For the first twenty-five years of my writing life, I wrote in my office, at my desk, five days a week, in the early morning. I almost never wrote at home or on weekends. When I got to work, I’d keep my door closed and, except on dark winter mornings, leave the lights off so no one would know I was there.
I mused about someday having a nook, a corner, a cave–some space–in which I could go and just do my writing, with no time limits or distractions. But anytime I was tempted to feel sorry for myself, I recalled an account I’d read by Alexander Solzhenitsyn of his time in the Gulag.
Denied pen or paper, and facing severe punishment if he were caught writing anything–never mind a fictional account of life in the camps–he used the burnt tips of matches and toilet paper to write in whatever moments of solitude he could snatch for himself. That’s how he completed the manuscript of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
Each morning, Solzhenitsyn remembered, as he and his fellow prisoners mustered in the freezing, Siberian dawn to be counted and dispatched to do heavy labor, the loudspeaker blared patriotic songs or official propaganda.
One day, however, it played a radio program form Moscow on “The Writer’s Life.” The first thing a writer should do, the announcer intoned, was to secure a comfortable place that was his alone. His desk should be uncluttered and the research and books he needed carefully catalogued and shelved. Quiet was crucial, although it was permissible to have classical music playing softly in the background.
“Now,” the announcer said, “you will be ready to begin the work of writing.”
We know what happened to Solzhenitsyn. He survived the camps. His manuscript was circulated in private and eventually published. He went on to write a series of epic novels and “The Gulag Archipelago,” an exhaustive and influential account of Stalin’s far-flung network of slave-labor camps. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
But what, I wonder, happened to all those writers listening to the same broadcast he had, those who found their quiet, secure place, the uncluttered desk, classical music playing in the background?
I now write at home, in Hastings-on-Hudson, in an office I had built on the top floor. (The contractor was Kevin Groves, who’s also the main contractor for the ongoing restoration of the Tenement Museum, on Orchard Street, not far from where my great-grandparents and grandparents lived.)
It’s a dream space, with lots of bookshelves, a couch, an easy chair, a capacious desk, and mirable dictu, a view of the Hudson River and the Palisades.
I delighted and grateful to have this room of my own and the view of the Hudson Valley. But my writing hasn’t improved. I don’t write any faster or any better. I’m not sure what lesson in all this is. Certainly, I wouldn’t want to find myself in Solzhenitsyn’s predicament, or back at my old desk in Time Warner.
Still, I think it’s true for anyone serious about being a writer, if you can’t write in the place you want, then write in the place you are.