I’ve been searching for a suitable writing space—a place that fits my mood, that feels sacred and creative and peaceful, that coaxes the words from my fingers—since the day I started calling myself a writer. Having decided to leave the business world to write professionally, the physical space I occupied suddenly seemed important. This was, after all, no joke; this was my job. I’ve been writing essays and stories and theses and papers since I was a kid, and never did space matter then. It wasn’t a sacred thing, or a part of the process. I wrote at my desk at home or in my dorm room or any other place where I had a chair and a desk. If the atmosphere was noisy, I put on music. If it was too quiet, I put on music. Usually I had some chocolate nearby. That was it.
When I started writing more seriously, I’d take my laptop and a stack of books to cafés around Harvard Square. The buzz of students and professors energized me, and often I’d stop to people-watch. My stories were peppered with bits of dialogue I picked up here or there. I wasn’t yet confident in my own voice, my memories, or the voices inside my imagination. When I moved to a tiny village outside Paris, cafés were no longer an option, and I worked in a basement study filled with my books. It was a cozy space but lonely, and suddenly I found myself unable to finish a chapter. That was the first time I felt the power of the space around me, how it can stifle creativity or unlock some magic that makes the writing flow—I began to blame it, to give it more power. I started driving into Paris every morning to work in a particular café that energized me. I went every day, though I lived over an hour away. It was perfect: the ritual, the destination, the feeling that I was driving ‘to work’ every morning. Moving to Amsterdam, I continued the ritual. I found a pretty café with big wooden tables called the Koffee Salon, and then a better one called Two For Joy, where I chatted with the owner as he roasted coffee beans in a big tub. I worked in these places day after day, thinking, “I found the magic again. It’s all about a warm atmosphere.” But in Iowa City, the cafés didn’t feel warm. For a while I languished, failing to write. Soon, I found that the coffee shops were filled with other writers whose work I knew and respected. I pushed myself simply because I saw them clacking away at their laptops, carrying new books into the café every three days, reading and writing at such a fast clip that I felt the need to push myself.
Since I moved to New York, though, the magic doesn’t come in cafés anymore, and it doesn’t come in my apartment. This has left me baffled—maybe I’m missing something about the kind of space I need—should it be quieter? Better lit? Should I turn off the wifi? At one point I joined a writing space, thinking that what I need is what I had in Iowa—other writers nearby. Maybe it’s my schedule, the pace of life in New York, or something else. And yet, twice during my life in New York I found a kind of productivity, hunger, and excitement for my work that I had back in those cafés in Europe. Once was at the MacDowell colony where I was secluded in a cabin, looking out onto a bronzing field. The other was in my apartment for three solitary weeks when I shut myself away, canceling everything, to finish a draft. It strikes me now that after all these years, searching for space, I had it right in the beginning, during those teenage years, when I would do my work in my room, putting on music to shut out the quiet or the noise. All that time, it seems, my sacred writing space, the magic it unlocked, was hiding between my headphones. And maybe that’s just how it works for everyone. There is no perfect space, only something to say and a hunger to say it better than the last time.