My grandmother used to turn off her hearing aids at what seemed like the oddest times. There are those in my family who considered this an act of passive aggression. The more of herself she lost to dementia, though, the more striking the difference became between those moments the hearing aids were on, and she was fighting through the pain and confusion to make sense of her surroundings, and those moments the hearing aids were off, and her face registered nothing but a perfect, blissful peace.
The world I live in—a world of students and their essays, children and their questions, a marriage by turns on fire and burning down—is chock full of beauty, love, joy, adventure and excitement, and I never have to reach very far to find my gratitude. But sometimes when that beauty comes at me from ninety directions at once, with demands and deadlines attached to every one, I wish I had my grandmother’s hearing aids—those magical instruments that could instantly switch off the noise and bring her back to center.
I think a lot of writers have the same dilemma. We are called to engage fully in life, so that we have something real to write about, but we are also called—sometimes at the same time—to disengage fully so that we can do the work of processing, writing and revisioning our experience.
Ernest Hemingway famously sharpened 20 pencils before each writing session to put himself in the right frame of mind. Willa Cather read the Bible. Best-selling novelist Steve Berry goes in to work early, before anybody else is there, and writes in his laptop. J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in coffee shops because the walk outdoors was what it took to get her infant daughter to sleep.The list goes on—from the hyper-literary to the hyper-popular, writer after writer describes the need for silence. For escape. For a quiet center from which he or she can write.
That’s why this month my project to make myself a better writer was to find a space to escape the rest of my life. A scriptorium. A sanctum sanctorum from which I can put my words out into the world, and in which I can focus only on writing. I rented out a corner of an artsy tattoo shop on a second floor, with high ceilings, exposed brick, and a window overlooking Main Street. I don’t imagine the few lit journals that publish me will pay the rent, so I’ll take on more readings and sell more books to pay for it. I’ll be there 3 mornings a week for as long as I can afford it. With luck, I’ll find the place my grandmother found—my quiet center—and I’ll be able to put something worthwhile out into the world.