I always stumble and grope when people ask me about my routine as a writer. The answer they seem to expect is something along these lines: I simply can’t write unless I get up at precisely 7:00 a.m. and swim exactly four laps, or that I’m lost without my sentimental mug/hand-knit back pillow/specific color of afternoon light. Artists like these exist in droves, but their preferences are a luxury I can’t afford—or that I don’t want to.
It’s important to me that I carry my characters everywhere, that I think about them on my walks and stop if they need attention. By extending the artistic space to Manhattan’s Bryant Park, where I sometimes write in view of the carousel, or the moment in the middle of the night when I finally admit I can’t sleep, I’m allowing myself a broader scope of influences. The public space’s offering of lounging sweethearts or children might add joy, while the frenetic energy of insomnia can lend urgency to an issue I’ve been mulling over.
Unless you’re a writer who’s the kin of a celebrity or raking in money from a career that requires little energy and time, then the decision to embrace flexibility is synonymous (to me) with commitment and execution—especially when you’re a young writer, as I am. I wrote The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets in a number of different venues: in a room in San Francisco where my concentration was tested by the constant telephone arguments of the outlandish transvestite next door; in a bar in Fayetteville, Arkansas, that served endless coffee; in a tent that let in just enough sun and blocked just enough rain; finally, in an apartment in New York that shook constantly from the semis on the all-too-close Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. While I’m sure some inviolate, immaculately white space that opened onto a babbling creek would have proved more peaceful, I believe that the series of locales let me borrow a metabolism I needed.
This is not to say I don’t drool over that vision of the cabin by a stream, but rather that I’ve tried to develop a vision of myself as a worker like anyone else. A roofer doesn’t abandon laying tiles because the view is rough, a reporter continues to gather information even if the outcome proves unsettling, a barback keeps collecting dirty glasses even though more are bound to appear. I’m just as prone to cartoonish fits of the artistic temperament and frustrations with the shape of my work, but I’ve come to understand that the only solution to this mercurial state is not to sit back and wait for some heavenly feeling to start buzzing in my fingertips, but simply to show up.
I’m writing now from a peaceful suburban environment, where I’ve been hiding for almost a month, trying to listen to the multiple narrative threads in the novel I’m working on in between the overwhelming choruses of cicadas and birds, but soon I’m returning to the city, where I’ll write instead to the tune of subway cars arriving and bars letting out. My characters, I’m sure, will benefit from the change of music.
Born and raised in Northern California, Kathleen Alcott studied in Southern California, lived in San Francisco, and presently resides in Brooklyn. Her works appears in American Short Fiction; Slice; Explosion Proof; The Rumpus, Rumpus Women Vol. 1, an anthology of personal essays; and elsewhere. She is currently at work on her second novel. Please visit her at www.kathleenalcott.com
This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of the Other Press newsletter. Click here to subscribe.