Whether we prefer busy coffee shops or the comfort of our beds, we all have a favorite place to write. Today we have Jamie Lynne Burgess here to kick off a new blog series on writing environments by sharing a cautionary tale about a time where she was perhaps a bit too over overzealous in the search for the perfect writing spot:
On my second night in the cabin, the ants came in droves. They were on the larger side, which is to say that I could see their mandibles, and I imagined their tiny jaws clipping at my skin while I slept. So I did not sleep, because I expected to wake up and find the ants crawling all over me. To find that they had built a nest inside my sleeping bag. To find that thousands of ants had united and were carrying me aloft to their lair.
I went to the cabin because I wished to live—erm, well—deliberately. This cabin was at the end of a rutted-out road and a three-quarter-mile hill. I lugged my typewriter to the top. To my chagrin (and my mother’s delight), my phone still worked there. But I turned it off because I didn’t need the distraction. I went to write.
After five weeks in the cabin, I can tell you this: living alone in the woods does not help you become a better writer.
Hierarchy of Needs
In the cottagecore fantasy, the cabin is the place where the worries and self-doubt about my writing dissolve and disappear. The words flow naturally onto the page. I hardly need to revise. I found this (of course) to be fallacy. While in the cabin, I was too concerned with mundane, basic needs to do something higher-level, like create art. The hierarchy of needs, developed by
Maslow, describes the way humans must satisfy certain basic needs before they can move up the rungs toward self-actualization.
While in the cabin, there was no electricity or running water, so cooking took longer, and I needed to tend the wood stove for heat. While these little tasks can be pleasures of a life in the woods, too many unfamiliar factors make it difficult to create.
When the ants moved in, writing became a lost cause. My constant preoccupation with their activity was a distraction worse than Twitter. They might have been a minor threat, but the fact is I didn’t feel comfortable enough to be safe.
Love & Belonging
Though I daydreamed of the time I would be blissfully, utterly alone in Vermont, I found myself craving community. It’s no secret that accountability works for many writers—NaNoWriMo is a testament to that fact—and that a writing community offers great motivation.
By the time I have satisfied the needs leading to esteem, it seems I am better able to create. Esteem is about mastery and feelings of accomplishment. Your own inner critic may be one of your greatest blocks toward achieving “esteem.” Inner critics are generally not allowed in NaNoWriMo: this month, it’s write first, edit later.
With basic needs met, writers can begin to create from a completely different space, one that isn’t predicated on fear or urgency for inspiration. This is when you face the page with no other needs but to write. And that is an entirely different challenge.
If you cannot escape to the woods, or another writing-place of your dreams, consider the ways your current environment is meeting many of your needs already: at home, you know the place well and are comfortable here. You do not need to exert any extra mental energy to navigate an unfamiliar place. Your current environment could be just the place for you to write from a place of calm. This writing could be your best.
And if you are not convinced, and you still wish to go into the woods, I encourage you to think carefully about the ways that your needs will be met there. How will you nourish yourself? Keep yourself warm? Will you feel a sense of security and belonging? And if it so happens that your cabin is invaded by ants, maybe you (unlike me) can use it as inspiration to write the next Metamorphosis.
Jamie Lynne Burgess is a writer in residence at Elsewhere Studios in Paonia, Colorado, where she is working on a novel about climate change in the South Pacific. She has lived in many places, including the Marshall Islands, France, and New England, and place is at the center of her work. Jamie Lynne is also the author of the Awake Tinyletter. Visit jamielynneburgess.com to learn more.