“Whoever you are, go out into the evening, leaving your room, of which you know every bit; your house is the last before the infinite, whoever you are.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke
As I write this, people throughout the world are sitting alone in rooms. Many who, by law, cannot leave them for more than a brief reprieve. Some are laying panicked on the floor. Some are sleeping through the days. Some are enjoying the quiet. Some are sick or have lost jobs or people—alone in other rooms. Some are trying to write. And some have made peace with the fact that this is a time to be gentle on ourselves about whatever we do inside these rooms, and whatever we imagine is happening outside of them.
Before the Coronavirus pandemic struck in New York, I had a day job working for a small publisher a few days a week. Every morning, as I made the two mile trek through the park to my office, I encountered the same woman walking from the other direction. Vaguely middle aged and slumped in her posture, though the woman is older than me, we faintly resemble each other, both petite with dark curly hair, hers just a little grayer than mine is. I’ve tried to engage with her many times, to at least say hi, as after two years of passing each other, she must by now recognize me. But most days she just trudges along, gazing down at the ground with a sour look on her face, and in all this time we’ve never spoken. Though I’ve since given up on trying to talk to her, every time I pass her, I’m still met with a mini existential crisis. Will I be walking this walk forever, I wonder? Will I become this woman one day? Will my face turn sour like hers has? Will I evolve into a person who doesn’t notice a stranger’s face reoccurring in the crowd?
When I was 13 years-old I befriended a writer. He was the only writer I had ever met. He told me that when he was 19 an old woman said to him that if you want to be a writer, you have to write everyday. So he started writing everyday, sitting down around 10pm and going late into the night, drafting letters to people when no one else was awake, letters, which over time, became essays, essays, which became novels and so on. It was simple, the way he explained it. No secret strategy or formula or perfect weather to wait for.
When I was 18 and setting out to leave my childhood home, there were further instructions. In one of his famous speeches he had given to many young writers, he described writing as “the talent of the room,” that no matter how talented a person is, if good hard time isn’t put into exercising that talent, it will only exist as a sort of gift that remains unopened. What writing actually requires, he said, more than talent (though having talent helps), is the simple ability to face hours and days and years alone in a room. The picturesque has nothing to do with it—the desk by the window, the vintage typewriter, the scenic view. Waiting until you declutter the surface will not help you, moving the furniture around, or putting off the task until you convert the attic into the perfect writing room will not make you a writer. What it all comes down to is the basic act of sitting down and doing it, whatever the set up, however little time you have.
I generally agree with my writer friend’s point on this, though despite having already spent a good number of years alone in many rooms, I am certainly still guilty of decluttering and rearranging the furniture. In fact, I have a ritual of simply having to put away all the discarded clothes that accumulate on the chair in the corner of my bedroom before I can sit down to begin writing. Distraction is often as much a part of my writing day as actual writing is. Life and the internet creeps in for all of us, obligations, anxiety, self-doubt. Facing a blank page to make something out of nothing is a harrowing enterprise, but it is the fundamental task of writing, one that doesn’t change or become any easier, whether you’ve published 30 books or toiled away in obscurity for years on a single sentence.
There are many days when the page that is faced remains blank. Knowing this and having the resolve to keep your butt in the chair for hours anyway can be a masochistic practice. But it is what we agree to when we decide to become writers. These are the terms we must be willing to accept if we are ever to arrive at the day when the page does fill with something, and even then, to be lucky enough to fill it with something true.
The “talent of the room” is indeed what it comes down to, an ability which perhaps now more than ever is being put to the test. Writing, however, is not limited to the moment of transmission. There are a million invisible motors behind the simple act of placing words on a page. “Writing” in a sense is also happening when you are walking in the street observing your surroundings. It is taking place when you are zoning out in line at the grocery store or riding your bike down a hill or gazing out the window or loading clothes into the washing machine or sitting on the subway. It can creep up on you in the middle of something entirely inconvenient or when you least expect it, a seemingly brilliant phrase that composes itself in your mind after you’ve already submitted your manuscript or as you are lying in bed with your eyes open in the dark. Without time spent outside of the room, nothing will materialize inside of it.
This has become more poignant, as the limitations of COVID-19 have settled over us. The fact that we have no choice but to stay inside the room at the moment has not made staying in it, or writing in general, any easier. In fact, for some the current and very necessary restrictions of sheltering in place may have made this whole process even harder. It is one thing to be submerged in a self-imposed metaphorical isolation one has the power to lift at any time, but when the isolation is mandatory, exterior, and without antidote, the stakes inevitably change. On top of the usual distractions, now there is the distraction of COVID-19, which hangs invisibly over everything in the background (or foreground): the threat of death in its most literal sense, the anxiety over what is happening in the world and the fear that we may be alone in the room forever.
As many writers and artists have vocalized online in the past month as the pandemic has taken hold in the US, it has been difficult to stay focused. On one hand, now that many of us have an unusual abundance of time on our hands, there is an overwhelming pressure to create. On the other, there is so much information being hurled at us, so many unsettling realities playing out, that it often feels impossible for the mind to reach the state of quiet needed to produce anything.
I’ve never been a full time writer. I’m not exactly a part time writer either. I write regularly. That much is true. On the days I’m not in the office, I generally make the attempt, cordoning off a certain number of hours to be devoted to writing, even if nothing comes of them. I’ve placed faith in the logic that if you show up often enough, eventually something will. “If you don’t get serious with your writing, your writing won’t get serious with you,” my writer friend said. Like exercise or playing an instrument or slowly digging a tunnel with a spoon, whatever your habits or method, doing it consistently seems to be what is important, finding a practical system that you personally will actually employ, however off or unromantic it might feel for someone else.
A wake up at 4am and write before work writer I am not. A midnight oil writer I am not. After years of trying different set ups, I know now that I’m a day time writer, a late morning and afternoon writer, a sometimes coffeeshop writer, a laptop on the couch or at the foot of the bed writer, a desk by the window writer, a notebook on a train writer, a back of a bank envelope writer. And sometimes I’m not a writer at all. Or perhaps I’m a writer at all times, least of all when not writing—the quiet person in the corner taking mental notes. I do also keep a physical notebook, but its pages are never limited to official writerly thoughts. Rather, they are a mess of lists and phone numbers, business cards, receipts…all woven in with sections of text. Many of my best ideas end up on scraps of junk mail that accumulate on my desk. Some of these fragments make it through to full sentences and paragraphs. Some are thrown out—a detritus of thoughts discarded along with the material trash.
When I taught in the mornings I used to come home from class and either go for a run or meditate before transitioning to writing. In recent years, the long walks to the office had also become a meditation, a quiet rhythm of contemplations dissipating and re-emerging, the inward cycle moving in concert with the repetitive motion of the feet. Predictably, I keep to a strict regime of coffee—once in the morning and once in the afternoon, almost at the exact time everyday. I wear the same pair of deteriorating blue jeans I never wear outdoors, the same repertoire of t-shirts, while when out in the world I’m often much more elaborately arranged. When writing, it seems I make no attempt to be mistaken for a character, to wear the costume of myself I present to the public, intentionally or not.
The rituals that actually stick for me are none that are so curated or planned. They are the ones that develop on their own, that I’m so comfortable in I don’t notice them, unless they are gone (like a day without coffee). Over time, the patterns become familiar animals. If I have a few free days in a row to write for instance, I know that at least one of them will be a wash, one will usually manifest some good work, and one might be a mix. I know when I’ll get hungry, I know I’ll check my email or social media at countless intervals. I know that a good amount of time will be lost to the ether.
“What did you do today?” people with normal jobs used to ask me when we met up at night on the weekends. “I was writing,” I’d answer, knowing that in most cases what they were imagining was not at all how I spent the time. A day of “writing” for me often alludes to an interior life of wandering from room to room, the apartment dimly lit in winter, sweltering in summer. It is a day that can seem long or short, filled with a million small tasks and failed attempts. Flipping a light switch in hopes of an idea, brewing a cup of tea, emptying a drawer, scouring the cabinets for a guilty snack, watching the cars go by from the window. The interjection of a phone conversation, a lonely meal, a shower, a walk to the corner store, a shaking of a limb that has fallen asleep. Perhaps an interlude of eyebrow plucking or staring at a leaf pattern on a plant in the windowsill and being reminded of something random from childhood.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly stuck I’ll embark on a cleaning project. As I find myself needlessly mopping the floor or reorganizing a closet, I’m reminded of Sylvia Plath’s famous baking habit, imagining how when she was avoiding writing, her kitchen counter would fill with a spread of elaborate pies, while on her desk there remained a stack of empty pages. Cleaning is the fastest form of change, a task one sets out to do which will always be accomplished. Writing, for me, has never worked so neatly. It’s always been a slow and gradual process, a perpetual reaching out for something mysterious and invisible, which, every once in a while, amidst all these small doings, after hours of waiting quietly in the grass for the leopard to appear, suddenly flashes its light onto my fingertips…if I don’t let it slip through them.
I don’t write every day, as my writer friend was told to. I don’t always write in the same room. I write most days and I’m serious about showing up to do it. I’ve found my own weird way of doing things…which is the only way anyone ever figures out how to do anything. That writer friend isn’t around anymore. Routines need to evolve at some point. As Voltaire once said, “if we don’t find anything pleasant, at least we shall find something new.” Still hard to find is a life of freedom and structure, as we both need the routine and yet long for it to be interrupted. The interruptions are often where life actually happens, where the things worth writing about occur.
A few years ago, a colleague and I were approached in the subway by the guy who created Humans of New York, the photoblog series of portraits and interviews with people found on the streets of New York City. We were picked out because we were both wearing flamboyant fur hats and the photographer had assumed we were a couple. We explained that in fact we worked together at a small press and were on our way to a poetry reading, and that we were also both writers. “Why do you write?’ the man asked us, as if shocked by the notion. My colleague and I looked at each other for a few moments, suddenly at a loss as to how to reply. This was a question with no single answer, meriting a response that is different for everyone and can be difficult to put into words. I thought of all the hours I’d spent alone in rooms and how many more hours would be spent in them. I thought of my walks and the crisis of seeing that woman pass me every morning. Finally, I said: “I write in an attempt to describe something indescribable.”
Now alone in a room again, just walls away from other people alone in other rooms, the days of facing the blank page continue, as we wait out the collective solitude of a historical moment that has felt indescribable. Void of the routine and the interruptions, a little grayer than before, I am left in a place without freedom or structure. It has been weeks since I’ve seen the woman walking in the other direction, and I feel both unhinged and a little excited by the break in the pattern…
Kyra Simone is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail, Black Clock, Conjunctions, Entropy, F(r)iction Magazine, Little Star, and the Best American Experimental Writing Anthology, among other journals. She is a member of the publishing collective Ugly Duckling Presse and works an associate editor at Zone Books.