Last week’s NYT essay by Tony Perrottet, “Why Writers Belong Behind Bars,” suggests that the best thing that ever happened to the Marquis de Sade’s writing career was his incarceration, because “it was only behind bars that Sade was able to knuckle-down and compose the imaginative works upon which his enduring, if peculiar, reputation lies.” Perrottet offers other examples of writers whose work blossomed from behind bars, too, and suggests that contemporary writers could also benefit from a bit of self-enforced isolation:
‘A prison is indeed one of the best workshops.’ Colette declared. She wasn’t speaking metaphorically. In the early 1900s, by her own account, her caddish fist husband had stashed her in a tiny room for four hours a day, refusing to let her out until she had finished a requisite number of pages–a dramatic measure, but one that resulted in a novel a year for six years. ‘What I chiefly learned was how to enjoy, between four walls, almost every secret flight,’ she later recalled, sounding almost sentimental.
I’ve found that the focused bursts of “sprint” writing help me to maintain my focus on the task at hand–in 20 minutes there’s no time for a wikipedia diversion. But since taking on more responsibility as a single parent, and having some of my job responsibilities increase, it’s been harder to carve out the time for writing, even in short bursts. I’ve found that when I travel, it’s a bit easier–such as writing from the parlor of a Cape Cod inn last year, or from the sanctuary of an old church this past spring. But I can’t travel all the time, and sometimes that doesn’t work as well as I’d like–there are still all kinds of distractions and it takes time to settle into a quiet place (and to find an outlet for one’s laptop. As a side note, I do think that if Woolf was writing about 21st-century scholars her requirements would not only include “A Room of One’s Own,” but also a steady power supply and a wireless connection…).
Thus, so far, I haven’t found the perfect recipe for a writing space. But it seems that the search for one is part of the process–every day I keep trying to find that perfect blend of productivity and genius, and in that process I continue to make slow (and steady) progress on my writing projects. On some level I would love it if someone ‘locked’ me away in a tower for awhile every day to force me to meet my writing goals…but of course that would chafe in other ways that would be counter-productive. Learning to discipline myself seems a more important, if elusive, goal.
Image above is of me (in my ivory tower office), holding the edits to a dissertation chapter.