Posted by justinemusk | Posted in Writers | Posted on 20-09-2008
So if a woman is to write, she needs a room of her own.
So I’ve heard, anyway.
After years of experimenting with many different kinds of rooms, from my teenage bedroom in Canada to my shoebox apartment in Japan to the back-store café of the Border’s in Century City and friend’s guesthouse in my own Los Angeles neighborhood… I have discovered that in order to write, at this particular moment in my life, I need a whole building.
Or more specifically: a warehouse converted into lofty cutting-edge office space that houses two dot.com companies (Mahalo and Causecast) in a neighborhood of similar converted warehouses…on a street in Santa Monica that doesn’t offer the temptations of bookstore, movie theatre or shopping mall. It is here that I am writing Soul Matter, the sequel to my book Lord of Bones, which was the sequel to my first novel Bloodangel. It is also here that I am writing this essay. In one of the doorless offices to my right I hear low conversation, and behind and off to my left someone moving around the kitchenette, that little place of stainless steel and eco-friendly filtered water, with nary a plastic bottle to be seen There are long steel tables that serve as desks, cafeteria style, except with massive computer screens instead of sandwiches and fries.
I can look out the front door, the sunlit parking lot and strip of grass and palms marking it off from the street. The Causecast CEO, youngish in t-shirt and jeans like he’s about to head off to a rock concert instead of a PR meeting, is talking on his cell and pacing the sidewalk. Just behind him is his brand-new Tesla Roadster. Nestled alongside it, in the other prime parking spot, is a yellow Corvette. The Corvette belongs to the Mahalo CEO, another still-youngish guy who likes to bring his bulldogs to work. They’re snuffling around my chair right now.
Both men are friends of mine, but it’s the one with the dogs who offered me some of his extra office space to write in. The offices are built into the walls and for the most part don’t have doors. I started out in one, got moved to another when the Causecast CEO decided to put his own desk and couch and lava lamp in there, and by the time I found myself moved to a third, I had discovered something:
What I really like to do is write in the open.
I use my office for storage. I pick up my laptop and roam. I like the big red chair in the corner of couches, coffee table and fake grass. But the sun through the windows can make me warm and sleepy. Also, people have a habit of gathering there to discuss work and eat strong-smelling sandwiches, as if the corner had been specifically designed for such purposes, instead of my own writerly convenience.
To fight off afternoon snoozetime, I like the far end of a wood-topped table that runs along the front part of the main room and puts me close to the espresso maker (this is important). There are enough walls around to provide a sense of enclosure even as people move through the edges of my vision. I can take a quick break from my laptop screen, look up and watch two guys wrestling with the antique video game by the entrance.
I like that.
I get to be in my own mental bubble while still feeling involved in the world, or at least a nice little nook of it.
Here’s another thing I’ve learned about why I need open areas: I like to move. I need to pace and wander.
I’ve lost count of the number of times something has come to me when just walking or driving along, as if the brain needs the body to move its thinking forward….by quite literally moving it forward. In the past, I took this physical restlessness as a sign that the day’s writing was over, life crowding in with so much else to do. At Mahalo, determined to stay the course for a certain number of hours or pages, whichever comes first, I have no choice but to force myself back to my laptop. But then the writing would flow again, and I finally realized that, for me, sessions of writing and pacing need to alternate with each other.
Which seems so obvious I wonder why I never figured this out long before. I am intensely physical; despite - or maybe because of – all the time I spend in my head, I come at the world just as fiercely through my body. I crave exercise, fill my closet with sensuous textures — leather, silk, velvet, suede, high-quality cotton — and have yet to outgrow my fondness for clubs, since dancing, music, lights and crowd act as cathartic ritual for me.
It’s almost as if the body has to take over so the mind can settle down, relax, find its way back into that dreamy, trance like state in which ideas flow and the writing takes over. It might come in fits and starts, that state of waking dream, but it does come, and then come back. If I’m willing to hang around long enough.
This need for motion is what makes it a very bad idea to work anywhere near places where I can buy books or clothes. It’s not just the body that wants to get away from the laptop.
Because if my brain is a creative brain, it is also a restless and fidgety one.
I am – as someone so nicely put it – a highly distractible person. This makes it tough for me to attend to tedious details or remember where I put things. I have had to replace way too many passports, green cards, and debit cards; ATM machines that aren’t swipe-through have been a bane of my existence. I have a troubled relationship with the roof of my car. I will put things there to free up my hands and then drive or walk away. “This,” the Causecast CEO said the other day, “is why you lose your car keys,” as he took the aforementioned item off the sunbaked roof of my Lexus and handed them over, demonstrating one of the reasons why he runs a company and I do not.
I can, however, write good and publishable fiction. At university I could crank out essays at the last minute and get one of the highest marks in the class. I could also skip a great many classes – and did, starting in high school – and still make the dean’s list. My brain has an excellent ability to find unusual connections and relationships between things, very handy for fiction and essay writing. But just as the body adapts to trauma and stress by heightening some senses (a sudden eye for detail, adrenaline-fueled strength and increased tolerance for pain) while taking away others ( bowel control), the brain also seems to operate along a similar exchange. The kind of steady, accumulative skill- and knowledge-building necessary in subjects like languages, math and science seemed impossible for me as a kid. I was an intellectually gifted child who nearly flunked fourth grade French, who won county typing championships yet barely – barely! – passed her typing class, who got a 50 in home economics because she never turned in the hooded sweatshirt she was supposedly making.
So when I won a significant four-year scholarship to one of the most prestigious universities in the country, a lot of kids and adults were shocked as hell — especially when the students who were actually expected to win those prizes didn’t do nearly so well. Those other students were respectably well-rounded. I, however, was not.
I am a specialist, or what some psychologists refer to as “spiky”, and that has advantaged me just as much as it has disadvantaged me.
So it’s not surprising that I was recently diagnosed with a form of ADD; what is surprising – even kind of shocking – is that I went so long without that diagnosis. But ADD doesn’t always look like the hyperactive kid cutting up in the classroom and swinging off the lighting fixtures and endearing himself to the teacher (not); it is also the quiet, well-behaved girl staring dreamily out the window, who has trouble paying consistent attention in class yet can hyper-focus enough to write a novel in six weeks or progress rapidly through tae kwon do. Who wins prizes and acclaim while also silently concluding that something is deeply, innately wrong with her; that she is, in fact, a total incompetent, especially if other people in her life are only too happy to support this assessment. Adderall, for all its stigma, is a godsend; it’s like LASIK for the brain and has quite literally changed my life.
But a brain of abnormal creativity or intellect or both (although studies indicate that degree of intelligence is not reflective of someone’s degree of creativity) is also just that - abnormal. It fails to work in the so-called normal ways and perhaps because of this overcompensates in others — or maybe vice versa. The body gives you one thing, but then takes away another. We only have so much material to work with.
What my ADD brain has in common with many highly creative people and also schizophrenics is this: an inability to properly filter outside stimuli. The world rushes at and in you and gets all jumbled around in your head. This creates a habitual mental pattern of free-associating words, images, ideas, bits of knowledge; of putting things together in odd ways and finding good reasons. It also might create a compulsion for narration: for organizing experience into story, finding order and meaning and, thus, a certain kind of calm otherwise denied it. When these associations and narrations are coherent, you might have an original piece of art, or a major scientific breakthrough. When incoherent, you might have…a total breakdown in the whole mental process.
There are healthy brains, and unhealthy brains, and somewhere in the middle there might be creative brains. The brains that are the most creative might also be the closest to the edge. “Exceptional creatives”, when compared to “normal” people (who do not earn significant income through creative work, at least as defined by this particular study), have an unusually high number of schizophrenic and mood-disordered people in their family. Writers especially turn out to have a lot of depression and bipolar disorder riding through their genetics. Is this, again, a consequence of the brain’s odd functioning, an increasingly troubled way of processing world experience? Adderall not only clarifies and focuses my thinking in a way that seems miraculous to me – lifting me out of some dusty emotional little corner of my brain all the way up to the sleek CEO suite – it also kills off my low-level depression, as well as the anxiety I used to associate with too much caffeine, even on those days when I hadn’t had any (again, that lack of attention to detail…). This is not unusual, a psychiatrist informed me; in fact, depression and anxiety are sometimes not the root cause, but the symptoms thrown off by something else. Like ADD.
The brain is a tangled affair.
Understanding this helped me realize that I actually don’t require solitude to be creative – if anything, just the opposite. I need color and action, beauty and ugliness, novelty and stimulation. I need all that…if just to space out in the middle of it.
I need solitude to recover. My brain rides high through an endless hailstorm of sensation and information, enjoys the beauty, passion and intensity of it all – then hits a breaking point. That’s when I get edgy and bitchy and need – in the literal, physiological sense of the word – to get the hell away from the party.
I remember certain school assignments that required you to hand in your brainstorming, note-taking, early drafts, etcetera, so that you could be graded on process as well as final product. They were a pain in the ass for me. My first draft back then usually was my final product. I would then have to fake the “process”, sometimes so unconvincingly that the process mark would drag down my “real” mark and make me want to bang my head against my locker.
But so often it felt like that, and not just in school: like I was coming at life from the wrong angle.
When you’re a square peg who has spent so many years trying to fit yourself into the same round holes that other pegs can do in blindfolds and straightjackets, sooner or later, in order to save yourself, you must admit the sheer stupidity of the whole attempt. A square peg, no matter how attractive it might look on the outside, or even how round it gets clever and deluded enough to pass itself off as – is still a square peg, and will be so forever and always. Far better to chop out a place that you can live and work and breathe in, than to keep carving away bits and pieces of yourself, especially when there are others in your life who will suffer the consequences alongside you - and still others who will be so very glad to hand you the scalpel and point out the next part that needs to go. They might even cut it off for you.
So I had this idea in my head – this nice round hole of an idea – how a writer like me should go about the act of actually writing. How I should find my room, just as Woolf said, and close the door and lock it for good measure.
And sometimes I need to do that. I need to soothe and heal my odd little brain.
But maybe if I’d examined my life a little more carefully, I would have realized that some of my favorite and most productive writing and thinking sessions happened in cafes, or other places where, instead of shutting the world out, I could find a way to watch it go by, and let some of it in, and thrive off the energy it gives me.
After all, I’m a writer. I like to watch.
So if my natural place isn’t at the rounded center of things, it also isn’t removed and sealed away in a room. Rather, I seem to flourish in the edges between, where there’s enough to look and marvel at, and enough space to wander… and enough brick wall to make sure I drift back to my laptop instead of through Bloomingdale’s.