How far do you live from writing?

When I read A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, one of the many things that struck me was that Olive Wellwood, her novelist character who writes the children’s books alluded to in the title, was almost constantly either shaping narratives in her head or actually writing. One obvious and important reason for this was economic necessity, since the proceeds from her books were supporting a large family. But Wellwood’s ability to compulsively construct story out of the raw materials of experience and imagination verged on an inability to live her life without spinning it into fiction.

It got me thinking about what I’m calling the writing commute: the psychological distance between a writer and their writing. Some writers, I think, have a really short commute. Like Wellwood, they’re never far away, workaholics who never leave their offices mentally even when they’re elsewhere physically. Others — and I count myself in this category — have farther to travel to get to the place where writing happens, and sometimes the traffic’s backed up.

The length of your writing commute can certainly shift; getting longer when you need to spend significant time on other priorities, shorter when an idea compels you to follow it. Right now, for instance, I’m writing at this ungodly hour on a holiday weekend because I woke up knowing I had to write about this notion before I could get back to sleep. And when I’m really focused on a novel, I’ll often find myself waking up in the middle of the night, digging in my bag for a pen when I’m stopped at a stoplight. At those times, my writing commute is almost nonexistent. I am there, and it’s hard to be anywhere else.

But it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have a longer writing commute. The space between you and writing can be a kind of breathing room. And being consciously aware that you have the commute to make — knowing you need to travel that distance — can be a reminder that you’re choosing to write, and making that choice over and over.

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  • C. Sän Inman
    July 4, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    I love it when another writer comes up with something poignant about writing that I’ve never thought about before. And each time, I feel complete, like someone has finally summed up all the things I’d like to hear about writing. And then someone does it AGAIN. ;)

    I think my commute is short, like sleeping in the office with your face drool-glued to the keyboard kind of short, and I suspect this makes me ineffective as a person in a real world instead of a fictional world, because I’m overly preoccupied with “What if?” and not occupied enough with “AAARGH IT’S COMING RIGHT FOR US!”

    See, I did it again–I was imagining a Tyrannosaurus, and er, the last time I checked they still don’t roam the Earth…right now, anyway.

    Anyway, it was good meeting you last night. I wasn’t surprised to come by and find something thoughtful and interesting on your site. You seemed like the kind of person who is full of interesting thoughts.

  • Sara
    July 5, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Hey, it was lovely to meet you as well — glad you found your way over here!

    And yeah, you may think they’re no longer roaming the earth, but you never know with tyrannosauri. You just never know.