The Writers’ Mise en Place


Belgrade Lakes, Maine, June 15, 2010. Indigo (left) and Ranger wait for the typing to stop. Note the laptop on the right hand arm-rest, the coffee cup on the left, and the blue ball-chucking device on the ground.

Facebook friend (and New Yorker writer) Susan Orlean is up at the Macdowell Colony, I think, if I’m following the “updates” properly… Mcdowell being one of those places where writers go to be surrounded by absolute quiet and to focus on their work. This got me thinking about my own writing-space, which is funny because on one level, I already live in a place some would consider idyllic for writing– a house by a lake in rural Maine. (Although the presence of teenage boys who come in and out of the house at random, leaving a trail of pizza slices, Dunkin Munchkins and bowls of cereal does make it a somewhat different environment from, say, Macdowell, or Yaddo, and more akin to, say, a Zits cartoon.) There are plenty of times the isolation of a place like Macdowell has seemed extremely appealing to me–but the place itself feels awfully like the one I’m already in.

I have always laughed a little bit at the idea of writers creating their work in idyllic surroundings. There used to be a TV commercial, in fact, which showed some young woman quitting her job in New York, and winding up (within the span of 60 seconds, and after buying some product), at the end of a dock in a place like Maine. The last thing we see of her is her typing the words CHAPTER ONE. As if, well! That solves THAT.

For most of my professional life as a writer I have worked in windowless caves, by choice. The idea of sitting by a lovely lake at the end of a dock seems to me like the worst possible thing for a writer to do, because of course, then you’d be thinking about that lovely lake, instead of the story. When I give myself in to the world of the story, my surroundings disappear. Even I disappear a little bit. A sentiment which led to a recent Facebook line of my own: “When i am writing, I am nine feet tall, and blue, and living in an imaginary world. When you interrupt me, and bring me back to this world? I am back in a wheelchair, gasping for breath.”

And so. I have tended to work in basement rooms, places without windows, places where I will be undistracted. A beautiful view, like the one I have from my desk in the 2nd floor atrium here at the summer place– that can be trouble.

But here’s the complication. For the last few months, I’ve been using voice dictation software, owing to my ancient arms and wrists generally giving out. So I really can’t work in the heart of the summer place with the rest of my family about– because all that slow talking is guaranteed to drive anyone who has to listen to it

(It drove me crazy too, when i first started; hearing my own voice speaking out loud was itself an interruption and a distraction from the work I was trying to create. Only recently have I gotten to the point where I can easily talk my novels out loud to my computer, although I continue to suspect that it’s a very different part of my brain that is doing the creating by voice right now than the part i used to use, when I wrote in silence.)

All of which brings us to this morning, when I realized I couldn’t do the days work in my usual place, because the house (in which sound travels easily) was full of sleeping souls.

So I took the laptop and went outside. There in the wooded space between the house and the lake was my adirondack chair. I thought– can I really sit and work here? Am I not that woman in the commercial again, typing CHAPTER ONE, and then unable to focus on the job at hand?

Also, it was cold. So I walked further down through the woods to the dock. Where there was another Adirondack chair. In which I sat, and fired up MacSpeech, and tried to concentrate. The wind blowing against the microphone began to generate text all by itself, the program mistakenly thinking the wind on the mike was speech. And so, in a weird version of Coleridge’s Aolian harp, the computer began to write its own poetry. I think it was something like, “Hush what hey the hark hush stew.”photo

I retreated from the dock, beginning to suspect I would never get anything done today, back up to my chair in the wood, and gave it another try. And amazingly, I managed to do some good work. The dogs came by, confused by my sitting by myself talking out loud, and they dropped the tennis ball at my feet, and so I got into this rhythm, of dictating today’s scene, and throwing the tennis ball, and drinking coffee.

Strangely, I got deeper into the work today than I’ve gotten for a while. I don’t know if this is because of the place, but it might be. (Or it might be because I’ve been thinking about this particular scene for a while.)

Anyway. I was thinking about all this and thought I’d blog about it. Now I’m back inside, considering a bike ride. Upon which, I assure you, I will not be typing. I hope.

photo(Astute observers can also see in the second photo above, (the shot of the house itself), the “Twirl-a-Squirrel” from which the birdfeeder is suspended. This is the very device which has given me a temporary victory of the squirrels, and about which I have been writing (at great length) on line. And no, you can all relax. There is no Twirl-a-Squirrel in my next novel.)

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  1. Meri
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Can I interest you in a Topsy Turvy for your tomatoes?
    Enjoy your summer!

  2. Posted June 17, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Certainly you would not be typing on the bike…but dictating? Perhaps. Creatively or autocratically…your choice.

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