Where do you like to write? (Or, where did you write where every word counted?)

The Substack #AmWriting had a great prompt: Where is your favorite writing spot? And why?

Where do you like to write? (Or, where did you write where every word counted?)

The Substack #AmWriting had a great prompt: Where is your favorite writing spot? And why? I highly recommend looking through the answers of other writers. They tell some fantastic stories about how the words pour in the most unlikely places.

I am a bit apprehensive about the prompt. I've written a lot that was incoherent and incomplete. Word salads I didn't think to revisit or edit but published anyway. Many of those pre-drafts were composed in comfortable, even luxurious settings. So there's some shame on my part: Did I waste golden opportunities?

Moreover, there's advice about writing related to Toni Morrison which unnerves me. Emily Temple, compiling her wisdom, says in LitHub: "Don’t read your work out loud until it’s finished." This startled me, because I try to read every few sentences aloud to see if I make any sense at all. The full explanation by Morrison:

I don’t trust a performance. I could get a response that might make me think it was successful when it wasn’t at all. The difficulty for me in writing—among the difficulties—is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on. So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.

--from a 1993 interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review

I think I understand her first idea. Performances can be misleading, even if you're the audience. You say it out loud, it doesn't sound bad, you think it works. You don't realize how much your own sound is permission. Still, her advice invokes aspirations I hope I can eventually act upon. How can I "write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn't hear anything?" How do I attend to "What is not said?"

The funny thing is that my brain broke when I struggled to be clear because I was much more attentive to esotericism. In other words, I was paying close attention to what texts didn't say and thinking about the ways they subverted their loudest message. I was told to be clear but not taught the same, and clarity was not a virtue in those years in any case. A lot of people around me were very clear and it was a terrible environment if you wanted to offer something different. Nowadays, I believe I have to focus on making sure my voice is heard and understandable. Later, I may be able to look at implicit themes and work with their inherent musicality.

I guess I've answered this prompt one way already. I can tell you where not to write.


Where to write? Well, there was this one day in Salzburg where it was perfect for everyone to be out and about, and they were. Everything was clean and ready for tourists. The air was filled with that sense of history you get from reading markers near old houses telling you who important people were.

I was miserable. I sat by myself in a trendy cafe watching the tourists bustle about, surrounded by a lot of preppy locals. Two well-dressed, rich young men in particular sat at a nearby table and talked about the various cars they owned. I had some fancy coffee drink–cappuccinos in Europe tasted different, I felt–and I had some paper and a pen. I was fighting to get the words right.

I was in Europe with my choir, who sang polyphony for the sake of liturgy. The trip was about singing our best pieces in old churches; every so often we would perform an actual Mass. There were long stretches on the bus where you'd see endless green or yellow, punctuated by a farm that belonged on a postcard. Mountains were in the distance, but you'd eventually feel the bus climb the hillier ground. The towns could have been movie sets. The Old World was real and everything felt better, or should have felt better.

I had been dumped. I was older than most in choir and wasn't a very good singer (I'm a "baritone"). Even if I was a more accomplished vocalist, I wasn't a traditional Catholic and had no plans to be. I wasn't terribly secure about what I was doing in graduate school, either. I was learning so much and I thought I was gaining a grip on the history of thought few had. But I didn't know how to turn that into anything; writing papers was a struggle. I was in Europe and every insecurity I had was screaming at me.

I don't have the words I wrote that afternoon anymore. I remember I did my best impression of Hemingway. I talked about how we rolled across the landscape, heard the various bells toll, and I was out of place, feeling both gratefulness and pain. I didn't realize then what I do now. We were all lonely and unsure where we were headed, and being in Europe for a choir trip was a strange sort of delight. Everyone stuck tightly to their cliques, some a little too tight. It was a few weeks away, an immersion in alien grandeur.

Those 2 or 3 hours in Salzburg, I believe, were the best place to write. I didn't really lose the words and I am clear on what has to be related.


I certainly would like to hear about your favorite writing spots in the comments. Also, please do support this blog by promoting and recommending it. If you have something positive to say, I'm happy to feature your quote on my "What Readers Say" page.