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Your own writing room(s)

My writing buddy’s face turned dark pink as she shouted over her latté. “No one can write anything decent without a private place!” She jabbed with her finger. “It’s gotta be your own!”

I was as adamant. “Oh, come on! All you need is the desire, will, and your stone tablet and sharp tool. It doesn’t matter where you write!”

Our little debate embodies two often-discussed viewpoints about writing. My vehement response to my friend brought up again my long puzzlement about the most effective place to write. Other writers have explored this topic, with many suggestions. They are all fine, but I believe something is missing. Especially if you’re in a quandary about where to write, I’d like to help enlarge your perceptions of your own physical and mental writing places, spaces, and times.

Physical Places

One Place, One Room. Virginia Woolf’s well-known 1929 observation in A Room of One’s Own presents the ultimate prototype of one of the opposing views. Referring pointedly to the few women writers of her time, she said the solution was the little matter of a stipend of 500 English pounds a year . . . and a sacrosanct room of one’s own. The idea still clings.

Like Woolf and my friend, many writers swear up and down, usually without the elusive independent income, that the only true way to write is the reverently dedicated spot you worship at regularly, surrounded by your favorite, comforting possessions.

My Room. At an early point in my writing career, I craved the same. I felt unable to use my desk at home for both client work and my own writing, so I rented a room a few blocks from my apartment. With my host at work, I went to this writing sanctuary three times a week. It didn’t matter that the room was dingy and furnished in New York City street-treasure castoffs, or that all I saw out the window were the cracked bricks of the building next door. Or that my host’s files sat on half the desk to make room for me. Or that I made instant coffee (at her invitation) from her battered pan and stirred the powder with her dime-store spoon. In this room, I blissfully wrote essays, stories, and poems.

One day after about a year, she left a note on “my” desk saying she’d gotten engaged and would be moving out in a few weeks. I was sad, of course, but not devastated. I could have started looking for another room of my own, but I realized something momentous: the room had given me the gift of consistent writing and confidence enough to attempt writing in other places. Surprised, I saw that Woolf’s room of one’s own can have many mansions.

Many Places. As numerous writers have proved and written about, we can and do write in all kinds of settings: libraries, restaurants, cafes, parks, laundromats, locker rooms. I knew a novelist-businesswoman who completed her first multigenerational blockbuster in taxis as she dashed around New York City for business conferences—and without a laptop.

Some, myself included, have written on the supermarket line, at the dentist’s office, the beach, the boardwalk, the auto repair shop, on Sunday drives to relatives, at a mall table, during lunch and coffee breaks at work, and at church (don’t tell). Today, with laptops and iPads, and the thoughtful installation of WiFi in every mall and market, writers can type and save almost anywhere.

When my main writing tool was my marvelously peripatetic clipboard, I wrote on busses and planes, in vans or two-door convertibles, on park benches with takeout coffee and Danish (heaven!), and even on the subway, elbowed between swarthy strangers. For my children’s book (Tyrannosaurus Wrecks: A Book of Dinosaur Riddles), I wrote most of the 450 riddles (of which 146 were finally used) sitting on the grass under a tree facing the sedate Columbia University campus buildings, an irony my dissertation professor would chuckle at.

One of my favorite spots near the university was the small, pre-Starbucks butter-and-espresso-aroma-filled Hungarian coffee shop and bakery. The sympathetic expatriate owners glided among the tables of brooding intellectuals with generous endless refills. I sipped and savored a single daily magnificent pastry on my glorious afternoons of inspired, furious scribbling.

As I started using the computer for work, and even though I loved writing in the coffee shop, I achieved the great transition to my own desk for writing. I’d spread a blanket over the client projects so I could work on my own pieces without distraction. One writer I know simply changes the angle of her desk chair for her writing sessions.

When you write at home, though, you need changes of venue. A prolific children’s author confided that when her words become momentarily congested, she takes walks around her yard, transfers clothes from washer to dryer, jogs up and down the stairs. Julia Cameron in Walking in This World related how hiking in the foothills of the Taos Mountains prompted solutions. From the walks, she said, “I knew what to write, how to write it, and that write it I should.”

Other writers who work at home “step away” by looking out the window, pacing on the porch or terrace, doing a few situps or yoga postures, cooking, eating (a little), watering the plants, dancing to one song and singing along at the top of their voice. I do five minutes on the stationary bike, straighten one pile, make one call, grab one apple.

Mental Space

These many examples show that the one-place-one-space dictum can swell into many types of places and spaces, born of writers’ almost endless ingenuity, flexibility, and fluidity. Consider too the following.

Your Outlook. Enlarge your view of what writing is and where and when it can take place. Wherever you are, jotting notes, doodling titles, listing a character’s facial oddities, working out a chronology, recording alternate plot decisions—are all part of the process.

Such tasks lend themselves well to modest chunks of time in traffic, on line, or during pasta bubbling. And they do count, advancing your project, clarifying your focus, reinforcing your theme, keeping you involved, and sowing fertile seeds for your next session.

Your Writing Time. Stretch too your view of writing time itself. Many teachers still tout the classic stoic predawn stint before the day job begins as the only writing time that counts. I recently read of a novelist who finished his novel (later taken by an agent) by rising at 5:00 a.m. and working to 9:00 a.m. six days a week for seven months. Then he turned to his eight-hour day job.

I don’t know which I envied more—his completing the book, his agent, or his self-discipline in getting up at that headachy hour. Unless I’ve got to be on a plane or speak to an editor at 8:00 in the morning, I can’t even look at dawn without knowing that only more sleep (please!) will ameliorate the slit-eyed grog.

A very successful writer/editor reported (proudly, I saw) she rises at 10:00 a.m. and works until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. Oh, please!

I usually get going about 9:30 a.m. Then, after addressing client duties during the day and all the necessaries, I often work on my creative pieces maybe for an hour, or two if I’m really hot, until 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. My mind keeps sifting and sorting through the night.

Try out a few different hours of the day or night. Despite the hallowed traditions and others’ habits, only you can determine your best and most productive writing times.

Your Mindset. A room of your own, finally, is a mindset. Virginia Woolf notwithstanding, your physical space does not dictate your mental space but reflects it. Reframe your ideas about workable space and time by reading about writers who aren’t tied to boundaries or conventions. Talk to other writers about their place-space-time variations, and experiment with your own roominations.

As you widen the possibilities and reject the stereotypes, you’ll become more consistent in your writing and more creative about your best places, spaces, and times. And you’ll discover, with joy and gratitude, that you have a great many writing rooms of your own.

© 2021 Noelle Sterne

Guide to Making Time to Write
Noelle is a contributor to TAA’s book, Guide to Making Time to Write: 100+ Time & Productivity Management Tips for Textbook and Academic Authors. Available as a print and eBook.

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Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at