A room of one’s own, like a clean, well-lighted place, can save a writer’s life. Every writer needs a refuge that situates the practice of writing, that helps the writer focus and avoid distraction. It could be a café, a part of one’s home, a particular chair, an artist’s residency, a certain beach or woods or foreign country. In several cities in the U.S., writers’ studios have sprung up, shared spaces where quiet is ensured and writers can work side by side, kind of like toddlers engaging in parallel play.
I belong to the Writers Workspace in Chicago, founded and directed by Amy Davis, co-author with Don Seiden of Art Works. I buy a 10-pass, which gets me ten unlimited work visits, in-and-out permitted, each two months. There my recently published novel, A Free, Unsullied Land, was conceived on a summer day seven years ago, as I read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: the Process of Writing Fiction, edited by Janet Burroway. I did an exercise from the book about waking from a dream, and this became one of the very few passages that survived years of cutting and revision. It’s now part of the novel.
Many members of the Workspace use it to avoid the pressures of home, such as children, visitors or telephone. Quiet is enforced in the main writing studio and supported with a white noise machine, while talking is is permitted in a kitchen, conference room, entrance area with library and cubby hole for working alone. Some regret the all-too-ready availability of the Internet at the Workspace, while others are glad of this service, provided at no additional charge, along with printing in small quantities, fax, coffee and tea. Members can also reserve the space for events, readings and receptions.
My children are grown and my distractions only the ones I choose. I often work at home and don’t take full advantage of my 10-pass, but when I have a writing challenge, the kind I’m tempted to avoid, I pack up my computer and enter the Workspace’s separated time and space. Like when I’ve had a story critiqued by my incisive and insightful but often self-contradictory writing group. They might suggest that a story should be at the same time longer and shorter, make more and less use of online chat, avoid and amplify the use of pathetic fallacy. When I feel ready to process this feedback, to sink into the story and explore its nooks and crannies, I know the Workspace will be there, ready to shield me from my wish to avoid the task, ready to gently turn my head to my work. There I’ll find the courage to explore the irreconcilable, to find my way through the dense forest of other’s visions.
The writing studio has its own sounds, and I like to listen, in much the same way as I might try to listen to the voice of a character or of the story itself. In the studio I hear the faint sounds of other writers breathing, coughing, squirming, sighing, and I like to think these sounds of genius fuel my work. Writing is known as a lonely enterprise, but at the Workspace, I do it in community.
That community is also fruitful in practical ways. I found the publisher for my first book The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer’s memoir of loss, faith and family, when I met Meg Cox Wallace at the Workspace. She had just edited Cynicism and Hope for Wipf and Stock, and she persuaded me to try them. They took the book. Amy Davis has become a dear friend, reader and supporter of my work. Mare Swallow, another Workspace member, has founded and developed the Chicago Writers Conference, and her events have taught me much of what I know about publishing and promoting written work. Chuck Sambuchino vetted my novel’s query letter at one Chicago Writer’s Conference and Laurie Scheer introduced me to publicist, Jane Friedman’s, website at another. My short essay, “The Feel of Real,” was a guest post on her blog and garnered more response than any of my other online postings.
Recently I dreamed that the Workplace was closing, and in the dream this meant that I would have to move from my house, the cozy home of my downsized years where I have lived happily since 2000. I wondered why my dream would conflate the Workspace with my personal home. Because, I think, in some sense, it is.
Maggie Kast is the author of The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer’s memoir of loss, faith and family, published by Wipf and Stock. She received an M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has published fiction in The Sun, Nimrod, Carve, Paper Street and others.
A chapter of her memoir, published in ACM/Another Chicago Magazine, won a Literary Award from the Illinois Arts Council and a Pushcart nomination. A story published in Rosebud and judged by Ursula Leguin won an Honorable Mention in their fantasy fiction contest.
Kast’s essays have appeared in America, Image, Writer’s Chronicle and elsewhere. Her first novel, A Free, Unsullied Land, was released from Fomite Press in November 2015. An excerpted story, “The Hate that Chills,” won 3rd prize in the Hackney Literary Contests and was published in Volume 12, Issue 2 of the Birmingham Arts Journal.