The Portable Writer

by David Ebenbach

I’m writing this article inside a closet. I don’t mean that metaphorically, either—I recently moved with my family into a cozy two-bedroom apartment, and the only space we can realistically designate for an office is this closet I’m in. It’s a large one—five feet by five feet—but it’s a closet all the same; it’s got hooks, blank white walls, and a bar for hanging clothes, and it doesn’t have windows or personality. It may sound like a cell—and it is, a little—but so far it’s working out just fine. To be honest, I’m not surprised; I knew it would be okay. I’ve moved a fair amount in my adult life, and one thing all that moving has taught me is that a writer has to be flexible about where he or she works.

As a teacher, I often I run into beginning writers who are anything but flexible. They tell me that they have to write in a certain nook in the campus library; they need to have a certain kind of music on; they can only write after two o’clock in the morning; only on Sunday mornings; only in a marbleized journal; only when they’re very, very sad; et cetera. Usually they phrase it in a positive way: I’ve found the perfect spot to write in! I love writing when everyone else is asleep! But when I hear them talk I worry. What happens when someone else is using the nook? When they get tired of that music? When their journal falls in the river and the local store only has spiral bound, college-ruled? What happens when their life circumstances change, as they inevitably will?

Now, there is something to be said for ideal conditions. When I’ve been lucky enough to get to write at artist colonies—the MacDowell Colony and the Vermont Studio Center—I’ve certainly noticed how much easier it is to be productive when you have your own well-designed studio space, when you’re surrounded by great writers and artists doing work of their own, when you have no responsibilities all day aside from writing, and when someone else is cooking your meals and washing your dishes. Without a doubt I recommend going after any such opportunities if you can. But these opportunities are short-term—they generally last a couple of weeks or a month—and are not an option for most people’s year-round writing life.

Even if you manage to set up something pretty great in your own home, something you can maintain year-round—a nice room with all your favorite things around you, and a block of time just before dinner, say—you can be pretty sure that you’ll have to deal with significant changes at some point. You might move, or find yourself pressed to do something else with your space, or face shifts in your daily schedule or responsibilities or any of a number of other things. Or you might find it hard to set up something so great in the first place. And then, facing upheaval or just the less-than-ideal, what do you do?

When my circumstances have changed, my writing habits have changed with them, by necessity. As a single person, I wrote late into the night, but doing that as a married person would mean going to bed at a different time from my partner. Until parenthood, I could count on regular, uninterrupted writing time, and now I have to seize any random chunk of time that comes my way. Taking on new jobs has meant new schedules and new work pressures. And yes—before our recent move, I had a big office all to myself, and now I just don’t have that kind of space. Through all these changes I’ve made sure to find a way to keep working.

After all, as I always tell my students, there’s only one secret to being a writer: you just have to write. Think about it: “Writer” is the noun form of the verb “to write”—so, we are defined, in this respect, not by who we are but by what we do. And if we stop being able to do it because the situation isn’t ideal, we’re in trouble.

Luckily, as I’ve discovered, it’s possible to write under all kinds of conditions. Over the years, the space I’ve called my “office” has variously been a corner of a bedroom or living room or dining room, a regular room unto itself, a basement, or even a neighborhood coffeehouse. I’ve also written in Laundromats, hospital lobbies, and libraries; on trains, at bus stops, in the passenger seat during a car pool to work; on park benches and on the scaffolding for a mural that a friend was painting; in familiar places and places I’d never been to before. I’ve written when I was sad and when I was happy and when I was bored out of my mind. I’ve done it while working a nine-to-five, while not working much, and while on an academic schedule. I’ve written late at night and early in the morning and every other time of day as well. And the take-home message is that I could point to many, many particular pieces of writing that just wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t been able to be flexible in these ways and more.

Of course, it’s one thing to say that you’ve got to be flexible and it’s another thing to actually be flexible. How’s it done?

If the issue is change, certainly a loss of familiarity or predictability can be tough. If you’re used to writing under certain conditions, your muse might not know to show up when the conditions are different. For that reason, it can be helpful to bring some familiarity and routine to your new environment. Maybe there’s a picture that hung in front of you in your old workspace that can be put up in your new one; maybe your habitual music can come with you, via earbuds, on the subway, so you can scrawl between stops; maybe there’s a pre-writing ritual—calisthenics or coffee or an offering to the gods—that you can repeat no matter where you are. All of these things are a kind of signal to the muse—or, better yet, a change-of-address notice; you’re updating the muse on where your work’s going to be happening that day so that you can be sure to meet up.

You can also try to create not just the familiar but also something like the ideal. What are the features that make a writing space or writing time especially productive for you? If you like things to be quiet and serene, it makes sense to hunt down the quietest and most serene place you can, or bring some white noise into the place you’ve got. If you work best when everyone else is asleep and the night is no longer available, try the early morning. If you thrive amidst noise and activity, you might need to get out of the house. If the issue is chores, let them slide when you need to write or leave the house to get away from them or, if they’re just going to weigh on your mind until they’re done, do them quickly before you sit down at your desk (or wherever). The point is that, if you’re thoughtful about what it is that helps you to write, you might be able to bring at least some of that to your new or less-than-ideal situation.

Meanwhile, writers ought to put a little active effort into embracing whatever circumstances they’re facing; it’s good for the work. One nice thing about shifts in circumstance is that a change of scenery (and time, and mood, and so on) can usefully inform the content and form of a person’s writing, whereas a static routine can make your work static, too. If you always write after everyone’s asleep, for example, maybe you’ll find that your work always ends up showcasing nighttime sounds and sensations and feelings. There’s nothing wrong with the night, but I wouldn’t want to be limited to it. New situations, on the other hand, can bring new imagery, settings, ideas, and more. The rhythms of a train in motion can show up in your poetry; a Laundromat gives you an entirely different set of sensory inputs than a coffeehouse does; writing out of anger obviously produces different work than writing out of calm. Anything that’s new or unusual has the chance to show up productively in the work.

And what’s the alternative? If we refuse to write under anything but perfect or perfectly familiar conditions, we probably won’t spend much time writing. What I’m suggesting is that we don’t have to be slaves to what we consider “ideal” circumstances. Instead we can hold up this goal: to strive not for certain rigid circumstances but to be writers who can get their work done when the situation is new, unfamiliar, or awkward. In other words, we should strive to be portable writers—writers you can take just about anywhere.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.