The act of writing, getting words down, can feel like a fragile feat of magic—a meticulous balance of time, space, and solitude, and those even more unpredictable ingredients that comprise inspiration. If it sounds convoluted, sometimes it feels that way too.
A lot of writers form a ritual for this: a schedule, a place, and a set of tools or totems—some magic words—all of which, together, unlock the doors to their work. In contrast, there are the brilliant and prolific that purportedly produce with ease, like William Carlos Williams, who changed the landscape of modern American poetry while tending a thriving medical practice—whipping out poems on his typewriter between patients. Maybe there’s a middle way, something reasonable, something modest, perhaps along the lines of Virginia Woolf’s criteria for a good writing practice: a little money and a room of one’s own.
The question of territory is critical—for the women writing in Woolf’s day and now. Carving out and claiming a space for thinking, for writing, for painting, can be a radical act, an audacious move, a declaration of independence. I find that it’s not just a question of taking ownership of rooms, but of guarding boundaries around selfhood too—body and mind.
More and more, the mind space is assaulted. Constantly steered by outside forces, shuffled into ever narrowing corridors of thought, directed to look this way or that, to feel this or that, I find it’s getting harder to know what really needs my attention, where my focus might truly do some good and where it merely feeds the frenzy.
If I want to write something of my own, I have to defend myself against the words that come in waves, entreating me to spend, own, or act; to hate, or to hate the other haters; to speak up, or to shut up; to get out there, or to get out of the way; to prepare for weather that is or isn’t coming; to declare my allegiance to the superficial; and to bow to the pretty packaging masking a destructive hidden agenda.
It helps to have a physical room of one’s own, but if I really want a safe space, I’ll need locks that work against these messages, as well as traps for ads, sound-proofing to keep out political rants and propaganda, and firewalls and Faraday cages to guard against texts, tweets, barbed comments, and non-news. I might as well build a moat.
Even if I could silence everything coming at me, what about the echoes in my own mind? If I retreat to my retreat, but carry all that noise with me, have I really gone anywhere? If I took someone else’s train of thought into my creative space, I’ve been for a ride, but have I traveled at all? Sometimes a room of one’s own isn’t enough. To find what’s real again, I might need to find a space beyond language, to visit what’s bigger than words, so that I can hear my own mind.
As someone who loves words and studies them, I could wonder why it feels essential to put them down, but sometimes we need a break from what we love. We need to be in the presence of beauty or wonder or power that can’t be shaped or limited by our methods of framing, our attempts to summarize and control. We seek out the ocean at times like this to let the roaring take over, we go to the mountains, the sanctuary, or we try to find a safe, warm spot to witness a storm.
In the presence of what’s bigger than our words, an energetic exchange happens, a settling of questions and of self-contrived debts. Finally, the gnawing stops, the faint pain of background angst that never crescendos enough to be dealt with by the conscious mind somehow gets resolved, handled completely by the beauty and by the wordlessness.
What am I preparing myself for in these moments? I want to be wiped clean, but for what? The ability to discern rightly again and become attuned, more sensitive still? From a stunned state, answers come—the truth about our most guarded wants and needs, about the unfit compromises we’ve made. Solutions to life problems and story problems rise up too—as if they were waiting for uncontested ground on which to emerge.
Maybe I want to hear the quietest sound more clearly. The other gift from this kind of time is the all-too-brief ability to interpret upon re-entry, to hear the clamor that one has acclimated to and to understand it for exactly what it is: noise. Maybe that noise has served as a distraction, diverting us away from what we might do, substituting its messages for ours. But maybe that noise has also done violence, shaping the world for us into its sharpest, most damaging version. If I want to recognize the difference, I need to recover the weight and value of words, to become a better instrument for measuring them. So that I can start again.
Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photo by the author.