken me years to figure out how to be a writer, wife, parent, and daughter-in-law (Howard's mum lives here in Chagford) all at the same time. Perhaps because I'd spent so much of my adult life being just one of those things.

When Howard was away for six weeks recently, and I had the house to myself for the first time since we got married (our daughter is in university in London now), I fell right back into my older single-person rhythms, and it felt as natural as breathing. I got a lot done, which was glorious, but I also missed my family. So my question is now: how does one combine the best of those two states....? Particularly in a vivid, theatrical family where a quieter temperament like mine can be easily overwhelmed.

I keep meaning to order a copy of this film, which looks intriguing: http://www.whodoesshethinksheis.net/
Have you seen it?


Awww....

Here's a picture of you in our beloved Endicott West Quail Hut. Yes, you're there, sitting at the writing desk inside the door...just look hard into the shadows, and you're there.

http://windling.typepad.com/.a/6a00e54fcf7385883401a73d6b9ae1970d-pi

I'd be very surprised if you haven't seen this, Terri, but there's a wonderful video in which Laurie Halse Anderson talks about how her writing hut was constructed.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxNkZzKmJl4

(In the absence right now of a real writing hut, I'm grateful for the virtual one you provide here on your site!)

Okay, I've forwarded a copy to TheEndicottStudio at gmail dot com.

Oh, Terri!! I started to cry! I _want_ to see this, but maybe when I'm feeling a little less vulnerable!

I often wonder where I would be in my vocation if I had waited 18 years before getting married and had all that time to write. But I don't regret being a mother, not for all the world, and I believe that my passion and imagination enrich my son's life . . . I love that I can be a writer and work from home and still be present to him. I tell him when I'm on the computer or writing, "Mama's working," and some day he'll get to see and (I hope) appreciate the work that I'm doing and know that it owes as much to him as it does to me!

But the outside world is very judging of the woman pursuing her dreams, and I'm not at all a the traditional feminist, so I'm not even especially sensitive to it. But I remember reading an article floating somewhere on the net about how women creatives were expected to be cleanly, while men weren't. That was quite a dagger in the chest to me, because I've often been criticized by family for my tendency to forgo chores and what other people see as "important" for writing and making. And it's so true--if I were a dad trying to write with a messy house, people would just say, "Oh well, you know, he's trying to make a living for his family." But as a woman, I'm not given that benefit of the doubt.

This article, also, made me quake with recognition:
http://dappledthings.org/2732/the-mothers-vocation-and-the-writers-life/

My husband is not very sociable, but he is on the Autistic spectrum, so has zero understanding of the poetic pursuit, which is hard. I can't explain to him in a way that he'll understand why I HAVE to write and have to go off on my own sometimes, to journal, or walk, or whatnot. Once he told me, innocently enough, "You know you won't make any money writing poetry, right?" He didn't mean any harm but he couldn't understand why it made me so angry! So the writing hut/sanctuary sounds like just what the doctor ordered!

The comments to this entry are closed.