What conditions does a writer need to write? In 1929, Virginia Woolf famously wrote that for women to write fiction, one of the requirements was “a room of one’s own”. Of course she was referring specifically to the impediments women faced as writers, since a lot of men in those days (like now) were insecure and stupid, and they tried to make their small lives seem bigger by dominating women.
If we stand back and take a wide view, we see that Virginia Woolf’s implied condition, of having a space to write, is true for any writer. Her “room” also implies something more, a space where a person can work in peace, undisturbed (which is why it is one’s “own” room). Even without a dedicated room, a writer must at least have a space, as writing requires notes, papers, shrunken heads, wine bottles, etc., in addition to working in peace. If you are writing at the kitchen table and must clear it all up for meals, you are much impeded.
The writer Marcel Proust lined his writing room with cork, to keep it quiet enough that he could write in peace. Writers who could afford it have created spaces that sound good just to hear about them, with views of mountains (Steven King), gardens (Edith Wharton), the ocean (Ian Fleming), or a city skyline (Norman Mailer).
Nice if you can get it, but you do what you can. When I was in my early 20s, facing a wall on one side of our small bedroom, I built myself a barely functional desk out of 2X4 boards that I cut up and nailed together. I know I must have found those boards, because I certainly didn’t have enough money to buy them. Now I have a cheap desk, but it’s real, with a flat surface, and it faces windows with a view of trees and nature.
This past Saturday, I moved to a new apartment. I could say I moved to avoid the brainfuck shrieking horror of Atlanta traffic, and indeed I am on my knees offering frankincense in gratitude for being out of it. However, the real reason I first thought of moving was because I was frustrated from lack of time to write, and yet I sat for hours every week in long lines of cars, idiotically throwing my life away.
You probably know from experience how the eyes sparkle and the soul sings just from the thought of moving. But I think this new apartment will be well worth the months of effort and planning, the money spent, and the much higher rent that I now have to pay every month. In deciding where to live, I chose a place across the street from my job, so now I walk to work in less than 10 minutes. I’ve estimated, conservatively, that compared to my old commute, I’ll gain at least another 20 hours per month of free time.
I’m thrilled with this act of chronological magic, but having “enough” time to write is relative. Over the years, I’ve known people to talk about how they were going to write when they could, but they were waiting until they really had time. If you’re waiting until you have time to write, then you’re probably not a serious writer, and maybe you aren’t going to write at all. The world will never give you time to write, so that’s the end of that. If you’re compelled to write, you have to take the time. This means that writers can be selfish about their time and can seem self-absorbed. I have been, and I don’t remember that bad behavior gladly, but it’s true.
In addition to a writing space and time, every writer will also have various requirements that allow them to work—maybe long stretches of uninterrupted time, maybe a state of calm and tranquility, maybe a mind clear of the details of the day (so that early in the morning might be better), maybe certain kinds of inspiration, or maybe a feeling of affirmation from other people that what the writer is doing is worthwhile.
When I was teaching, I would sometimes read things telling students what conditions they needed to write, “Sit quietly to gather your thoughts, blah blah blah.” In fact, every writer has to find their own conditions, and I would try to teach my students that. Some writers need a bottle of whiskey and a Def Leppard CD cranked up to 11. Others need a cork-lined room.