The Company of Pieces of Paper

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

It should surprise no one that the life of the writer–such as it is–is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world. This explains why so many books describe the author’s childhood. A writers’ childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience. Writers read literary biography, and surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce in themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper.  — Annie Dillard in The Writing Life*

Today, I will go to the post office. The post office is right across the highway from our farm, and I can walk there.  In the 12 x 12 building, I will see Kay, our postmistress, and probably a couple of neighbors or three. We will chat, Kay will ask about my pregnancy, and then I will walk home.  Those will be the only people I have seen in three days, besides my beloved husband.

I like it this way.  I’m an introvert, so that’s part of it. But the other part is what Dillard describes above: I prefer to sit in my office and ponder, to consider angles, to weigh memories, to parse out words.  I prefer that to almost everything else in the world. And to be honest, I think this preference is part of what makes a writer.

When writers tell me they don’t know how to make time to write, the first thing I suggest is that they need to cut out some activities, some time with people. They need to slow down and give their brains time to actually ruminate on their experiences.  And because some things – like the raising of children or the working of paying jobs – are not optional, most of the things that people can cut out of their days are the things we associate with pleasure – time with friends, favorite TV shows, concerts, etc.  Sometimes, too, the things that need to go are the compulsion to clean out just that one closet, the desire to have spotless floors, the 45 minutes of time on our hair.  (In case you’re curious, I have tamed my curls with a bandana today.)

None of these activities are bad. But for the writer, they can be the difference between actually doing the work and just saying we want to. 

I have found that most of the writers I know who are actually doing the writing life, who regularly complete projects and share them with the world, are people whose lives are fairly circumscribed – both in terms of activity and in terms of geography.  We may travel, but travel isn’t a regular activity. We may attend concerts and go to play, but those things are rare, too. We may be a part of groups to read books or discuss issues, but even those gatherings are rare. (Of course, some folks write about these very things, so part of their life is to visit and go. . . but even these folks, I note, spend an immense amount of time at home to balance out the energy and focus required to attend to their work in these ways.)

Here’s the hard part. Many writers have learned that as monochromatic, as small, as “limited” as some might say our lives are, the richness of writing fills our days with color and meaning so powerful that it’s more than enough.  

Just now, I can hear the hens next door in our chicken coop cackling as they lay today’s eggs. I can see the Lohr farm across the road by the post office and imagine our neighbor G growing up there. I can feel the chill of the late winter air on my spring and hold hope for the promise of daffodils soon.  I’m content with the what and where of my life, so that I can pour my discontent into the page and find a way through it with my travel companions of paper.

P.S. Incidentally, it is this companionship of paper that has fostered in me – and many a writer – a deep love of great notebooks, fine papers, and amazing pens and pencils.  (See, there are some really good perks.)


*This link will take you to Amazon, where – if you make a purchase – I get a small commission at no extra cost to you. I’ll use it to buy Uniball Vision Elite pens, by the way. 🙂