“This must be where it all happens!” my friend quipped, examining the second bedroom of my apartment, the neat desk with several books of poetry stacked on one corner, bookshelves overflowing with books, many of which I’d even read. We stood at the room’s threshold, an air conditioner whirring softly behind us, light from the west-facing window reflecting softly off framed pictures of Rome and Tel Aviv, a small portrait of me that my father had painted.
I laughed, “You’d think, right?” She was referring to my writing life, but the truth was that almost nothing happened here. I’d written almost nothing in this cool quiet room or, in fact, anywhere in this or any other Manhattan apartment in which I’ve lived over the past eight years. If anything creative happened or happens, it’s almost always somewhere else.
It’s not that I haven’t tried. Several times I established strict writing schedules. For two hours in the early morning I would sit in front of my computer, cups of coffee going cold one after another on the desk. I’d sit for another two hours in the afternoon, this time with tea. I even tried moving my writing schedule to evening so that I could try it with a glass of wine and a slice or two of cheese. At first I attributed my writer’s block to the myriad distractions of home—laundry, shopping, rearranging the refrigerator, catching up on the news. But really, my husband and I are neat, eat most meals out, and between us create approximately 3.5 loads of laundry a week. I am, however, usually the first to hear of any natural disaster or terrorist incident.
Then I told myself that perhaps it was because I hadn’t created the “right space.” I tried rearranging my office, moving the desk from wall to wall, repainting the walls calming shades of peach and blue. I bought an antique green desk lamp with a dimmer and a new office chair. I tried writing in front of the window with a view over New York, though after inadvertently peeping into my neighbor’s bedroom a couple of times, I had to close the shades. Auden claimed, I read once, that only a maniac can write in front of a fabulous view. At least, I consoled myself, I proved I’m not a maniac. I tried writing on the dining room table, on the couch. I even tried writing in bed, which is where another friend of mine puts together all her short stories and reviews, her computer propped on her lap, a book or two buried beneath the covers. Every time I changed apartments, which I admit I excitedly do every two or three years, I’d tell myself that this time, this time I’ll design the perfect space. So far, it hasn’t happened. Not in Manhattan. Not in any of the cities I called home at one time or another during my adult life: San Francisco, Atlanta, Munich, Vienna, or even, for a long time, Tel Aviv.
I guess now is the time to admit that I spend several months of the year living someplace else. In January and February and for half of summer, I’m in Rome, where I teach at The American University. For another month or two I’m in Israel where I sometimes teach and lived for almost seven years after my husband and I married and where his children and our dog as well as several friends still live. And I travel, a lot. It’s odd but when I’m on the road, when I’m living out of a suitcase, I write. If I hazard a guess, I’d say that over ninety percent of the five hundred or so poems I’ve written over the past six years began in a city different than the one where my mail goes.
I do, of course, sometimes manage to write in Manhattan. But usually it’s in coffee shops and diners. I’ve also started a poem or two in The Museum of Modern Art and another few in The Whitney Museum. I’m writing the post you’re reading now in Big John’s Diner, a woman crunching noisily on a kale salad next to me, Amsterdam Avenue rolling past the window. I don’t think I’m alone in facing this kind of writerly block. One only has to spend a few hours in Starbucks or Peet’s Coffee, Poets House or the New York Public Library, to understand. Whether I’m in a cafe or a park, there are always one or two others hunched over an open notebook or a computer furiously penning a poem or starting a story. We’re everywhere.
Why is that? Or at least, why is that the situation for me? What is it about the space and environs of my Upper West Side place that makes it almost impossible to write there?
It occurred to me recently after reading the Russian literary theorist Victor Shklovsky’s famous essay “Art as Technique” (yes, I know, I’m thirty years late to it) that it might have something to do with what he calls familiarization. Familiarization, in his definition, has to do with habit and how habit affects how we see or, more importantly, don’t see things. That is, if we look at the same thing over and over, looking becomes automatic, it becomes habit. And habit, he stated, renders us blind. I only have to ask myself the following questions to recognize how this applies to me. Did I vacuum the bedroom earlier today? Did it rain two days ago or was it yesterday? Did I kiss my husband goodbye? When did I move my desk to this particular wall and why is the wall painted blue? Which country invaded which other country today? In this way, habit devours work, clothes, furniture, my husband and friends, even, I suppose, the horror of war. The noise of living subsides and so too, I think, does my ability to locate its surprise. Of course then comes Shklovsky’s famous plea for art because he believed that art is the antidote. Art, and in particular poetry, exist so that the reader, the viewer may recover the sensation of life; art exists to make one re-see and re-feel things. To quote Shklovsky, art exists to make the stone again stony.
Yet, if the artist’s task is to defamiliarize the familiar, how does the artist himself or herself continually see the world new? How does the writer keep the world strange so that it can become visible to the reader? Because I think this question is at the heart of my particular problem. When I am in familiar surroundings, my favorite playlist rotating on the stereo, sitting in my Herman Miller ergonomically perfect office chair, my mind goes blank, my imagination deadens. I need to be, let’s face it, uncomfortable. At least if I want to write.
Yet oddly enough, while many of my poems take place or begin in Tel Aviv, Rome, Madrid, Lisbon, Chicago, etc., the subjects of the poems often end up being something else. Of course the images or events I encounter, unexpected and unsettling, appear in the poems—a Bernini fountain rebuilt, a dead bird on an Israeli beach, Barcelona graffiti. But apparently, judging by the finished products, what I really wanted to write about was more personal, often abstract, even ephemeral: love and loss, my desires and dislikes, and, often, my failures. I’m currently finishing a third manuscript and a sampling of poem titles underlines this kind of displaced examination: “Otherlife,” “Girl on Roman Holiday,” “The Past as Beautiful as I,” “Postcard from the Expedition,” and, perhaps most tellingly, “The City Is a Metaphor for Everything I Want.” To put all of this another way, if memory and self are the tenors of my poems, place is their vehicle. Grace Paley said in a 1986 interview: “You write from what you know, but you write into what you don’t know.” I love that quote, though I think for me it might be the opposite: I write from what I don’t know, but I write into what I do, or, anyway, I write into what I am trying to know.
So I suppose I have designed my perfect writing space. Unfortunately, it isn’t at home. It isn’t, in fact, often on the same continent. Of course, when I’m on the road I also have to admit that I don’t dust, I don’t clean the inside of the refrigerator, and I can go weeks without doing laundry.
Sarah Wetzel is the author of River Electric with Light (Red Hen Press, 2015), winner of the AROHO Poetry Publication Prize, and Bathsheba Transatlantic (Anhinga Press, 2010), winner of the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry. Sarah teaches creative writing at The American University of Rome. She spends a lot of time on planes, dividing her time among Manhattan, Rome, and Tel Aviv. Sarah holds an engineering degree from Georgia Institute of Technology, an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College. Learn more at sarahwetzel.com.