I am posting this during a stay at the Martha’s Vineyard Writers’ Residency in Edgartown, Mass. Between trips to the waterfront, strolls past gleaming white ship-captain’s houses built in the 1840s, sharing meals with amazing new writer-friends, and dashing out for Mad Martha’s ice cream I have churned out zillions of words. Some of them are good, some are garbage but I’m not hitting the Delete Key on anything just yet.
Especially when far away from home, I love to find an interesting-looking nook, coffee shop, park bench, tree stump, beach, library or other anonymous place to open a laptop or notebook and start slamming words. For one thing, the discipline of sticking, sometimes literally (if it’s a park bench but we won’t go into that problem at the moment), to a new perch for a solid two hours of writing generates a grand, morally superior feeling. It’s a feeling kind of like when you rise at dawn, go for a one-mile swim, do your Royal Canadian Air Force exercises and then your 15 chin-ups prior to a half hour on the treadmill, all before breakfast.
There’s a fine tradition of writers scurrying like rats from whatever kitchen table, cubby or closet they call their home office to wander, and end up on diverse platforms on which to peck. Or to scribble, depending on inclination and era.
When Robert Louis Stevenson first traveled to America in pursuit of his true love, Fanny Osbourne (see Stevenson’s Treasure, an amazing novel for further details), he upgraded his steamer ticket to second class which he found slightly less vomitous and filthy than steerage. His sole objective for the upgrade was to gain use of a table for writing. After arriving in California he wrote while sick in bed, propped against the adobe wall of a flophouse in Monterey.
He wrote on a park bench in Portsmouth Square in San Francisco and in nearby cafes at a time when dinner with wine cost seventy-five cents. On his honeymoon he appropriated a splintery desk he found in the office of an abandoned mine above Calistoga, California. He wrote outdoors, under the redwoods. He wrote sitting cross-legged in the sands of Kona, Waikiki and Samoa. The only place he gave up writing was on his transcontinental rail crossing of the American Plains, saying that he had been squeezed-in so closely with chickens, children, and shared diseases that he got too sick to write – but nevertheless he recorded “mental notes” that he transcribed when he arrived in Monterey, which he later sold as The Amateur Emigrant and Across the Plains.
A generation after Stevenson, Jack London took the phrase “traveling office” to the level of an art form. Wherever he roamed, the first thing he did was set up his writing-place. In Jack’s case “wherever” is saying something: in his teens he sailed throughout the San Francisco Bay, pirating oysters, and subsequently worked on a seal-hunting ship through the Orient. Back home, he thought nothing of boating ninety miles up the Sacramento River to visit a friend, and at age 21 he survived a brutal winter in the Klondike gold fields. After his Klondike stories made him a fortune, he sailed the globe on his yacht, the Snark.
Regardless the setting, rain or shine, rough seas or calm, crowded railcar or empty, noisy or quiet, after downing a quick breakfast he stayed at his writing-spot until he had written at least one thousand words. And, he made sure they were good words because he seldom went back to edit what he wrote. He wrote with a pen or pencil in note books, journals, table napkins, and ships’ logs. Long before he was famous, he learned to use a typewriter. He cursed the first one he used, a borrowed Blickensderfer because it would only type capital letters. Later, he bought a state-of-the-art Remington 7 that went everywhere with him. At thirty pounds considered “portable” at the time, this was the same model from the 1890s that graces my desk at home, pictured in an earlier blog — and still types.
And who could forget Papa Hemingway, writing in the foxholes of France, the cafes of Paris, and the cabin of his yacht, Pilar, between beers and epic bouts landing marlin? Or, later, as a grey-beard, standing while pecking on his typewriter in Key West and Cuba with a ruined back, amidst adopted cats that jumped here and there, knocking over his rum drinks and full ashtrays?
I have found that the quality and quantity of writing done in away-places varies from what I do at home. Some of the more unusual connections that the caffeinated and/or visually-stimulated brain tends to form have happened on these excursions. In fact, one chapter that I wrote in a farmhouse in northern Minnesota I almost cut from the manuscript I submitted to publishers – but this, I later learned, was the very chapter that made up the editor’s mind to publish the book!
At other times, an hour on a park bench or at a coffee shop has yielded less than fifty words – things just don’t seem to be working – but thoughts from these lean sittings have generated a lush scene or new character that spring to consciousness several days later. Apropos here, perhaps, is Papa Hemingway’s saying that he was content if he could write “one true sentence” in a day, although people are still trying to figure out what he meant by “true”.
For a few weeks in each of the past three years I’ve found some fine places at writers’ residencies that are thousands of miles from my home. A pain to get to, from Northern California, but wow, at each one I have cranked out the words.