Writers are like cuckoos. (Writers often are cuckoo, but that's another column.) If they practise the vicarious business of journalism, they don't mind hatching other people's eggs. And if they write fiction, it's part of the job to pretend to be an entirely different sort of bird. Cuckoos will nest in someone else's nest. The migrant, borrowed life is the writer's life, too.
I know one writer who inhabited three different offices in the throes of finishing a book. His editor could tell by the quality of the ambient echoes whether he was calling in crisis from the basement one, from the tiny third-floor one, or perhaps a phone booth at Yonge and Bloor. The thing is, moving on from one space to another feels like progress, compared to the glacial momentum of book-writing.
The maestro of moving on, of course, is Leonard "I am a Hotel" Cohen. (That's what he called the video he made for his music. Mine would be called I am a Semi). From Montreal, he moved on to Crete, then to the Chelsea Hotel and assorted short-term harbours, to five years at a monastery on Mt. Baldy and back down to a modest house in a noncommittal corner of L.A. Where he's not home much. As a Buddhist, Cohen makes a habit of shedding things, and as an artist he only rents a room in the tower of song a hundred floors below (as he sings) Hank Williams.
Well that's all very well for Leonard Cohen, isn't it? I'm happy to make it as far as North Bay. I keep imagining that one day I'll organize the ideal writing spot, something with a long view across a blue lake, but the truth is that I prefer to write in other people's places. With some alarm, I realize that even though I have a (viewless) home office, I've scavenged, borrowed and babysat no fewer than six different work spaces over the past few years. Rented cabins, temporarily vacated homes of friends -- even the same tiny third-floor room used by the three-office guy, a space that is now becoming a shrine to deadline angst.
Basically, I love working wherever all signs of me have been erased. Stepping into someone else's life feels hopeful, like the first sentence on a blank page. But I prefer something more domestic than the classic male fantasy of a motel room on the open road. I need a working fridge, for instance. It's okay if it's empty, I just have to stare into it a lot.
What's important, of course, is quiet and a lack of interruptions. But sometimes it's not enough just to close the door. This is why writers retreat to backyard aeries, towers and coach houses, or choose to work in badly heated sheds -- to make fresh tracks.
At a certain stage in the writing of his novels, Matt Cohen would leave Toronto to work alone at a cabin on a lake north of Kingston. The Atwoods, Findleys and Urquharts, of whom much is asked when they're in town, tend to decamp to France or Ireland or some other land mass far away for months at a stretch, in order to get their writing done. And that way they don't have to say "no" all the time when they're back home.
Once a writer finds his or her spot, no distance is too far to travel to reach it. One novelist friend migrates each year from Edmonton to a cluster of propane-run cabins in a remote corner of northern Ontario, where he hooks up his laptop to a solar generator. Someone else who already lives alone in Shield country regularly retreats even farther north, to a tiny town on a lake near the Yukon border. To a different kind of silence and light.
The playwright Sam Shepard claims to like writing on the move literally. "All good writing comes out of aloneness," he has said. "You have to do it on an open highway . . . on Highway 40 West or some of those big open highways, you can hold the wheel with one hand and write with the other. It's a good discipline, because sometimes you can only write two or three words at a time before you have to look back at the road, so those three words have to count."
Well that's fine for Sam Shepard, isn't it? But it's not an approach that would work in Toronto traffic. You'd be forced to write whole chapters while you wait for the guy ahead of you to move.
Hemingway divided his time between Florida and Cuba. Richard Ford prefers to rent and move around, rather than own. Jim Harrison regularly drives cross-country to clear his palate, and retreats to a Minnesota cabin to finish books. Hmmm. All footloose, super-guy men. But Eudora Welty, the wonderful southern writer who recently died at the age of 92, travelled everywhere in her writing without ever leaving home. "A sheltered life can be a daring life as well," she has pointed out. Sometimes just a change of shelter is all the daring a writer needs.Report Typo/Error
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