Every writer has one. A kind of energetic space they go to in order to create their work. It may take a literal shape in the world—a den or office or shed. A favorite coffee shop. A hole in the ground. A tracksuit and a blanket fort. Or, it might be less tangible—an explicit routine, a set of must-haves, blood rituals. Incantations. Creepy background music. Burnt coffee. You get the idea. It is known as the writing cave.
Well, that's what I call mine anyway. Others might call it their library, or study, or goblin-infested basement. Some may just call it superstition. Others don't name it at all. The point, I think, is to protect that crucial mental space where reality becomes viscous and imagination takes the wheel. A fragile balance that cracks like Humpty Dumpty on a tight rope (well, technically off the tight rope) under the strain of too much mundanity. You know, things like grocery shopping and doing laundry. Taking calls. Paying bills. Showering.
I have recently just emerged from my writing cave. Blinks eyes, looks around, sniffs under one arm. Yeah, it ain't pretty. I'm not sure where the idea of writers being alluring creatures of erudition and elegance came from, but I doubt it's accurate for even the most successful among us. Because like I said at the start of this, every writer—especially authors—has their equivalent of "the cave". Today, I want to give you a tour of mine. Kicks half-eaten bag of potato chips under a chair.
My cave is less a physical lair and more a perimeter of strictly enforced psychological boundaries. But it does have to happen somewhere, and typically I set up camp in a room or part of a room in my home, like a refugee in my own house. In the past, it's been my dining table or the sofa in my study (because why use a desk like a normal person?). Most recently, that space was the stretch of floor between my fireplace and the coffee table. I told you this wouldn't be pretty. Don't ask me why this ended up being the ideal spot to write my latest work of fictional genius. It was something about the heat of the fire and being able to stretch and looking my dogs in the eye.
Oh yeah, I should mention that before we go further. I do not let many people into my writing cave. I get very hermit-like and antisocial. The kids and my husband are allowed in simply because good luck keeping them out. But I don't take visitors. And I usually withdraw from social media, and only answer the most pressing emails and phone calls. But I do insist the dogs be there. Because in general, dogs are den-loving creatures. Their presence is a comfort. They know just how to curl up and wait it out, not too close, not too far away. And I have huskies, so all that fur makes for good nesting material.
You think I'm joking? Welcome to psychological boundary number one—I stop cleaning. Cleaning expends energy. In my house, it expends enormous amounts of energy. I need every ounce of that energy to meet my deadline or word count or whatever other punishment I've inflicted on myself. The downside to this is that I hate dirt. I grew up with two insanely clean parents. So, I've been programmed from an early age against entropy. But I also hate cleaning. You see my dilemma? Normally, I do the best I can. And it's .... mostly ... ahem, alright. But when I'm writing, all of that goes by the wayside. And yet I am still painfully aware of the dog hair and dust and muddy paw prints and dirty dishes building up all around me. Occasionally it reaches an excruciating crescendo where I have to power up the vacuum cleaner. But mostly, all that is waiting for me when I eventually emerge.
I make as few trips out of the cave as possible. When forced to run an errand, I will bemoan the experience ... loudly. Groceries get ordered in. Dinner gets ordered in. Anything I can order via Amazon Prime gets ordered in. When my time in the cave is finally complete, I stumble into the outside world like an apocalypse survivor emerging from their bomb shelter. My retinas despise me for days afterwards.
Eating and drinking usually become problematic in the cave. I require copious amounts of hot tea to stay hydrated. Decaffeinated only. But I tend to crave junk food. And that gets tricky because I eat a weird diet. I am primarily plant-based, so mostly vegan food. Occasional cheats happen, but they always come with consequences I don't enjoy. In addition, I go through periods of being gluten free. I hate it, but gluten does seem to trigger a host of issues for me. I also require at least one raw meal a day—a smoothie or a salad, something like that. And I have to limit my intake of things like soy and peanuts and corn. All of that is challenging enough on a regular day, but in the cave it gets impossible. I don't have the energy to cook for myself as much as I need to. And they don't make a lot of vegan + gluten free + soy and peanut and corn free convenience foods. Add to that the cravings I develop while writing for greasy, salty, sugary things. It's a hangry person's worst nightmare. And I can get very, very snarly about it all.
What else? There is a strict dress code enforced in the cave at all times. Pajamas are preferred. T-shirts and only my most comfortable pair of jeans second to that. Don't forget, laundry isn't really happening because any kind of cleaning isn't really happening. And I am usually in the cave for several weeks at a time. I think you see where this is going.
I do shower, at least. Though it's often begrudgingly. But there is no make up allowed in the cave. Or hairdryers.
I keep the cave well-stocked with books and twenty-four-hour access to internet and multiple streaming services. During breaks, I use these like a palate cleanser for the brain. This is actually a very important part of my process. And I know how to turn it off and go back to writing, whereas some people might find it all too distracting.
Everyone around me, particularly my family, has to adjust to a certain amount of neglect during this time. Even when I finish writing for the day, I am technically still in the cave. I get very possessive of the T.V. and am known to simply not respond when spoken to. Usually because by this point, I am so depleted I can't muster the energy to be emotionally available to anyone else. I get very shut up I'm reading.
I keep a basket of necessaries handy in the cave at all times. My cell phone. My planner. A spiral notebook for jotting frantic notes—scrawling timelines, family trees, stuff like that. A bevy of pens because my dog will manage to chew half of them up before I'm done. Whatever books I'm reading. Whatever bookmarks I'm using to keep my place in those books. Things like old receipts and folded grocery lists rather than the actual nice bookmarks people have given me. And tissues. I keep a couple of tissues or paper towels nearby. Because grief finds me even in the cave.
That's it—an inglorious, unscrupulous look at #authorlife. Don't say I didn't warn you.