Friday, June 28, 2013

Where and how to write when you can't be ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’

Writer and professor Ellen Tsagaris is the author of "Writer as Researcher" in the MWC Creative Writing
Dr. Ellen Tsagaris
Primer
 (MWC Press, 2012). She is also a blogger, doll curator and a lifelong poet. She has written over sixty articles and two study guides/texts. Sappho, I should have listened is a chapbook of her poetry, and she is also the author of The Subversion of Romance in the Novels of Barbara Pym (1998, Popular Press) and A Bibliography of Doll and Toy Sources (American dollmuseum.org, 2011). Last year, she served as editor for The Legend of Tug Fest and other LeClaire Ghost Stories (918studio, 2012).   @DrEsDollMuseum

It was about six years ago, and I was trying to enter a writing contest, and a very scholarly one at that.  It had to do with Virginia Woolf's A Room of Ones' Own, a piece I knew like the back of my hand.  The contest called for lesson plans based on Room; easy!  Right!  Wrong!  Though I had taught, read, studied, written about, viewed, and reviewed Room dozens of times, my mind went blank.  I couldn't come up with anything, and got cold and hot at the same time just thinking about it. This wasn't just a case of writers block; it was mind block.  I had forgotten everything.  THE ROUTINE as I called the daily grind for me had eaten up my writing capabilities.  Why?  I thought I was washed up, done, before I'd even started.  My unfinished manuscripts called to me; I couldn't answer.  I looked around at the "writing stations" I had tried to carve out for myself, the bedroom desk piled with reference books, the living room computer station, my trusty lap desks, the writing board I used at my parents, even my old 386 computer.  Nothing called to me.  It was a challenge  trying to get the correct writing atmosphere.  Then it hit me; I needed just to write.  Anywhere.  On anything.  There was no magic room, or pen.  Like many writers, I dreamed of being The Madwoman in the Attic, with my own vintage roll top desk, and a laptop, and file cabinets for all my carefully sorted manuscripts.  My pencils would always be sharp, but the sharpener would never be far behind.  I would have inspirational  words written all over the attic, the way Anne Rice wrote words on her study walls in the house on First Street.  I would have writing costumes, my first editions and signed books nearby, my reference books and dissertation research all handy.  And, if this fantasy really took hold of me, I would never write because I’d never have the necessary space and props.
I took Woolf's title too much to heart; she didn't literally mean a "room.”  She meant finding time to write and the courage to seize the moment.

So I took a page from Barbara Pym's book, and like her, I started to carry around little notebooks for ideas.  I wrote words I liked, ideas, character sketches.  Sometimes I taped in things I cut out.  I started stories and novels.  I keep these little books and go back to them.   They keep me from losing good thoughts and ideas.  If I really don't have a little book handy, I jot notes in calendars, on margins, on scraps I tear off of envelopes and napkins, and on Post Its.  I tend to keep my Post Its, usually in pretty tins.  I've put them together like puzzles to create entire essays, sort of a literary Mah Jong. 
The little notes helped. So did getting my Netbook, pink and cute as it is.  Now, I could write anywhere, and I do.  I make my inspiration and materials portable.  I like to write outside on my patio on quiet days, when it is cool enough to be comfortable but sunny enough to see.  I write on a wooden TV tray in my living room, surrounded by all my books, collections, family photos and things I love.  Sometimes, when it is very hot, I go downstairs to the carpeted hallway of my basement, and set up said TV tray and my favorite green camp chair.  It  is a good place to edit, and to find solitude.  I write in cafes and coffee houses; usually I work on longer projects there, and maybe bookmark Internet research.  Libraries are OK; but I'm usually there to do research, or to browse their salesrooms.  It seems harder to concentrate in libraries for me.  I could only study productively in my law school library. To this day, I couldn't say why.

I  work on several projects at once; I read for one, edit one, research for one, write a draft, write a chapter.  This keeps me fresh, and sometimes one project informs another, or reminds me of what I need to do an another.  Because my mind is occupied with new and various things, I don't get stuck or bored.
I also blog.  Some writers warn us away from blogging; they say it is a way to waste time, when we should be turning out a manuscript.  For me, it is a warm up exercise.  My ideas are born in blogs; some are tried out as excerpts on my blogs.  I also like to read blogs to get ideas;  sources may need to be checked, but the writing is fresh, honest, written by someone who cares.  Blogs give me confidence.  I can see who is reading them, and as the number of viewers grows, so does my sense of accomplishment.

So, I write everywhere.  When I can.  On a lot of things.  The world is now my "room."  That dreamy space in the attic?  If I ever get it, I'll use it for sleeping.
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