By, Amy Sue Nathan
A week before Thanksgiving I drove six-hundred miles to Philadelphia, the city where I grew up, and moved into my first apartment. I was fifty-two.
I left the sprawling ranch house in suburban Chicago where I’d raised two children, written three novels, and rescued three dogs. The kids had grown and flown, I had only one dog now, and it was financially and emotionally important to reduce and restart, though that house has been where my family and creativity had taken root and thrived.
I thought about my old relationships and new environment as the moving van pulled away with my belongings. I wasn’t thinking at all about my career. Perhaps I should have been.
When my kids were fourteen and eleven, I started writing fiction. Most nights I sat at the dining room table and typed amidst my kids’ permission slips, extra-credit projects, and oh yes, dinner.
As my page-count progressed, I repurposed a game table in the living room with a laptop, a lamp, and inspirational quotes from Kurt Vonnegut, Maya Angelou, and Dr. Seuss. On the long wall that ran between the family room and bedrooms I created a sticky-note storyboard and tacked up my emerging novel in bits, rearranging pages as if they were giant Scrabble tiles.
The novel sold, and the desk where I’d sat for almost four years felt too small. It wasn’t my ego I needed to accommodate, but a growing collection of reference books, mugs, statues, pens, pads of paper, and files. I had a system, or so I liked to believe, that had enabled me to write a publishable book. By this time my son was away at college. I adopted his bed as my desk and the walls of his room as a giant timeline.
When my second novel was off to my editor, and it was time to write the third, I commandeered the family room chaise – a fainting couch– gifted to me by a friend when she moved. I wrote my third novel lounging comfortably, next to a table for my notes and in front of a wall of windows that faced my backyard.
Not long after, I moved into my new life and small apartment. I hadn’t given much thought to where I would write my next book, because, I could write anywhere: the space belonged to just me. But I hadn’t taken into account the limited walls for Post-it notes and other visuals, nor had I counted on the fact that there was no formal dining room table to lay out page after page to see the color-coded revision notes. I also hadn’t appreciated that each novel had been written in a space that had streamed with natural light, and the windows in my garden apartment (read: basement) would mean my view was not green, but gravel.
Nothing was the same. This was supposed to have been a good thing.
I packed up my notes and laptop and hunkered down in a coffee shop although I drink coffee only in the morning, it makes me need to run to the bathroom, and I like to write with my feet up. In the coffee shop, I daydreamed about my second-hand Ikea chaise as the trendy chair dug into the backs of my thighs and I tried to balance my feet on the rungs of the chair across from me. And it was noisy. Everyone talks in coffee shops and you can’t ask people to go into the next room so you can hear yourself think. Even if I wore earplugs, it didn’t stop my need to read aloud and gesticulate. Grandly. I’m not sure what I looked like except that I didn’t look like I belonged in a coffee shop.
Back home, I fretted that the magic of my first three novels was saved within the walls of the house I left behind, the way the growth charts of my children had been saved upon them. Was writing, like real estate, all about location, location, location? Since moving I’d adapted to driving on hills instead of plains, to my parents being around the corner, to old friends becoming new friends, and to hearing the words soda and pocketbook instead of pop and purse.
But maybe the writer me hadn’t adjusted to this move as well as I’d thought.
I tried the bed, the sofa, outside chairs, inside chairs, facing the window that faces the driveway, facing the wall with my favorite artwork, a makeshift desk, the kitchen table, the coffee table, the floor. God help me, I tried writing in the bathroom. And, when I stopped moving long enough to notice, I had four chapters and a proposal for my next novel.
Where I lived was important, but I’d given too much power to the place and not enough to the person. The niche I sought wasn’t around me, under me, in front of me, or surrounding me.
It was part of me.
Amy Sue Nathan is the author of Left to Chance, The Good Neighbor, and The Glass Wives. She is also the founder of The Women’s Fiction Writers blog, named a Best Website for Writers three years in a row by Writer’s Digest. Amy is the proud mom of two grown children (her favorite oxymoron) the willing servant to one thirteen-year-old dog.