Jeremy Dunn, Consultant
You’ve picked a paper topic, done some research, and now you’re ready to begin writing that term paper. Or maybe you’ve just struck on a bit of inspiration for a new poem, or a short story—maybe even the next great American novel. There’s only one question left: Where do you go to write?
The question seems simple, but sometimes the answer isn’t. Over the years, I’ve had to do a lot of writing, and one factor that has turned out to be crucial for any writing project I’ve undertaken has been my writing environment, the physical places and spaces I inhabit while writing.
Researchers have taken an interest in how material environments and writing tools can aid or inhibit writing. In a study of how college students’ “composing unfolds materially through space and time in a mobile culture,” Stacey Pigg observes, “While the materiality of academic writing easily slips under the radar, how students access and incorporate places and technologies in composing habits outside classrooms may be one of the most important determinants of their success within them” (271). In other words, the places where we write, and the technologies we employ in our writing (i.e. pen and paper, laptops, desktops, typewriters, stone and chisel, etcetera) constitute foundational elements of the composing process.
Indeed, as examples of famous writers illustrate, writing is often a ritualistic, idiosyncratic process deeply rooted in particular environments and surroundings. Mark Twain reportedly wrote while lying in bed. Dylan Thomas had his writing shed where, legend has it, his wife would lock him up each day to ensure he got some writing done. Similarly, Virginia Woolf sometimes wrote in a toolshed she had converted into a “writing lodge.” Sir Walter Scott apparently liked to compose poetry on horseback.
I find other writers’ writing places and spaces interesting and inspiring, but not all of us have access to a cozy writing shed overlooking rolling English hills—or a horse to sit astride, if you’re interested in that sort of thing—while we write. So where do we turn to carve out writing spaces for ourselves?
Perhaps the local coffee shop. As Pigg suggests, “Informal public spaces such as cafés, coffeehouses, and commons areas serve as commonplace productive locations for many writers” (261). Pigg further explains that such environments often provide Wi-Fi to support mobile laptops, or in-house desktops in commons areas. These spaces thus offer technological access in addition to “clean space” where writers can concentrate on their projects (261).
Public spaces help many writers write, but they are not ideal for everyone. A quiet-seeking introvert at heart, I’ve learned that coffee shops—even library study areas—are not great writing spaces for me. I’ve tried to write in such places, only to realize I don’t really feel comfortable in them, or there’s too much going on for me to focus. Consequently, I’m unable to do much writing in those environments. Though the café or common area are good work areas for many, I’ve discovered that I do better by writing in my bedroom at home. There, I have a small, worn desk and lamp that help me settle into writing. The environment is a quiet one where I feel comfortable and able to focus (most of the time). In addition, writing at home better accommodates my idiosyncrasies. For example, while I write, I like to take breaks to stand up and pace around a bit, a practice I’m not exactly comfortable trying in a coffee shop. I also like the convenience of being down the hall from the kitchen if I want a snack or a drink of water, or in case I feel like brewing some coffee or tea. In short, at home in my room I simply feel a greater sense of quiet and am consequently able to get more writing done.
All of this rambling is simply to say that if the coffee shop helps facilitate your writing, or the park bench, or the library, or maybe a room at home, go there and write. If you find you’re stuck in a rut, consider seeking out a different writing space for a while and observe whether or not the new environment helps you break through your writer’s block. We all have to write somewhere. Learning which environments are most conducive to our writing practices can help us demystify writing and develop our composing processes in productive ways.
Pigg, Stacey. “Emplacing Mobile Composing Habits: A Study of Academic Writing in Networked Social Spaces.” CCC 66.2 (2014): 250-75.