Sometimes you need to be not at home for a story to find you
It’s the last few hours for a giveaway Goodreads and BookClubbish are running for my next novel TRASHLANDS. Sign up to win one of 15 print, advanced reading copies of the book, which will be published in October.
I’ve set up the hammock in the backyard. It’s a small backyard, missing the huge expanse of grass and a mulberry tree that we had back home in Ohio. And it’s a small hammock, inexpensive and slung on a metal frame, a brand that my friends recommended. But the hammock makes the backyard, a fenced-in square to which we’ve added a table and chairs, a tiny grill, twinkling lights, and plants (both alive and fake) look different.
And it gives me a new place to write.
Sometimes writing is about getting away. For the first time since I was married in my early twenties, I have my own office in this house. It has a door that I can, in theory, close. (It does stick in the heat.) I write there most mornings, and having a space of my own has made a huge difference in my work.
But even if you live alone or only with a child, as I did for almost ten years; even if you have a home office, writing at home can be hard. What else is at home? The dishes that need to be washed, the floors that need to be swept, the bills that need to be paid. The mail: answered. The cat: fed. At home, all around you are the other, million big and small things that need doing, that you should be doing.
Few of us should be doing the writing that calls to us.
We should be doing our day jobs, making money, surviving, taking care of children or families. That’s immediate work, work that’s often drudgery but that right away, other people can tell if you’ve done: cleaned the hallway or swept the porch. No one will know for years if you get that book done. Your parent is not going to visit and know.
It’s why a lot of writers, me included, like to write at coffeeshops. Or hotels. Or friends’ homes. Or Airbnbs. Or artists’ colonies, I guess, though I’ve only been to one in my life.
Going away is not something I get to do very often. But being in a different space, a space without the obligations of taking care of a house, a job, and other people, even if you still have to cook for yourself, can help shake things loose in you.
Art is about change. It’s hard to create when everything is the same all the time all around you.
So, for the first time my child has been apart from me this whole pandemic (on a visitation with his bio dad), I went away alone for a few days, to a cabin up in the mountains my partner found for me.
But in the quiet rental cabin, I wrote the first, small chapter of a story I’ve been thinking about for awhile. Some details fell into place, and I had the space to start to think, work that I’ll continue doing.
Sometimes you need to take a step back from a painting to see it clearly, and the same is true of writing. Sometimes you need to be not at home for a story to find you.
What if, especially as the pandemic tightens its chokehold around us again, you can’t leave home?
Twinkling string lights can do a lot to make a space feel different. Like, a lot a lot. So can candles. A desk can fit in a closet. Maybe an old couch can live on your porch—or as my friend who is a poet did, you can turn your carport into an outdoor room. Can you get a cheap hammock?
Can you go somewhere unfamiliar even in a familiar place? A few weeks ago, when my son was at a sleepover, I watched a movie on his loft bed, and I was amazed at the view from up there: a high window that opened up to the trees above the street.
Now that I’m back in the hot city with email, freelance work that needs doing, an office that needs cleaning, do I wish I was back in the cabin with its dirt road of jackrabbits, so quiet it felt like I could hear the stars? Of course.
But writing is also about longing, thinking about the past more than the present, in my experience. You have to miss a place in order to write about it. You have to have been there. You have to want to get back. Maybe in your story, you can.