"In his 1951 essay ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,’ British psychologist D. W. Winnicott wrote, ‘It is in the space between inner and outer worlds, which is also the space between people — the transitional space — that intimate relationships and creativity occur.’” - quoted by Alexandra Enders in “The Importance of Place: Where Writers Write and Why” (“The Literary Life,” Poets and Writers, March/April 2008)
The routines of writers seem to be of perpetual interest to us bookish types. Stories abound about where and when and how (and with precisely what type of instrument) famous writers have done their work. I’ve always been intrigued by those stories, in part as they helped me think about my own habits and preferences.
I’m one who prefers to be in a public space. Even when I have a nice office, I find I’m more productive when I leave it. When I worked in the private sector, this made more sense: I kept shop in a mind-numbing gray cubicle under mind-numbing fluorescent lights, with the nearest window way down at the end of my row.
So I wrote most of the early drafts of my forthcoming novel at a Tim Horton’s just around the corner from that office. I always took the same table when I could get it, next to a giant window that let in every bit of the cloudy daylight afforded by the long winters of Rochester, NY. I’d hurry through a bowl of soup and nurse my black coffee for the duration of lunch hour. And I would enter that space between the inner and outer worlds.
I remained partly aware of my surroundings: the blasé music, the retirees who met every Wednesday and sat at the large round table in the back, the business crowd wiping slush and sticky rock salt off their polished shoes as they yapped into their phones. At the same time, I was entirely absorbed in the world of my story. I could see and hear my characters clearly, follow them where they went, imagine what might happen next, fashion careful words to represent that universe.
And now I’m finishing the final work a world away at a small coffee shop in Hartford City, Indiana called Common Grounds. I chat with Katie, who knows my routine: after I order, she lets me get to work, then quietly brings my food and coffee over when it’s ready, for which I’m deeply grateful. Each table contains a tablecloth with a hearty thread count, a small lamp, and a centerpiece of several antique books or a milk bottle from farm days past. The music is good: Neil Young or Dylan or Louis Armstrong. A small television mounted to the wall plays Turner Classic Movies in glorious black and white, set to mute. I like to sit where I can see it out of the corner of my eye. Then I enter into the world of a story that, by now, I’m very tired of and will be pleased to leave behind soon.
Floating over the top, I’ll hear someone yell out the day’s headline from The Hartford City News Times or start yet another conversation with, “Hey, remember [so-and-so]? Well, did you hear what happened?” But I’m into my book, sometimes immersed in the vivid and continuous dream of the story, sometimes taking a cold, critical look at a darling phrase and dragging it by the neck to the chopping block.
I can’t seem to do without either; it’s that space between the exterior and interior worlds where I feel most able to write. I don’t know exactly why this is, and I don’t know if the why matters. It’s what works for me.
What works for you?