Where I write

Posted by on Jul 17, 2010 in Brian's Blog | 0 comments

If they ask me, I will do it, of course, especially if they want me to do it for money. If the editors of a magazine or newspaper want me to write a piece about the place where I work, I will be happy to comply: it’s what used to be the master bedroom of  a smallish two-bedroom condo, which I quickly claimed for myself when I discovered it was the largest upstairs room in the house. I didn’t want to work in the basement, because that smacked of being sentenced to life in a dungeon. I moved up my desk, my computer, and my books before my wife had an opportunity to object, and now here I sit, happily scribbling away, only vaguely aware of the unremitting sounds of hammering and sawing that mark the ongoing transformation of my Calgary inner-city neighbourhood from a sleepy community of Second World War bungalows into a trendy habitat for people who make a lot more money than freelance writers.

OK, so that’s where I write, but why would anyone want to know all this? I ask the question when I look at today’s edition of The Globe and Mail, and see that  George Fetherling works in a “miniscule” home office adjoining a larger room in his house filled with books. Any surprise there? Not to me. All writers fill up their available flat surfaces with books. Sure, we can Google like anyone else, but we also like to dig through the stacks in our home libraries to reconnect with old friends. So that’s where I left that book of modern Irish short stories with that wonderful preface by Anthony Burgess: “Any man, whatever his nationality, has a right to admire and to propagandize for Irish literature, but it helps if he possesses Irish blood or a mad capacity for empathizing with Ireland …” What a wonderful way with words that Englishman had.

As a writer, and a reader, I am interested to know about the books George Fetherling  keeps around him for inspiration and pleasure. They would not necessarily be my choices, but then why should they? The books that inform George’s writing are different from the books that influence me, and that’s only as it should be. We write very different kinds of books. His latest is a novel about Walt Whitman. Mine is an autobiography-in-progress.

But is the reading public really interested in where we work? Is this something that engages the attention of Globe and Mail subscribers? I can understand why a publication such as Write, the magazine of The Writers’ Union of Canada, or WestWord, the magazine of the Writers Guild of Alberta, regularly features pieces from writers describing the places where we work. We all want to know what works best for our colleagues. Does a nice view out the window help or hinder the creative process? For me, I prefer to keep the blinds drawn.  No distractions, I say. Others seem to be stimulated by the sights of trees, flowers, passing elk, or great bodies of water. I like a window but it has to be screened. To each our own.

I haven’t seen any comments yet on George’s piece. I’m a bit surprised by that, because I felt sure there would be at least a few readers out there — aside from his fellow writers — who would like to know a bit about his reading habits. But I didn’t think they would want to know about the room itself; this “place of sun and silence” where he does his reading and writing. Their interest, surely, would be in the end results, not in how they were achieved.

The one thing we do all need, most writers would agree, is an isolated place where we can be alone with our thoughts. But I look at some of those places, and I can’t say many of them would help my writing. Harry Bruce describes a few of them in his book, Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers. Raymond Carver, for example, says he did his best writing in his car, on a pad propped on his knee. David Bergen, the Winnipeg novelist, did the same. Where did they spread out their pages? Across the dashboard? Along the back seat? No thanks. I’ll settle for the big brown wooden desk I bought for a pittance when the Calgary Herald moved from downtown to its current location near the intersection of Deerfoot and Memorial.

William S. Burroughs, Maya Angelou and Susan Sontag did their writing in hotel rooms, ordering up room service whenever they got hungry. That would appeal to me, but I don’t think any granting agencies in Canada would fund such extravagances. Erskine Caldwell wrote on night boats between Boston and New York, thinking “the rhythm of the water might help my sentence structure a little.” A nice, romantic idea but, again, where did he spread out his research? Or, more to the point, where would I spread out my research. A nonfiction writer always has to be surrounded by research. If you don’t have the fixings, you can’t make the meal.

My book-lined upstairs office provides me with the perfect space for thinking and writing. If I want to shut out the world, I close the door and draw the blinds. It’s my most compelling reason, as I have often said, for never wanting to go back and work in a crowded newspaper office again. But it’s not the only place where I write. I write everywhere, in the shower, on the bus, in the supermarket produce department, and at my Tai Chai class. Writers are always writing, in our heads when not putting pen to paper. I almost never take the music  iPod with me when I go for a walk, because it would interrupt my writing. I wrote the first part of his blog post in my office, on my computer, with a copy of Harry Bruce’s book close at hand. I wrote this last bit, in my head, during a casual morning stroll around the neighbourhood. So there you have it; that’s where I write. But I don’t expect anyone, apart from fellow writers to be really interested in this.

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Copyright 2010 Brian Brennan - Author

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