I started this essay after meditating on my preference for writing and reading in environments that are beautiful, natural, majestic, cozy, and old – environments that have texture and history and meaning unto themselves, which smell like old books or pine needles in the rain, with light filtered through stained glass, or a large window overlooking trees or a stream. There’s likely a significant amount of hygge involved. Somewhere along the way, I found myself once again returning to the topic of a writer’s responsibility to a reader, and so I’ve decided to break this essay into two parts. In this first part, I focus on my experience of writing as it is rooted in my physical surroundings. In part two, I turn my attention to the potential consequences of experiencing writing in this way.
Part 1: The Writer
I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to realize this, but I most often get inspired to write at the most inconvenient times. When I’m at a conference, listening to papers in an historic classroom. When I’m wandering around on cobblestone streets in a beautiful city. When I’m hiking by a waterfall in the woods. When I’m waiting for a train on a rainy day and world feels sad and beautiful. When I’m out with friends and I’ve just had a fascinating conversation and everything feels just right. These are the moments when I feel most like writing, and am least prepared to do so. When I’m at a desk, during work hours, and have all the time in the world, just about nothing comes to mind.
And it’s always inconvenient, because I like my outdoors environment to be as rustic and un-manicured as possible, and my indoors time to be antique and historic, or else personalized and full of memories. In short, I like to be in a space that is storied and rich with texture, as opposed to a clean and simple new space meant to limit overstimulation and distraction in favor of efficiency. I like old things, artful messiness, overgrown gardens, and untouched landscapes. I like the ruins of an old dock strewn over a tumult of rocks better than white sandy beaches, ancient and outdated libraries with cavernous halls better than sound proof study rooms, and an old chair with too many blankets by a drafty window than a temperature-controlled room with an ergonomic seat. I read better, and I write better. Ideas and images come to me here better than when I’m set up properly in a clean or conventional space.
These are just my personal aesthetic preferences, but realizing how this attunement to my physical environment affects my literary imagination raises some questions about place and imagination that go beyond just my taste. Reading and writing is supposedly an interior function, allowing us to see with our mind’s eye something utterly different than what is immediately around us. We’re supposed to soar over our environment to another place by the sheer power of our imagination, guided by words which call ideas to mind that are foreign to our experience and make them ours, pushing aside our present thoughts, feelings, and sensations. The power of words is supposed to be that they can make us forget who we are and where we are such that we can transcend reality as it is.
But more and more I discover that my experience of reading and writing is greatly elevated when I am in a place that has something more to offer me than merely what I “need”. I don’t know if the quality of what I produce improves, but it certainly feels better to me. I will sacrifice comfort for ambiance because the beauty of a rich environment has a dual function for me: it somehow grounds me in my bodily experience, yet untethers my imagination and sets me free. While I know that for many this aesthetic experience is not necessary, I think that it adds something an author couldn’t create through pure contemplation.
For me, writing and reading are best when they are bodily experiences. The transcendence seems not to be over and out of the body and its present surroundings, but indelibly linked to them. The transcendence, for me, is not just bodily – it’s sacramental. The smell of old books and the haze of stained glass windows in the vastness of an old hall do more than make for a pleasant background: they call to my subconscious attention a host of emotions, memories, and influences that seep wordlessly into my imagination, coloring what I see with my mind’s eye, adding depth and richness to my train of thought. It adds texture to the main voice in my head, which seems like it should succeed best when it drowns all that out, but instead does better when it stands as the tip of an iceberg of sensory experience. This added texture allows the images to get traction – if they were smooth and clear they would glide right by, merely imparting a fleeting glimpse of a story rather than gripping us utterly and pulling us in, as words are meant to. As stories are meant to, when you read them, and as I’m finding, when I write them as well. Underneath the story is, if I’m doing my job right, an unspoken wellspring of unwritten feelings and thoughts and questions and hopes and images.
Check back next week for part two, where i will explore the reader’s side of the equation!