Where do you write?
We are continuing our Issue 3 blog series, exploring the writer’s space. Previously ‘Crumbs’ author Clayton Foster wrote about his space vs the The writer’s space in myth and legend. Next up is Keysha Whitaker, whose creative non-fiction work ‘Estranger Danger’ appears in Issue 3, tells us about her writing space… or spaces. Like most questions, “where do you write?” is not as straightforward as it seems.
Keysha holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in New York City. Her work has appeared in Brevity, The Forward, and Full Grown People. She hosts and produces Behind the Prose, a podcast for writers.
A Writer’s Room of One’s Own
This is where I’m supposed to write: at a designated desk in a designated den at a designated time.
In this Pennsylvania apartment, my first with a study, I imagined waking up, making coffee, then clicking away in the wee hours of the morning. The room’s windows overlook the city of Reading, straight across to the heights of Mount Penn where The Pagoda–the only one of its kind in the United States–stretches and yawns on the side of the mountain.
Back when I lived in a South Bronx studio above the 6 train, I envisioned a writer’s room. One with four walls and a cat-proof door. Warm walls adorned with writerly words of wisdom, talismans strategically placed to ward off the Spirit of Block, framed magazine articles to remind me that yes, I can. Yes, I will.
Then, in 2010 as an MFA student at The New School, I began collecting methods of established writers, hoping for that one magic technique to unleash the writer kracken. Once, one of my teachers, Robert Antoni, invited us to his NYC Chelsea apartment. A fancy joint with an elevator that opened right up into the shiny hardwood open kitchen. I’m sure the place had at least two bedrooms. A mansion by New York City standards.
As my classmates and I whispered about how we wanted to be writers who could afford such a place and debated whether he landed it from book money or if his family came from cash, I spied the writing desk and comfy chair he’d spoken of in class.
And there, around the back of the chair, was the belt.
The leather belt he used to fasten himself in when he sat down to do his work. Writing as physical restraint. Mental restraint.
The strap intrigued me most. At home, I had a large, round, cushy, spin-able thing I called my writing chair, but I could too easily get up from the chair to complete a more pressing task or snuggle into its plush cushions for a five-minute turned two-hour nap.
This writing chair is no good, I’d say when I woke, drool-faced. I had a where then but I didn’t get anything done. Now I realize that I had no why.
The why began to emerge for me in 2012 when I attended Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation where I learned and felt encouraged that writers of color need to tell their stories, but it became most clear when I found myself in Pennsylvania last year in the name of a job–one that is suited for me but not one that I’d dreamed about since I had my first essay published in a local paper at six years old. Granted, it was a picture essay, but still.
As I pondered the sacrifice I’d made, moving miles away from family, friends, and the cultural life I thrived on in New York City, I found my why. I realized when I’d gone the way of ashes and dust, if I hadn’t been a writer, if I hadn’t died trying, gone writing, then living would have been in vain.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
And for me, the how is still evolving. Mainly, the den remains undecorated and unused. On most mornings, at least during the summer when I haven’t had a.m. classes, I’ll open the French doors to the Juliet balcony and plop myself in a maroon recliner. The hand-me-down from my aunt’s dead old-lady neighbor weirdly connects past and present, life and death, family and strangers, other people’s lives and my own.
After I’ve exhausted my recliner hours, or in lieu of them, I move to the couch, a classic looking brown microfiber Raymour and Flanigan find I bought to match the love seat I purchased a couple years ago. The couch works if I rest my feet on the leather storage ottoman; it’s a half-work, half-play position I’ve just adopted, since writing with my feet on the couch lengthwise leads to drool-face eight out of eight occasions.
Other days, I contemplate going to a cafe or coffee shop. Writing alone in a crowd seems to inspire me the most; it’s a balance that combats the solitary nature of writing and keeps me from many of the home distractions–fridge, furry family members, TV, and drool-face.
And then of course, there’s still the unfinished writer’s room. I started this piece there, but in ten minutes, my bum had fallen asleep in the hard chair and I moved to the couch. But as I think of my progress within the last year, I’m not bothered as much that I don’t really have a writing place. Maybe if and when I get book money (or any money really), I can HGTV it out writer’s style, but what’s important to me most is that I’m writing.
This is what I’m supposed to do.