Last weekend I gave a short improvised speech to fiction, poetry and non-fiction students at the close of the first Atheneum, a new writing program run by the Attic Institute in Portland. For the last eleven months I mentored four fiction students working on novels and short story collections. The following essay is a better herded version of my thoughts.

Your Mental Dojo

The Writers’ Dojo is a writing studio and community center in North Portland. The space has an open floor plan and draws the writer in with great lighting, couches, writing tables and the requisite full bookshelves with their requisite books. Large color photographs in frames provide visual commas on each wall. There isn’t too much art so you feel it’s been over designed or curated, but enough to provide the unexpected writing prompt. I’ve given workshops at the Dojo, my writing group occasionally meets there and I pop in for readings. Several writers I know work there every day. But for me the Writers’ Dojo is unobtainable, a mirage. It’s a twenty-minute freeway drive from my home in Southeast Portland, and since I define my world by where I can easily commute by bike, the Dojo might as well be in the Yukon.

But we need spaces like this, the clean, well lighted spaces, the rooms of our own. We need quiet places to write and reflect. Those rooms must be internal, rooms that you can carry with you.

Too many writers complain about where and why they cannot write. Your apartment is too cluttered. The cafe is too loud. This is all fine when you’ve had a certain amount of success, both with the printed word and in achieving a daily practice of writing. I have a friend who will not write on the ground floor of any building: that she has several books published and writes every day grants license to her eccentricity.

The clean well-lighted place, the Dojo with its stillness and sturdy wooden tables, some of which look like they were hacked off an old fir so recently you can smell the sap, these are spaces we need to recreate in our minds.

Because we’re all busy, with families, friends, lovers and/or the procurement of love, social obligations, that yoga class that we paid too much for to focus our minds, out of town visitors and the pushy charming devils of the digital age, the barrage of email and IM and SMS: acronyms that aid and abet our ADHD.

Two months after I started writing my novel Captain Freedom my first son was born. He had colic, a form of sleep torture developed in a North Korean lab. The parenting books suggested it would last three months. An early Tiger Baby over-achiever, my son’s colic lasted for eight months. It’s not that we didn’t sleep at all. He slept sometimes, but he was more likely to sleep between seven and midnight than say, three to five. Each night on several occasions we would be jerked out of our sleep, ripped awake by inconsolable wailing. Many pre-dawn mornings found me catching up on The New Yorker, pacing around the kitchen with him in the Baby Bjorn, reading aloud at two and/or three and/or four.

Colic is not particularly good for writing or healthy living, especially when it lasts for eight months, but regular writing had always been key to my sanity. So I woke up and wrote between five and seven-thirty in the morning, because this was the one time my boy was guaranteed to sleep. It was so early that I had tricked myself: I got up, made coffee and forgot to question how much better I’d feel when I had to go to work at nine if I’d slept those two and a half hours. Each morning my dog looked up from her bed and did not stir, only cocked up one ear which asked “are you fucking kidding me?”

That small dark recess, that fringe of the clock between five and seven-thirty became my clean well-lighted place.

I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, but you need to find that space that’s yours alone, free from friends and kids and wives and husbands and partners. You need to say sorry, this is my time. And then you need to defend that space and time as if it were the Holy Land.

Talismans

You are all so very brave. Brave and fierce, all for different reasons. In prose and poetry you have confronted very different dragons. You have grappled with death in your families, with coming out after a lifetime in the closet, with translating stories between Malayalam and English, with your first public readings of your work, and you have met each request from your teachers with power and grace.

But we are often not so brave, especially alone at our desks, without the fortitude of our peers and mentors. Which is why I encourage you to seek out talismans. You will know what they are when you find them. I have encouraging emails from other writers printed out and tacked on the walls of my office. Whenever I give a reading, or comedy performance or I’m about to teach new material I hide beforehand and listen to the same psych-up song. Inside my black binder, where I keep many of the comedy essays and shorts I’ve written over the years, the binder which I take to every reading and performance and workshop, I have a photo of my older son. He was three months, right in the depths of colic, but he had just learned to smile. I put the picture in my binder when I gave my very first reading, almost seven years ago.

Along with art and maps and plots scrawled on butcher paper that clutter my office walls is a print-out of a quote from Samuel Beckett. Even though I’m nearsighted the words are in a font big enough so I can make them out from any point in the room without my glasses.

Ever tried.

Ever failed.

No matter.

Try again.

Fail again.

Fail better.

Find your own talisman to keep you brave. Sometimes you need to believe in magic.

Scaffolding

I grew up in and around New York City and when you live there you have to deal with scaffolding. The scaffolding is everywhere for building repair and window washing and it’s hideous: it’s like they’ve given braces to the buildings and sometimes the braces stay on for years. In New York you don’t need anything to increase your claustrophobia, but scaffolding crowds you in because the support poles take up significant room in the sidewalk. In the summer unidentifiable drops of moisture condense on the metal and find their way to your nape and if you are very fortunate they are colorless and you can pretend they are water drops.

There are a few advantages. Sometimes there will be scaffolding connecting your apartment all the way to the subway, and if you’re lucky all the way from the subway to your job, so you don’t need an umbrella for when it rains or spits out that horrible frozen brown they call snow.

Eventually the scaffolding comes off and you don’t recognize the building anymore. You’re surprised the building doesn’t topple.

Your mentors for the past eleven months were scaffolding. You didn’t need me to teach you to write fiction, you didn’t need your other instructors to teach you non-fiction or poetry. We gave you deadlines, you gave us pages and we met and worked through them, one-on-one. But you were the ones who wrote those pages, who met our arbitrary deadlines. Never once did I sit down and type those words for you.

Now eleven months later the scaffolding comes off. You will form new writing groups, you will mentor others, you will make your own arbitrary deadlines and meet them. You will keep writing, editing and questioning your work. The building does not fall.

One final thing: we are all peers. We are all students. We are all teachers.

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G. XAVIER ROBILLARD is a comedy writer, performer and novelist. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Comedy Central and on NPR. Robillard is the author of the comic novel Captain Freedom: A Superhero's Quest for Truth, Justice and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves (Harper Collins), and producer/writer/performer of the comedy album G is for Gangsta. You may entertain yourself with more of him at All Day Coffee and on Twitter.

10 responses to “Words for Writing Students: A Clean Well-Lighted Place for your Brain”

  1. Jessica Blau says:

    1. One love the slumping baby in your lap. 2. The Beckett quote is one of my favorites. 3. I’m at a writers’ colony right now, sitting in my studio looking out a field with three horses in it. But what am I doing? Checking TNB. DANG! Getting off now–back to the novel!

    Great essay. Thanks for posting this!

  2. For some reason I imagine the horses to be tiny toy horses. A pasture of tiny toy horses! Yes. Get back to work.

  3. JohnO says:

    Bravo! A very inspiring essay here. I had a writing teacher in grad school who, when she learned we were having a second child, said I would have to master the art of writing in the middle of a room on a laptop, like Jane Austen. How very, very wrong she was — to everyone else, writing looks like you’re just sitting there, waiting for them to interrupt you, or to tell you to fold the goddamn laundry. Ironically, the only one who can pull that off is my son.

  4. Matt says:

    I’ve found, for myself, that I only get into the “can’t write” phase when the writing itself isn’t working. i.e. when the essay just won’t come together, when the snarl in the short story’s plot just won’t unravel, etc. That’s the point where the environment becomes intrusive to the point of distraction, sometimes infuriatingly so. And since the problem is really internal, changing the environment doesn’t actually help much; the only choice is to let go for a while and work on something else.

    When the writing IS working, however, my focus is usually so intense it takes a brigade of elephants to distract me. Then the environment doesn’t matter: busy coffee shop, quiet library, middle of a Category-3 hurricane….there’s nothing but me and the story. I’m usually most comfortable writing from my desk at home, with a hot cup of tea and a few hours’ of preprogrammed tunes going on the stereo, but I write a lot of my first drafts by hand, so there’s nothing to stop me from taking my notebook and a pen out to the beach or a park and writing there. Which I often do.

    An early Tiger Baby over-achiever, my son’s colic lasted for eight months. I feel bad for laughing at that, but not bad enough to stop. Sorry, kid!

  5. Art Edwards says:

    So true, Big G.

    Here’s the advice I doled out elsewhere today:

    Write when you really don’t want to. You’ll eventually get your writer-head on, and the end result is usually indistinguishable to the reader.

  6. a nice reminder to find the space and hold tight to it. the Beckett is graven into my right forearm, less for writing, more for life. fail on, fail on.

  7. Jen Tarchin says:

    My daughter didn’t sleep for a couple of years. This was long ago but it made me realize I could pare down my expectations for myself and still find sanity in my studio.
    Recently following a no sleep night and in the middle of the kitchen I wrote two pages of abstract esoteric descriptions and surprised myself. The Dojo of my mind is portable and I can take it everywhere I go,,,, sometimes.

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