Nicole Cooley, In Praise of Ugly Writing Spaces

5 Jun

The Subway is my Writing Studio: In Praise of Ugly Writing Spaces

In the early years of my writing life, during graduate school, when I was in my twenties, I believed in beauty.

And I thought that I could only write in the midst of it, in silent spaces, with fancy pens, on notebooks of cream-colored paper, of the perfect texture.   Every city I visited, I sought out the perfect café, my ideal work space, and there I sat, with my pretty notebooks, surrounded by loveliness, silence, peace.

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For a while, during the time I was working on my MFA and PhD, this was a wonderful way to work.  It was also incredibly fun.  I haunted fancy stationary stores all over the country.   I collected notebooks and sleek and colorful writing implements.

I spent two magical summers at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in upstate New York, where I was, quite literally, in heaven. The place felt enchanted—the mansion of gorgeous dark wood antiques, the rolling green hills, the clear blue pool, the silent day. A lunchbox prepared, waiting on a table downstairs, and ready for me to take to my studio where I could sit at a huge wooden desk and look out at the rose garden.  A silent table at breakfast!

This could not last.

Now, I am not sure that any of this beauty, this gorgeousness, marvelous as it was, produced my best work. All of it taught me a bad lesson: to separate writing from life.

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A list of the places where I’ve done some of my best writing:

  • At Dunkin Donuts in Airline Highway in New Orleans
  •  In my kitchen surrounded by dirty dinner dishes
  • In the lobby of a Motel 6 in Pensacola, Florida
  • In a plastic lawn chair in the backyard while my daughters knock on the window
  • On the E train. On New Jersey Transit. On the bus through Queens.
  • An IHOP in Bloomfield New Jersey

How did this happen?   I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said it was only about time.  Really, my ideas about writing completely changed with the enormous shifts in my life in my early thirties.

When my first child was born, I was convinced I’d never write anything ever again.  I believed I was no longer a writer.  I felt overwhelmed by the demands of mothering, unconfident about caring for a baby, had recently moved to New York City from a small town in Pennsylvania and started a new job.  There was no space or time to sit and write a poem, and when I had the time and space, when my husband or a babysitter was with our daughter, I stared at the blank page, at my lovely notebook and pretty pen, and I was terrified to write anything.

And, because I had changed nearly everything in my life, because I felt my whole identity had shifted, I began my new way of writing, on anything with any writing implement, anywhere. I taught my classes and worked and took care of my daughter—and then my second daughter—and wrote and wrote, forgetting beauty.   I stuck all the pages in a folder on my desk, not caring if they were coherent poems, not caring what they were written on, not carrying where I wrote them. On the front steps of our apartment, in the car, in the edges and spaces of my life.

After a few years of this way of writing, I opened my folder, which was now massive, and separated out the pages on my desk. There were hundreds of pages, many torn construction paper from my daughters’ art projects. Many written in crayon.

This material became my toolbox, my raw material for writing. I would carry pages from the folder on the subway with me and use the folder to start poems.   Sitting in my plastic seat on the E train, my folder balanced on my lap, I started writing new poems.

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I found that I liked the way this method of working lowered the stakes—I did not expect to produce a perfect poem, or even a good line, and if I didn’t produce one, it didn’t matter. I could pull another piece of paper from my folder on the subway and start over.  The experience of writing like was liberating.  Writing felt more like play.

After more time passed—and I don’t mean to mystify the writing process because I have less and less patience for that the longer I write—I began to work the pages into poems that became my most recent book, Milk Dress.

This took years. I sat in Twin Donut on Queens Boulevard in Queens, before I took the bus to my office, and worked. I huddled on a park bench while my daughters played.  I threw out much of what was in the folder, but I used other bits of it.

I still have the folder, and some of the orange construction paper, and every once in a while I set the book next to the brown folder with rips up the side and smile to myself.

I like my book to remember its origins.

*****

What I’ve used to do some of my best writing:

  • A receipt from Shop-Rite
  • Blockbuster coupon
  • Paper snack bag
  • Hello Kitty coloring book
  • Long Island Railroad Schedule
  • A dried-out marker
  • Half a pencil
  • Eyeliner

As I tell my MFA students now, nobody cares if any of us keep writing. I sound harsh, I know, but feel I have to say it, to them and to myself.

What is most important, I also tell them, is to figure how what it will take you to keep going as a writer, what it will take for you to want to write so much that nothing will stop you.  How can we make writing part of our lives, how can we keep writing all our lives?

And so I sit at the edge of the curb while my daughters ride their bikes up and down the street and work on a poem.  I open my folder of ripped out paper in a booth at the back of the coffee shop.  I board the subway and start a poem.

Nicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans and is the author most recently of two collections of poems, Breach (LSU Press 2010) and Milk Dress (Alice James Books 2010). She has also published two other collections of poems and a novel. She has received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America, and a National Endowment for the Arts Grant. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, American Poet, and Callaloo, among other journals. She directs the new MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College-City University of New York where she is a professor of English. She lives outside of New York City with her husband and two daughters. Her website, featuring her work, as well as upcoming readings and events, can be found here.

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