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Barbara-Final-1-e1655810440552-860x484.pBack in the fall of 2019, I got interested in the question of where people write, because I suspected that it was different for different people.  I posted a photo of my own writing space on several Facebook groups, and invited people to respond with their own photos and descriptions. A lively discussion followed with dozens of writers taking part. Several patterns emerged, and I shared my findings online in January of 2020.

That was, of course, pre-COVID.

COVID upended nearly all of our habits and routines, so it seemed reasonable to assume that it changed our writing patterns too, at least for some of us. I decided to ask again. And here’s what I learned.

First, though, I’d like to re-cap what my fellow writers told me in November of 2019.

It was clear, from those who responded, that there were three distinct styles that I called the cave-dwellers, the white-noisers, and the anywhere-and-everywhere writers.

The cave-dwellers were people who needed quiet and calm.  Some had a special room, corner, “she-shed,” or attic.  “I have a loft room that I call The Tower where I look out over the trees to the river and mountains. It’s a place where I can hide from the world below.” Some liked having a view of nature, which brought serenity, while others didn’t. “A view would distract me from the images in my mind.”  All, however, craved silence and “minimal outside stimulation, certainly no music or background talking to distract me.” The more Zen-like the environment, the better.

The white-noisers, on the other hand, worked best in coffee shops (there were numerous mentions of Starbucks) and places filled with background noise. I remember being like that in college, when I wrote all my papers in the dining hall or big bustling Student Union; total silence was unnerving, and the external buzz seemed to drown out the internal noise in my mind. Now, though, I’m clearly a cave-dweller.

A third group, the anywhere-and-everywhere writers, wrote where and when they could. For some, this was the only realistic option in a complicated and demanding life. “Literally anywhere. I’ve learned not to be picky, and I take what I get.” Others simply stopped and wrote when an idea struck them, while waiting for water to boil or standing in line at the grocery store. “I scribble on a legal pad at stoplights and record dialogue on my phone. Anytime. Anyplace.”

Three different answers?  Actually, no. Here’s what I concluded, quoting from what I wrote in the original article:

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized that everyone was doing the same thing. In one way or another, they were creating a sealed-off environment where the world of the story could dominate, rather than the world of ordinary life. They did this by entering a special place or a special time. Three hours every Monday night at Starbucks. A special armchair or a space in an unused bedroom. During the hour-long train ride to work.

“In order to enter the story world, they had to subdue or transform the sensory stimulation of the regular world. Through silence, noise-cancelling headphones, music, or the ambient sounds of strangers, each person erected her own auditory shield—a protective ring, a barrier, that let them focus on the interior world of their imagination.

“It’s the internal place that really matters. The external place is just the container. Without that dedicated internal place—that special state of immersion in the world of our characters—the most exquisite, well-appointed office won’t necessarily help. Sometimes the external place, with its accessories and associations, can help us shift into the internal one.”

Makes sense, right?

Now fast-forward to a time when going to Starbucks isn’t an option, and that special quiet time or secluded corner of the dining room isn’t available because there are three children attending “school” on their laptops and a partner who’s also trying to work from home.  What, then?

I asked again, posing my updated question on several Facebook groups for writers. I was curious to see how people had adapted to the restrictions of COVID—or not.

Among those who responded, the biggest impact—not surprisingly—was on the white-noisers. Without the comforting din of a coffee shop, they had to adapt and become cave-dwellers (i.e., learn to write in a quieter, more secluded place like a garden or porch) or become anywhere-and-everywhere writers.

Since writing in a local coffeehouse went away during the pandemic, I’ve found my writing habits changing. Neighborhood walking became my big daily adventure, and I found a way to work while I walk. Thanks to technology, I often dictate on my phone the first draft of a new scene while heading out first thing in the breezy morning. Nature widens my inspiration and catching dialogue is so much easier by speaking it aloud.

Another person told me:

I used to write a lot in coffee shops. Editing, in particular, seemed to go better with chatter and movement buzzing around. I missed that so much during Covid, especially when cold weather made outdoor places unworkable. My study at home became essential, in a way it never had before.

And yet another:

I used to write in coffee shops and hotel lobby bars! I loved the human activity and observations. It was a big challenge for me to learn how to write at home. I have found my front porch to be a good spot, but when the weather changed, I eased into writing more inside my house as I finished drafting my second book. The upside? I can now write from almost anywhere!

Some found virtual substitutes for their “writing group evenings” at Starbucks.

Thanks to the pandemic, I connected with the write ins sponsored by WFWA [Women Fiction Writers’ Association] which contributed greatly to my finishing the draft of my novel. Thus, my writing process has become more focused and disciplined. Ironically, due to the pandemic, it has become less lonely. Thanks, COVID—I guess?

Many cave-dwellers also had to adapt. For some, that led to greater flexibility.

Thanks to the pandemic, we now have desks all over our house, since we had two adults working at home, two college kids zooming and one high schooler google class-rooming. So now I work from a selection of desks, instead of just the one I was used to.”

Other cave-dwellers—people who hadn’t been travelling to an external workplace pre-COVID, or those without children living at home—were able to maintain the writing habits they were used to. They could still write in a cozy chair, home office, or other familiar spot.

A few people spoke about how the forced seclusion of the pandemic had actually helped their writing, though they felt ambivalent about admitting that.

The first summer of the pandemic provided me time to finish the novel I’d started a few years earlier. Sequestered and isolated, I’d sit on my front porch with the early sun and a cup of coffee to refine my character’s voice and figure out how the hell I was going to end the story. A perfect setting for writing; a devastating time for humans.

My own experience was similar. During the first six months of COVID quarantine, when I more-or-less stayed home—without the complicated, demanding schedule I’d always maintained—I was able to immerse myself in my story-world and complete the draft of a new novel in record time.  That wouldn’t have been possible, pre-COVID. It was like a prolonged, though involuntary, “writing retreat”—a long-term sojourn in the cave.

And now?  As we emerge from the restrictions of the pandemic, will we return to our former patterns, keep our COVID adaptations, or settle on something in-between? Certainly, for many businesses, the workplace has become a hybrid environment, with employees preferring to work from home, at least part-time, rather than resuming a long (and expensive) commute. And as consumers, it’s nice to do our banking online, whenever it suits us, and to have the option of an online doctor visit.  For other things—socializing, classes, holidays—we long to return to our pre-COVID ways.

What about writing?

Where do you write best? Did that change, of necessity, during the pandemic? Where do you write now, as life is re-opening?

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About Barbara Linn Probst

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES (April 2021) was the recipient of a Kirkus starred review, where it was lauded as "a tour de force" and selected as one of the Best Indie Books of 2021. It was also awarded the Sarton Gold Medal in Contemporary Fiction, as well as the Silver Medal in Fiction from the Nautilus Book Awards. Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate for out-of-the-box kids and their families. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.

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