Our Materials

Dear Karen,

A few years ago during a time in which I was feeling badly about my writing, and wondering if I wanted to continue, I watched a PBS show about a group of people saving some wetlands in Florida. A writer was at the head of the fight and a still shot of her flashed on the screen. There she sat at her desk with her paper and her pen before her, and although I felt admiration for all that she’d done to preserve an important slice of nature, I also felt a profound sadness. You see, not long before, I’d seen a program on craft, and I’d watched artists enter their studios and interact with their materials, be it stone, or clay, or paint, or yarn, or wire. The materials the artists worked with were endless, and tactile, and it seemed to me the materials were the very things they used to access the muse, to enter into the zone.

Maybe I was just feeling self-pity at the time, but I remember thinking poor writers. All we have are ink and paper. And these days our materials are even more clinical and dry. A computer screen. A printer. Both pieces of equipment serve many other purposes, from surfing the web, to checking email, to visiting Facebook, to printing out bills and invoices, to shopping. These pieces of equipment might even be shared by family members.

When I first got serious about writing I purchased a MacIntosh portable – which then was only a little smaller than an IBM Selectric Typewriter. I needed that computer because I cannot type. Mistakes abound and I needed a way to fix them before they hit the page, so I was (and am) very grateful for the technology.

I set the computer up on a desk made out of saw horses and an old door. I lived in a little cabin in Chatham County at the time, a place with a leaky roof, a giant woodstove made out of an old hot water heater, and a dead end road where local boys would come to drink and get stoned. It was a lonely place, a solitary place. I once found a snake skin draped across my clean dishes, but I never found the snake. A starving puppy crawled under my porch during a torrential rain storm. Even with the rain thundering on the tin roof, I thought I heard something crying. Sometimes when the local boys came to drink at the end of the road where my cabin was, I would turn on all the lights, and open the front door and let it slam. Then I’d yell back into the house to nobody, “I don’t know who it is. Why don’t you get the flashlight and let’s go check.” At which point the engines would start and the cars would peel out. I felt pretty clever about that, but still vulnerable. But I was writing finally and in some ways that was all that mattered.

I remember the slant of light across my desk in the morning. The coffee I drank in the big red mug. Opening the computer and turning it on, and opening the file for Life Without Water, my first novel. The desk, the chair, the morning, the coffee, and even the computer took on a sort of sacred quality. Every morning I was there and these things met me and triggered my brain into writing. The scent of coffee took me there. The click of the computer case when I opened it. The sigh of the chair as I sat down. I felt supported in this place. I felt supported by it. I have never felt that in quite the same way since.

My computer now serves multiple purposes, as does everyone’s. I try to separate my writing from the rest of the work I do here. For the past several years I’ve written my fiction on the couch, but now I have a desk. The only thing that happens at that desk is my own writing, yet somehow it hasn’t quite taken on the sacred quality of my first desk, my first computer, my first novel. Maybe that’s the way it is when you keep writing. On my first book tour a fellow author said to me that he thought a first novel is like a first love. It’s never quite the same again.

I can believe that, but at the same time I can believe that a writer’s materials and equipment have been somewhat hijacked. I wonder what it was like when a writer had to make her own ink and paper. I wonder if wandering the woods searching for berries evoked the muse. I wonder if writing took on a seasonal quality, the best berries, the time for ink-making being in the late summer and fall, making winter the time to buckle down by the fire and write, that holiness of solitude and cold and fire.

Love, Nancy

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4 Responses to Our Materials

  1. I write with a pen (like a hypodermic needle it’s so fine), on good paper and the physical thrill of that connection could never be matched by a computer, clicking away like a box of shaken chiclets. It’s always an option. Of course I’m 73, the computer came late in life, but pen and paper is always available. Give it a try.

    • admin says:

      Hi Abigail – I write with a pen myself. I have some special ones, and I agree that the physical connection is much stringer. Whenever I feel stuck around a scene while writing a novel, I always try it with pen and paper. And something always breaks through. I also prefer my students, if we are writing from prompts, to use pen and paper. I think it accesses a more genuine part of ourselves. Thanks for your comment. Write on! Nancy

  2. Nancy, I love what you say about the seasonality possibility of writing. Stalking the wild berry or gall wasp to make ink. The fire and the light of winter secures and binds words like summer (for me anyway) sort of flits them onto the page with a shorthand, a frenzy of scribbling. I love your rememberances of the room where you first wrote. For me nothing can take the place of the huge desk I got on a lucky day that Southern States, about 15 years ago, was throwing it away. Away. It is heavy and big and thick and grounds the laptop, firing my mornings work. Working the scribbles of summer, a stain now where my coffee, slips and steams at hand. What you kicked off is very emotional! Thank you, Nancy.

  3. admin says:

    Hi Dorette – Thank you for this. I love the image of your desk with its coffee stain, its history, the way it keeps serving you and grounding you. That’s a good desk! Keep stalking those words – if not the wild berry or gall wasp. I wonder how much more competitive writers would be if we were heading out into the same woods for a limited supply of berries with which to make ink. Best – Nancy

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