The Secret to Feeling at Home as a Writer

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Editor's Note:

Swan Huntley is the author of We Could Be Beautiful and The Goddesses. She earned her MFA from Columbia University and has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Ragdale Foundation. She lives in California and Hawaii.

I move a lot. Every year or two, I get rid of almost everything, pack the rest, and head to a new city. I’m constantly getting emails from old friends asking me where I live now. Most of the time, my response is that I live in X but I plan to move to Y, because I’ve already decided I’m going to move again. It’s not unusual for this response to be sent from another city, Z, because on top of moving, I also like to travel. I’m rarely in one place for long.

Yesterday, I was at one of my usual haunts, the airport. A woman asked me what I do. I told her I’m a writer. She said what I expected her to say. “You’re so lucky. You can work anywhere.” I hear this phrase a lot. I’m usually jetlagged and trying to get somewhere; I’m not paying hard attention. But when I really stop to consider it, “anywhere” is exactly where I live.

Two days ago, I was in Paris. I woke up, meditated, had coffee, wrote in my journal, worked on some edits, and then ate quiche and went to a museum because that’s what you do in Paris. Yesterday, I woke up in New York. I meditated, had coffee, wrote in my journal, got on a plane. Today, I’m in Asheville. I meditated, had coffee, wrote in my journal, and now I’m writing this. In all these places, I stayed with friends or family, and in each place, I found little pieces of myself – the coffee I bought last time, the book I left, my flip flops.

I went to an Ann Patchett reading in La Jolla a few years ago. When asked about her rituals, Ann Patchett told us she had none. She could work anywhere, at any time, as long as she had her computer. Give Ann Patchett fifteen minutes in a waiting room and she could write a paragraph or two.

Often, when writers talk about this kind of flexibility, the subtext is that rituals are potentially dangerous, and in the extreme, of course I agree. When we cling too desperately to external elements that can be taken away, the atmosphere becomes too fragile, and the thing you’re trying to write too precious.

When I first started writing, I was clinging hard. My talon marks were all over the place. It was stressful. I had to have the window cracked just enough, but not too much. The computer had to be at a certain angle. My note-taking pen had to be one that inspired me to take notes. Then the wind would blow too hard and my perfect assemblage of “writer at work” would crack and die, and it would take me a few minutes to get my ruffled feathers back in place.

Now, having written some books, I’m less scared. I’m no longer envious of Ann Patchett pounding it out in a waiting room because I finally understand what everyone’s been telling me all along: We all do this differently.

The person who’s constantly on the move can’t help but long to feel grounded, and my simple routine does that for me. It provides a sense of home in the most obvious and sensory way – the smell of that coffee I like, the same journal every day.

Unlike before, though, my entire existence is no longer delicately hinged on having these things. Besides coffee, which is absolutely mandatory, my rituals don’t have to be perfectly executed anymore, because it’s not really about them anyway. They’re just a vehicle to get me to the work.

Familiarity is nice and comforting, but more deeply, it’s the act of writing that makes me feel at home – in myself and in the world. I know this because when I’m not writing, I feel directionless, antsy, and a little undone. When I am writing, whichever city is out the window doesn’t matter that much. I can be anywhere, because the truth is that I’m not really there anyway. I’m in another world – one that I’m making up as I go along.

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