On the morn ing of February 17th, 2011 I opened my laptop to resume work on a young adult novel that had been kicking my butt for weeks. But now there was a new development that I was certain would put new kinks in an already complicated and increasingly intricate story: I was back in my childhood home.
I’d recently moved back to my home town and I was living in southern Kentucky for the first time in almost ten years.
Now, let’s get one thing straight: I had never considered myself superstitious. Not in the traditional sense. And I never really believed in luck, either. I always felt like when people said something was lucky, it was just an annoying way of discrediting someone else’s efforts and success. No, I’d never been superstitious at all, not until I committed to a writing routine th at forced me to write five days a week for at least two to three hours each day. I’d come to depend on that routine. My morning began when my laptop opened and I secretly classified my days as good or bad depending on the word count reached or chapters finished.
I was living in Chicago when the routine really fell into place. And it wasn’t anything I was really conscious of. Most mornings I got up, had breakfast, gathered my book notes and laptop into my leather messenger bag and headed out to my local Starbucks. I got a cup of coffee and worked for about two to three hours and then left for lunch. The time usually flew by. The words flowed out of me and it felt like my brain had come to accept what the schedule was—and there was no protest, which is what all writers aim for: the words to be there, answering that persistent idea that only you can work into final form. The work I was doing on my novel was good and I always left the café happy, no, joyful was more like it. Every writer knows that feeling of putting in a good days work, that intense feeling of accomplishment. The just having written moment where you feel like the words will never fail you.
But when my personal life demanded that I return to Kentucky my routine was disrupted big time. Placing my towel-wrapped bookends in a cardboard box, I told myself it was silly to imagine my novel not getting done or me not being able to work just because of a new environment. I figured writers could write anywhere and yeah, I was getting a whole lot done in Chicago, but couldn’t I do the same thing in Kentucky ? Sure I could. And if not, then why?
I mean, the well of ideas wasn’t going to just dry up just because of a change of scenery was it?
Packing up my apartment in Chicago, I got the first waves of panic. What if being back in that house blocked some energy I had going? What if I lost my momentum? What if I didn’t get that uninterrupted span of time I needed to see the manuscript through to completion? I tried to push those thoughts aside as I sealed each box with thick strips of packing tape. I tried to picture my new workspace: my desk would look out onto a hundred-acre farm. And long stretches of uninterrupted time? It would be harder to come by, but don’t all writers find ways to carve out nooks of time here and there? I didn’t have any kids so what was I freaking out about? Being a writer means writing and getting the job done. Not letting minor psychological upsets work you into a senseless feeling of dread.
The truth was, I had come to associate the urban environment with being productive and yeah, with my identity as a writer. I’d been able to go about anonymously, simply attending to the story. I felt saturated in it and the Windy City was all work for me. And I loved the work. I loved nothing more than losing myself in the book I was writing. But if I associated the city with work, then what did that mean I would associate southern Kentucky with? I wanted the transition to be seamless, almost invisible. But was that even possible ? I suspected it would be more like hitting a speed bump.
Which it was. Returning to my hometown, though, proved to be one of the best moves of my career. It’s easy to relegate one’s hometown to your childhood, to see its faults and overlook its positive attributes, but I was pleasantly surprised by my hometown. There’s now a Fine Arts Bistro that boasts a café, a pottery studio, and art classes. There are also lots of local teaching opportunities in the area. But more importantly, the writing is still going well.
Turns out, it really is the simple act of showing up each day to write that makes all the difference.
Tasha Cotter is the author of “The Thing About Departures.”
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Beautifully written & well said. If you are focused on your work, it will happen. It doesn’t matter where you are. If your heart is in it you will find that place that works best for you.
I think you are exactly right. History has taught us that writers can thrive anywhere (Flannery O’Connor lived in Milledgeville Georgia for a lot of her life, Hemingway in Florida, Fitzgerald lived in New York for many years…). Now, where one lives has become even less of an issue for writers trying to get published, I would argue. I think this is mostly due to the advent of the web, online journals, and the ability to create an “online” presence. It no longer matters WHERE you live. What matters is the work being created–and getting that work into the world.
Tasha, when I first moved to Chicago—from California—I was startled by the work ethic, and particularly by the automated spectacle of people leaving their homes in the morning, gathering on el platforms, entering trains that carried them downtown, and then in reverse: people gushing from the entrances of the Loop skyscrapers in late afternoon, gathering on el platforms, entering trains that carried them home. The intensity of that forced march, that hive behavior, became a symbol for me of a very different work ethic than the one I had experienced in California.
Within two years, I was on that same human conveyor belt. So your references here to how much work you did in Chicago resonate with me. In California I can remember hazily whole weekends at the ocean, but here I work almost constantly, except when I’m doing what I must to counteract the deadly effects of work.
There’s also a soft theory that excess productivity in metropolitan areas gets expressed creatively, that the congregation of people and their ideas produces a kind of critical mass that energizes individual artistic production. This, supposedly, is a more latent reason why some artists—though certainly not all—gather in cities.
If either of these are true, they wouldn’t normally bode well for relocation to a more pastoral setting unless you carry some of that work ethic with you, or you remain radioactive for a time from the effect of the metropolitan critical mass, or if working here taught you to work anywhere, or if, as you suggest, the internet has redistributed creative energy so that location no longer matters.
Long road to a short question: Do you think you carried some Chicago glow with you in Kentucky?
I think so, but believe me, I didn’t always feel like I could work anywhere. I was born and raised in Kentucky and I always seemed to be wanting to move “away” when I was young. I guess I felt like I had something to prove. Now, I feel a lot different. I understand how to work and it probably doesn’t hurt that I’m pretty self-motivated and have a killer work ethic! So, to answer your question, I do think that Chicago has stayed with me.