Pen to Paper


THIS WEEKEND is the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and I have friends descending, all eager to take part. However, I have a weekend of writing in front of me, so the next couple days will be about prioritizing and balance. I have been thinking a lot about the working-writer’s life a lot especially after reading Susan Straight’s wonderful essay for the L.A. Times about the perception of what the writer’s life is and the reality of trying to steal time between all else stacked up in front of you.

From her piece:

“I wrote the stories in my first book by hand, in these places: at the counter of the Mobil station where I worked in 1979, between customers, eating beef jerky and stale cashews out of the nut mix no one ever bought from the cloudy glass compartments beneath my notebook; sitting on a huge rock at the beach in Rosarito, Mexico, in 1983 after my husband fell asleep in the tiny hotel where we spent our two-night honeymoon, writing in my notebook; sitting at a card table in married student housing in 1984 in Amherst with the small blue Smith-Corona my mother had given me for high school graduation . . . ”

Back in college, when I was first beginning to think of myself as a writer, I worked in a bookstore. Nightly, after our brisk pre-dinner rush and between cash-register duties, I would write on yellow pads until we closed at 9PM. During the day, I often wrote through my geography or philosophy class lectures (an idea springing up, rolling into something else) or would steal some time in a secret corner library carrel near a window before I met friends for dinner. I too always wrote in longhand. Even years later when I was writing full time for a newspaper, I sometimes scratched out ideas for a story or an essay on the hard cardboard covers of my reporter’s notebook. While I was teaching, I carried an extra slim composition-style book just to set down dialogue or an observation — fragments of things that I hoped might grow into stories — fiction or essays or something in between.

The longhand notes and paragraphs symbolized something separate, a different creative trail, a different purpose.

One of the most valuable writing workshops I ever took wasn’t in graduate school. It was an after-work session with a poet who explained at the outset that you create a “writer’s retreat” when you create the space within your crowded day to write. Only we could do it. Only we could honor that time. That was nearly 20 years ago, and I’ve thought about it ever since. I’ve written in hospitals, in movie theaters before the lights have dimmed, at the mechanic — marooned between places. And yes, even in my car — like Susan Straight.

Her piece was an essential reminder that that “room” is really inside of you. You simply find a way — and space — to write.

You must.

To read the rest of Susan’s essay go here.


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