I once read that Maya Angelou rented a hotel room in which to write: just her, a pad of paper, a handful of pens. I heard of another writer who composed longhand while sitting on the edge of his bathtub. When living in New York City, I wrote on the subway, people pressing in on me from every angle, and during stolen breaks at my office job. I felt, as many do, that the hardest part of writing was finding the time and place to actually do it. When I was accepted to an MFA program, I rejoiced that this problem of finding time was in the rearview. Three years unfurled before me, a plush red carpet leading to the elusive land of simply being a writer.
My illusions were shattered before the term even started: sweating through summer Teaching Assistant training during the day and laboring over my syllabus at night. And once class started, there were the additional demands of being a student again: assignments to read, papers to write, other student stories to read and critique.
I will stop myself here, lest I make it seem I am bemoaning three of the most enriching years of my life. Rather, I mean to share the important realization I reached during that time: there is no ideal situation for a writer. I would always have to fight for my right—to write. The solitary pursuit of writing becomes the easiest thing to drop when faced with the needs of friends, colleagues, and loved ones. It’s a laborious and often slow process that can be shelved in favor of immediate needs—a rumbling stomach, a heap of dirty laundry, a stack of sticky dishes. Virginia Woolf was right about requiring a room of one’s own—she just left out the other necessities: 24-hour maid service and meal delivery.
I discovered that to write takes discipline. I would only write better by writing more, and I would only write more if I scheduled time for myself on my calendar. I started scheduling dates at a local coffee shop, where I would work on my fiction. It was great—until it wasn’t. I got to know my fellow café patrons, and thus became roped into frequent small talk. The stale coffee smell of the shop began to permeate my clothes until I couldn’t stand the stench any longer.
That led to my second realization: the best writing discipline is the one that works in that particular moment. My routine at the neighborhood café worked until it didn’t. I had to come up with new routines, new places to go. Sometimes that place was my own desk, or the library, or other cafes whose aroma had yet to offend me. I took a notebook to the local art and natural history museums and wrote down anything that occurred to me while looking at paintings and taxidermied mountain lions.
I sought advice. I had a professor who advised me that it was sometimes necessary to “step on the neck of a story” and wrestle it onto the page no matter if I felt inspired or not. This worked—sometimes—such as when I found myself writing around an integral, emotionally fraught part of my novel. I eventually had to sit down and write the damn scene already. I had another professor who introduced me to the idea of meditation as an essential component of the creative life. The discipline was the meditation, of taking time for oneself, and simply being in the moment. For her, unlike for the first professor, writing didn’t only happen on a computer or in a notebook, it happened in the mind as well.
The funny thing was, their contradicting advice didn’t befuddle me. Rather, it freed me. I found I could wholeheartedly agree with each of them in turn. I’ve decided that bad writing advice does not exist in theory but in practice—if the one receiving the advice implements it, regardless if it works.
I recently graduated from my program and had to readjust my discipline yet again. I’m still scheduling writing time on my calendar, still seeking new places to write. I’ve joined a weekly writing group in which we work quietly for a time, then come together to share. I’ve abandoned my meditation practice but am sure I will return to it again soon, just as I will wrestle certain stories into the ground, and leave others in a drawer for another day. I know each day will begin a new battle in the fight for time to write—until, that is, I can afford that magical oasis with private chef and uninterrupted solitude.
Stephanie Wilson Rothfuss is a writer who lives in Seattle. Her work has appeared in mojo, Hot Metal Bridge, and unFold, and she is currently working on a novel, Outside Detroit. You can follow her and her novel at stephaniewilsonrothfuss.tumblr.com and outsidedetroit.tumblr.com. >> Hire Stephanie on Writer.ly here.