Make room for good writing even when the times make bad sentences seem good enough
“I am a complexly horizontal author,” says Truman Capote. “I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy.”
It’s never easy to find your way with words. I’ve been writing for a million years, but I have yet to decide what works for me, although I wrote three of my books—a book of essays in 2012, a book of poetry in 2016, and a book of short stories in 2018—using my trusty iPad, not even a single sentence on a proper desk.
But my iPad went kaput just a few months before I published the last book in 2018. I have since been writing on a laptop, often leaning three pillows high against the backrest of my bed. No wonder, my draft of a novel, 100,000 words into a yet-to-be-determined end, remains unfinished, abandoned by the muses.
But what exactly is a proper writing space? Everywhere and nowhere, if you ask me. As Pablo Picasso had put it, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” I guess that is why many writers kept a small desk next to their beds, from Henry David Thoreau, whose bedroom had no more than a table for his odds and ends, including firewood, and a bed with a desk for writing close to it, to Emily Dickinson, who wrote wherever inspiration struck whether in the pantry or in her garden, but also on a small working table with a German student lamp, which provided the light in which she composed her poetry.
I started one of the 16 short stories in my book Manila Was a Long Time Ago on a patch of sand on Alona Beach in Bohol, with the tide swirling around my ankles, and finished it in Phuket, although it took me a long while at home to give it the shape that pleased me, not counting the months it took me to reshape it according to the recommendations of my editor. As for the rest of the stories, I wrote them everywhere—at restaurants, on a plane to somewhere, on a train across Europe, on a bench near the Suicides Bridge at the Parc de Buttes-Chaumont in Paris, in my car by the side of the road, but mostly in my bed in the dead of night.
I made many plans to spend weeks abroad just to write. I spent nine days in Prague, for instance, which would have put me in a writing mood with its canopy bed and its Cleopatra settee, but it had larger-than-life windows that looked over Nerudova Street and, at the back of the one-bedroom suite, where I smoked, I would blow my cigarette smoke right up at the Prague Castle. Because the rest of Prague was only a quaint, two-person elevator away, I ended up seeing much of the city and not a single sentence on my notepad.
I did the same thing in Cannes, hoping I could do some writing while sailing along the French Riviera. How cool would that have been had I been able to write an epic on the Mediterranean! Alas, as E.B. White once said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper,” and my journey into the South of France came to an end without a single additional paragraph in my manuscript to show for it.
Some say writing, more than anything else, is some form of discipline. As such, you must treat it like some kind of work with its own set of protocols, routines, and systems.
A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, in throwing a ray of light upon that darkness.
Haruki Murakami works for five to six hours, starting at 4 a.m. W. H. Auden would write every day from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., taking time out for lunch but working straight until it was time to stop just before dinner for cocktails and guests. Issac Asimov’s schedule was more brutal, from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. the next day. It’s no surprise he had been able to write 500 books in his lifetime. Anthony Trollope’s writing hours might seem short, from 5 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., but he had a quota of 250 words every 15 minutes.
But this article is a question of where. For many great writers, even a desk is unnecessary. In its place, for instance, Marcel Proust, who was bedridden for at least 15 years, hiding away from the world on account of his asthma and severe allergies, used his knees. So did Mark Twain, who urged his readers to try it, saying, “I sit up with a pipe in my mouth and a board on my knees, and scribble away,” in an interview with the New York Times in 1902. James Joyce also wrote in bed and, some say, while lying down on his stomach, which I’ve tried many times—and failed each time—to do. To William Wordsworth, the bed was the womb of creation, in which he wrote his poetry with the extra challenge of doing it in the dark.
I still think something is wrong with writing in bed, which is where I do most of my writing, such as this one, although I think the best place to write in is wherever you are with an idea to write down, even while you are driving, which is when you write in your head. I’ve been working in a daily newspaper since 1998, and I guess the daily deadline is what gets me to keep doing it no matter what and where.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King wrote by way of prescription: “Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
A lot of nonwriters think writing is easy, but it never is, not for Edith Wharton, who wrote longhand in bed in the mornings; not for Neil Gaiman, who had a gazebo built some 20 years ago as a dedicated space for writing; not for Colette, who summed up her writing life in this beautiful passage: “My right little finger is slightly bent; that is because the weight of my hand always rested on it as I wrote, like a kangaroo leaning back on its tail. There is a tired spirit deep inside of me that still continues its gourmet’s quest for a better word, and then for a better one still.”
And so there is neither place nor time more needed than a writer who, against all odds, even when qutting seems to be the most viable option, endeavors to keep writing.