The Story Doesn’t Care
August 10, 2020 § 19 Comments
By Julie D. Lillis
Bed made and dishes washed, I stare at an unblinking white screen. I frittered away the morning, answering emails and writing far-away friends. I needed to do that, I told myself, just like I needed to bake the apple pie that now simmers in the oven. Sometimes I think I am a genius at procrastination. But, eventually, I am left with nothing to do but write.
My dad spent nearly 50 years as a journalist. His longtime editor at The Christian Science Monitor used to say, “The story doesn’t care.” As in, the story doesn’t care that you have writer’s block or are famished, that your sources haven’t called you back. The story just wants to be told.
I used to think that a real writer needed her own room to write in, that without a dedicated space, a writer could not write. I made my share of pilgrimages to the homes of writers just to see these rooms. Standing in O. Henry’s little house in Austin, I closed my eyes and imagined him easily churning out “The Gift of the Magi.” I felt the same sense of inspiration at Emily Dickinson’s, Louisa May Alcott’s, and Lincoln Barnett’s.
In Tarrytown, New York, in the house I lived in for nearly 20 years, I emulated these writers by turning a tiny bedroom into my writing room. I paired an old maple desk a friend’s soon-to-be-ex gave me with a black swivel chair from Staples and plopped a desktop computer front and center. I painted the room “Linen White,” festooned the two windows with cream-colored curtains, and hung up my favorite art and talismans.
All writers have those. A pastel drawing of the woods by my daughter, a portrait of my husband at a squirmy age four, a photo of his mother on her wedding day, and one of my grandfather beaming at my cousin’s wedding. A hand-carved, African sculpture my student Edwin and his dying mother gave me, on on his graduation day, with a touching note from them on the back. A little painting of Jesus that my husband bought me in Greece. Everything was carefully curated, visually interesting, and all mine.
No sooner had I decorated my lair than my family wanted in. Soon I discovered the evidence: my messy husband’s Latin books strewn across my neat desk, a laptop of teenage origin, dirty espresso cups nestled atop my journals. I did not like these incursions one bit. I tolerated this briefly, then rechristened my office “The Only Child Room,” announcing to my family that “Only ‘only children’ may use it.” In other words, me.
Surprisingly, this strategy worked. My family stayed out, and my writing life returned to a peaceful new normal. I resumed my morning routine, waking before the birds and retreating behind closed doors to think and write.
This was not an easy task, as Mother Nature continually beckoned to me. Looking out the window by my left shoulder, I could smell the woods that crept silently to the back of the house. I could see the oblong patch of brambles and wild raspberries that I tried to keep weed-free. Raising the window slightly, I could hear the crunch of deer hooves on dead leaves, and the agitated chirping of blue jays whenever my cat Rocky lurked nearby.
I could look out this window forever, but the story didn’t care about the performance art living in my woods, about the raccoons and possums and deer who called it home. It didn’t care about the raspberry patch or the sun filtering through leaves in the summer or the birds’ nests above my sight line.
To my right, another window of magnificent procrastination. Two towering Douglas firs, their boughs waving like choir robes in the breeze, and under them, a splintery deck for lounging. I longed to be out there, sitting in desultory silence while the sun filtered through the pine needles, inhaling the gentle scent of lilacs that surrounded the deck like a stole.
But the story didn’t care that the sun beckoned like a Siren song, that Rocky lay waiting by my favorite deck chair, that my garden called out to be weeded in the morning.
Sometimes I long for that little room. I moved away three years ago, into my parents’ house in Maryland. There’s no space for an Only Child Room here, no room to decorate with talismans, no room to be only a writer. My old house is no more, too, razed to the ground one summer to make way for an apartment building.
So each morning, I sit on a Victorian loveseat in my new bedroom, laptop perched on my lap, notes and drafts strewn to my left. I answer email, text my kids, and wait for the washer to finish its cycle. I may not have the woods calling to me, but I still have my chores, and the house is never cleaner than when I want to write.
But the story doesn’t care. It doesn’t care that I miss my writing room, my house, Tarrytown. The story calls to me, but it is not patient and will leave angrily if I don’t obey. So I’ve learned to listen, to dash to the computer when the muse overtakes me. And I’ve learned that a writing room does not make a writer write. A writer can write anywhere, on anything. I’ve written poetry on planes, scribbled essay ideas on cocktail napkins, jotted down notes on cash receipts. I can even write in my little bedroom, snuggled between dirty laundry and a flat-screen TV. And the story doesn’t care.
Julie D. Lillis is a writer in the D.C. area. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Grown & Flown, and Months to Years.