A few months ago, I made the decision to evict a long-time roommate from my home: writing.
Don’t get me wrong: I think he’s a great guy, and he’s very important to me, but he’s just so damn clingy! He’s always demanding we hang out, even when I’ve got other things to do, and it’s hard to make him understand my life doesn’t revolve around him — especially when I have a hard enough time remembering that myself.
But when writing is in my home, it’s impossible to escape him. Whether I’m watching TV, playing videogames, or eating dinner with the SO, he’s always there, hovering in my periphery, and rambling on about his newest awesome idea. It’s like, dude, I get it: you’re going to build a media empire, topple George R.R. Martin, and take the world by storm. Fine; we’ll work on it; it’ll take a while to get going. But in the meantime, for heaven’s sake, will you shut up about it? We’re tryin’ to watch Gilmore Girls over here!
In May of this year, I laid down the ultimatum: writing needed to find his own place. Not his own computer, not his own time-slot, not a home office: a studio, like the kind enjoyed by painters, photographers, and sculptors. So together with some friends, I rented a room at the MakeSpace, a local arts collective that hosts studio-space out of a ramshackle three-story on Third Street in Harrisburg. I told writing he needed to go there, and stay there, and when he wanted to hang out, call first.
And it’s done wonders for our relationship.
My feelings of guilt and anxiety have dropped, productivity has soared, and I’m finding that writing is no longer the nagging jerk he once was; he’s actually really tolerable in small doses. Now we schedule our visits in advance. We’re coworkers. I show up, punch in, and we get down to business. And when it’s done? I knock him out with a shovel, handcuff him to the desk, lock the door, and leave him there.
If you’re a writer, here’s why you should do the same.
All the cool kids are doing it
It turns out the idea of a writing space separate and distinct from one’s home is actually not all that novel (har har).
George R.R. Martin has one: an office across the street from his house, where he goes every day, fights off adoring fans, answers emails, then gets down to business.
Chuck Wendig has one: a shed in his backyard, where he skins live badgers, hickory-smokes their meaty parts, and pulps the gristle-bits into word-books.
Stephen King switches things up, with a home-office for writing, but a business office for dealing with contracts and licensing deals, when he’s not taking interviews with Rolling Stone and swimming in piles of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck.
Hell, Hugh Howey has a goddamn boat: a custom-built yacht purpose-designed to house and support the lifestyle of a full-time, best-selling, globetrotting novelist. And he paid for the boat with money he made from writing! And the boat has its own website! And the boat’s website is nicer than mine!
And in case that’s not enough name-dropping for you, here’s a few more: Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, Jane Austen, Dylan Thomas. What do they all have in common (aside from, I assume, alcoholism and crazy hair)?
Every one of them had a private space for writing somewhere other than their home.
A studio separates work from home
I’m not somebody who’s going to throw out phrases like “mitigating distraction” or “enhancing productivity”, but the fact is, writing at home sucks. In my experience, the brain takes every opportunity it can to find distraction, whether that’s tabbing over to Facebook, checking up on your favorite webcomic, answering a text, grabbing a snack from the fridge, or even doing dishes. And I hate doing dishes! But sit me down in front of my book, and my first thought is, “I should wash the dishes.”
Writing fiction exists in this weird place for me. On the one hand, it’s The Great Duty: the thing I am born and bound to do by rite of a higher power. But on the other hand, does writing made-up stories about made-up characters doing made-up things really take precedence over the responsibilities of family and home?
The answer is: Shut up, that’s a false dichotomy. But anchoring your writing-life out of your home ensures that that false dichotomy is center-stage at all times. When you’re not writing, you feel guilty for delaying your dreams. But when you are writing, you feel guilty for shirking the responsibilities of grown-up life.
Life and art are not mutually exclusive, in the same way that eating food and pooping aren’t mutually exclusive. But there’s a reason most people don’t keep a toilet in their kitchen, and why the phrase “don’t sh*t where you eat” is so enduring.
A studio lets you extricate these two tangled aspects of your life and set them neatly apart (writing and living, I mean; not eating and pooping). A studio lets you say, this space over here is for checking Facebook, this space over here is for writing, and never the twain shall meet.
And that’s a boundary you’ll find yourself eager to remember and reinforce, because…
You’re paying for the privilege to write
My studio costs me $140 a month. That’s not cheap, and it’s not trivial. That’s hard-earned money, which I plunk down every 5th of the month, for the privilege of doing work for myself.
Working for yourself (and I don’t mean self-employment, I mean working to better your own person or life) is one of the hardest things in the world to do. It’s not fun, it’s not immediately rewarding, and it takes time and money away from other things that are. Every second I spend writing fiction is a dollar I’m not earning somewhere else, or an episode of Gilmore Girls going un-watched in my Netflix queue.
But by making that commitment, by plunking down that cash every month, I’m carving out a space for myself. I’m making an investment, and I can mentally categorize and treat it as such. And unlike a $500 exercise bike that soon becomes a coat-rack and emanates waves of buyer’s remorse, there’s no cost-shaming involved here: the rent is month-to-month, and I cancel whenever I want.
But I don’t want to.
I want to spend every waking minute in that studio, because it’s where the magic happens, and I’m paying for the privilege of doing so. It makes me make time. It places me under the gun, and gives me a standard of discipline to hold myself to.
It also sets the bar in another way:
Monthly rent gives you a financial target
Look, if you’re not a commercial writer? More power to you. My friend Meghan Lamb writes some amazing, highfalutin literary-type stuff that I can’t even hold a candle to, but has never much seemed all that bothered by the prospect of making phat stacks. Me, though, I’m in it for the money. I write to tell fun stories and keep the demons at bay, sure, but at the end of the day, I’m here to earn a living.
Paying monthly rent on a studio forces you to take the prospect of being a creative professional more seriously. It’s an expense, full-stop, red-column-in-an-Excel-spreadsheet, and it makes you seriously ask yourself, “How am I going to earn this money back? And when?”
For me, the answer to that question was freelance writing. Through a former coworker, I found some side-work with a local marketing firm, ghostwriting a few weekly pieces of web content for clients throughout the Harrisburg area, at a per-word rate that wasn’t the criminal sweatshop wage of content mills like eLance. Sure, it wasn’t enough to live on, but it was certainly enough to break even on the studio rent. Pretty soon one thing lead to another, and now I’m launching out full-stroke as a freelance copywriter, business cards and all.
Learning how to earn that first $140/month was the hard part. Now that I know how to do that, it’s just a matter of scaling up operations.
Meeting studio rent gives you your first concrete financial goal as a writer. And once you’ve met that? The sky’s the limit. So in case I haven’t made myself clear…
Get a Studio, Stupid!
An office is a place where normal people work. An office is for conducting business, doing taxes, filing paperwork, sending emails, and networking with contacts. A studio is a place for artists: it’s a space just for you, tailored and designed to help shut out the world, lock into your art, and create as productively as possible.
And finding one is the easiest thing in the world. They’re not advertised as spaces for writers, but you can Google “artist studio space in [city]” just about anywhere and find something affordable in your area. Even better, because these places don’t often rent to writers, there’s a good chance you’ll be the bell of the ball, met with open arms, vibrant fanfare, and the opportunity to connect with a broader community of art and artists around you.
Which, given the solipsistic and lonely nature of the writing life, is always a welcome change of pace.
Of course, like anything that costs money and promises a psychological reward, renting a studio is not a magic bullet. It won’t make you famous, it won’t bring business to you, and it won’t write your book or your blog for you.
But there is something to be said for setting yourself up for success, and if the obstacles of everyday life are an impediment to your ability to write, a studio may be just what you need to help overcome them.
It was for me.