A Clean, Well-Lighted Place*

Hemingway posing for a dust jacket photo by Ll...
Hemingway posing for a dust jacket photo by Lloyd Arnold for the first edition of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (Image via Wikipedia)

Just about every book on writing you’re likely to ever pick up will begin with this advice: Find a place to write. It’s strange advice, in some ways, because the most important thing about writing should always be the writing — the words themselves — which means it shouldn’t matter where you write or even how you write. But for many of the same reasons research has shown that environment can effect our study habits or even our moods, where we write and what we use to write do impact what we write and how productive we are. Which is why today I’m working on an old computer.

It didn’t start out this way. What actually happened is this: Strictly speaking, we have only one computer in the house, and on weekends, my wife likes to catch up on work or surf the Web or play video games just as much as I do, which means we have to take turns on our laptop. But last week was extraordinarily busy, filled with non-writing errands and activities, and this weekend I wanted to catch up revising my novel. So, rather than play rock paper scissors over who would get the house computer, I hauled out my back-up computer.

This thing is not quite ancient, but by computer standards it is a certified antique, a blocky old Toshiba that’s only capable of running Windows 98, and even that is a dicey proposition. The graphics are cheap, the DVD-ROM drive has up and quit on me (and was ridiculously slow in the first place), and the whole system has an annoying habit of shutting itself down whenever it goes to screensaver, no matter what power settings or display options I set on it.

But I keep it around anyway, mostly out of sheer nostalgia. This old laptop was a gift from some very dear friends of mine. These friends are technophiles and have several computers between them, so this old reject was merely a cast-off for them, but they gave it to me several years ago because they knew that at the time I was desperate for a computer and couldn’t afford to buy one, and they knew that because I was traveling a lot at the time, a laptop would come in very handy indeed. It was, in short, a lifesaver, and I’ve come to love the buggy little thing.

Most importantly, though, this is the laptop on which I wrote my dissertation — the novel I’m revising now. I’d started this book about a decade ago, scribbling out what was at first a short story and then typing it up on my in-laws’ old desktop (that thing was still running Windows 3.1, if you can believe it), and then I knocked out notes here, scenes there, and cobbled together maybe 40 or 50 pages on various computers over the years. But by the time I needed to take the book seriously and try to write it up as my dissertation novel, I was working almost exclusively on this old Toshiba.

Then, in the summer of 2007, I broke my back. (I fell out of a tree. Yes, I was almost 31 then, and I was in a tree. Don’t ask — it’s a long story.) This broken back turned out to be somehow both horrible timing and perfect timing. On the one hand, I was laid up on pain killers yet barely able to sleep at night during the exact summer when I was supposed to be writing the bulk of my dissertation (which at that time had stretched to barely 80 pages and needed to be much, much longer). On the other hand, I had an entire summer with nothing to do but lie on my back and write, and thanks to my Toshiba, I could do just that. Once I got through the pain killers and was able to concentrate on the book, I managed to pound out something like 200 pages — plus a scholarly preface — in just a couple of months. That first draft was exhilarating writing, a whirling fury of prose that came so fast I was surprising myself, seeing words appear on my screen that I didn’t even know were in my head and watching a story unfold so fast and unfamiliar is was like I was reading someone else’s book. I loved the work.

But the other thing that happened is that I came to associate the novel with that Toshiba laptop. The graphite color of the plastic casing, the layout of the keyboard, the buggy little idiosyncrasies of the software — they all felt like part of the writing itself.

The current revision of this novel has been brutally difficult so far, good solid work but definitely work. I have agonized for hours over a single paragraph. And then, this past weekend, my wife wanted our computer and I remembered my old Toshiba, which I lugged overseas with me just for old times sake, and I said, “No problem — you take the new computer and I’ll work on my book on the old laptop.”

And the writing just flowed.

I pounded out a whole chapter, some 30 pages or more, in under 90 minutes, and the text is good. It isn’t brilliant, it still has work to go, but I am excited by this novel again and I’m racing toward the end. My novel has found its home.

I don’t have one place to write, necessarily, and I’m a firm believer in cultivating the ability to write any time, anywhere, under any conditions, because the writing is that important. But I also know that sometimes familiarity and environment can benefit the writing tremendously, and I believe some pieces have their own homes. And my novel, itself a buggy antique of a story, feels perfectly comfortable on my well-loved old laptop.

(This post goes out to Crystal and Terry, lifesavers and terrific friends.)

* I shouldn’t need to point this out, but just in case: The title of this post is indeed a reference to the Hemingway story of the same name.

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2 thoughts on “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place*

  1. Dear Mr. Brown,
    My friend Katherine Sandoval sent me a link to this blog posting of yours, and I just wanted to say that I identified with your story, in that I too experience different moods in different places whenever I write (which naturally helps to establish certain atmospheres and characters), whether I’m writing on napkins at a noisy bar, or in the quiet privacy of my home pecking away on my clunky old PC. I am very curious about your dissertation novel, and kept reading hoping to learn more about it, as well as enjoying the writing journey you had (and continue to have) with your Toshiba.
    Thank you.
    Noel Van Wagner

    1. Noel, thanks for your comment! And tell Kathy I said hi.

      I’m thinking of doing another post later about the music that drives my fiction, especially this dissertation novel, though I’m moving so fast through my revisions of that novel that I might have to save the blog post for later. But I’m with you: mood is terribly important, and I don’t think it gets enough serious attention.

      What sort of work do you write? I’d love to swap advice and compare writing scars.

      The dissertation version of my novel is cataloged through the university that granted my degree; you can find the listing here: http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc5119/m1/1/. You might even be able to read a pdf version of it. It’s full of problems, though, and right now it’s reading much differently, so if you’d rather wait for my preferred version, I’ll keep you posted here on the site.

      Thanks for reading! I hope to hear from you again!

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