An essay about writing from home, and my obsession with the work rituals of other writers. By Karley Sciortino.
This essay was originally written for the current issue of one of my longtime favorite magazines, Apartamento. Above pic of Susan Sontag.
I have been working (and by working I mean writing) from home for nearly a decade. During this time, I’ve learned how dramatically a home itself can affect the work that’s done inside it. Beyond that, I’ve learned of the labyrinthian, often ridiculous rituals writers devise for themselves, in order to trick themselves into being able to write.
When I started writing, at 21, I lived in a squatted hostel in London, with 14 other drifters, losers, addicts, and artists who never made any art. It was fun, but it was hard to focus—I blamed my lack of productivity on all the drugs and sex that were inevitably being had in one of the building’s thirteen rooms. It wasn’t my fault, it’s was the house’s fault. Still, when I was able to write, it was the house itself, and the colorful stream of people who came through it, that I felt endlessly compelled to write about. In fact, I feel confident in saying that it was in part that house that made me a writer.
Joan Didion at home
A year and a half ago, at 28, I moved into my own apartment—my first time living alone. I’d wanted to live alone for years, but could never afford it. However, my new column at Vogue meant I suddenly had just enough to rent a tiny, one bedroom, rent-stabilized apartment in Gramercy, Manhattan. I was convinced that living alone would make me more productive—smarter, even. Gone were the days of bartender roommates drunkenly cramping my creative genius. I had it all planned out: I would fill my apartment with books and antique mirrors and more books, and I’d clutter the walls with framed artworks in the salon style, and suddenly the sentences would just leap out of my subconscious and onto the keyboard with eloquent abandon. Right. Looking back, it’s obvious that I was (sort of obliviously) dressing my apartment to look like what I imagined the “home of a writer” looks like. From the hours I’d spent Googling “writers at home” over the years, I had a clear image in my mind of a photograph of Joan Didion, sitting in her house in Malibu, the walls wrapped with bookshelves, her desk strewn with papers, rows of notes tacked to the wall behind her. And another photo of Susan Sontag, almost identical, only with more books towered up along the floor. They both looked very “writerly.” Like an actor puts on the costume to help get into character, I was buying the furniture and stacking the books and hanging the framed, vintage New Yorker covers to become the writer I wanted to be.
But it’s not just the decor—there’s a whole convoluted routine that goes along with it. Most people, in order to get themselves into “work mode,” shower, put on some form of appropriate clothing, and commute to either an office or some sort of space that’s specifically dedicated to facilitating a type of work. The ritual becomes a trigger for the work itself. When you work from home, though, you’re left to create your own rituals, which you quickly become dependent on. For instance, in order to write I (feel that I) need: total quiet (no music, phone on silent, etc); Ritalin (between 5 and 10mg); a large cup of either coffee or unsweetened green tea; comfortable clothing (generally just an oversized T-shirt); and lastly, to be lying down. The lying down part has become bizarrely important—after writing in bed for almost a decade, now, when I try to write sitting up, I feel as though my brain isn’t functioning at its full potential. Of course, it’s all just psychosomatic bullshit. I am victim to the placebo.
Once all of these pieces are in place, then I can start writing. And by “start writing” I mean that I can start staring at a Google docs page, occasionally writing a few sentences, but mostly just pacing back and forth across my apartment, biting my nails, making tea, checking my phone, feeling bad about checking my phone, turning my phone off, writing a few more sentences, turning my phone back on. And so on. In an interview with the Paris Review, Susan Sontag once described her “writing process,” which made me feel better about the anxious, shambolic way I tend to write. Sontag said, “Getting started is partly stalling, stalling by way of reading and of listening to music, which energizes me and also makes me restless. Feeling guilty about not writing. … I write in spurts. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific.”
Truman Capote at home
In trying to find a ritual that works for working, I’ve spent hours researching the rituals of writers I admire—the tricks they use to get in the zone, how they transform their home into a work space. Some highlights from what I’ve uncovered: Simone de Beauvoir kept a strict routine. Each day she’d wake up, have tea, began writing at 10am and work until 1pm. In the afternoon she’d see friends, and then at five o’clock she’d work for another four hours, either at her own home, or at the home of her long-time partner, Jean-Paul Sartre. Maya Angelou would write from a hotel room she payed for by the month. She had all the paintings and decorations taken out of the room—save for a thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible—and would ask housekeeping never to come in, to avoid all distractions. Jonathan Franzen wears earplugs when writing, and goes as far to block out all light from his writing space, barricading the windows with bedsheets and pillows to create a noiseless, darkened room. Janet Malcolm, another of my favorite writers, writes from her house on Gramercy Park. She starts in the morning and writes until she’s tired or stuck, at which point she makes herself go for a walk outside, which often provides the solution.
In an interview with David Foster Wallace in the Believer, Wallace talked about his struggle to create a routine, a discipline, in his otherwise “chaotic” way of writing. He said, “I mostly work at home now, although I know I’d work better, faster, more concentratedly if I went someplace else. … What often happens is that when work goes well all my routines and disciplines go out the window simply because I don’t need them, and then when it starts not going well I flounder around trying to reconstruct disciplines I can enforce and habits I can stick to.” In other words, while the formulas and furniture (or lack thereof) might make working easier, it will never be easy.
The lovely Marlene Marino took some photos of me at home for Apartamento, to accompany this essay.