What's it like to write in public? We asked friend of the Porch C. Williams, who keeps a writing studio at the Shoppes on Fatherland in East Nashville, to tell us a bit about how her chosen location shapes her writing life (and others'). We think you'll be inspired by what she has to say. --Ed.
THE ALCHEMY, ELIXIR & BLOOD LETTING SHOP
I have surrendered. By 10:30 am, on a good day, I am working behind tinted windows in my storefront writing studio, huddled on Nashville’s East side. I’ve already written from 5 to 6:45 am, been to the gym, downed a protein shake and walked my cat. This schedule requires endurance. I’ve so much to do and I’ve come late to this career. More and more, I spend my time here. I’m teaching myself to give in to focus. This is my work, a serious job. So, I keep shop hours. I put in the time.
As for proof I’m a writer, I’ve no papers. With less than half a dozen short stories published in literary journals, I must work hard writing every day. There’s no MFA, Prize Winner or New York Best Seller that follows my name. Yet.
Writing is a Fever.
I caught it early 2009 in a writing class. At first, I couldn’t finish a short story. By Christmas, ten months later, I’d written a novel. It’s no great work, but it opened me up like true love will, to a thread of need. I didn’t know it was the tail of a dragon.
The process resolved a heavy darkness that I’d carried far too long. It offered a new shape, an incarnation from what was left of me before I simply burned down to dirt. One needs a cave to hunt fiery serpents, so I built my own in a tiny storefront.
I call it my Hut, as if my intent is less than serious. This is a trick. This frees my subconscious to build its peculiar worlds and stories. It is unafraid to create, destroy, fly and crash. Burn it all down. It is that mind that tosses the match.
Nothing could be further from my sensible brain, alert with shrill warnings of danger, doubt… already grieving the great loss before my fall.
Fear lives in that mind, but not in the Hut. In the Hut, I am shameless.
My little storefront sits among a thriving retail enclave in a popular tourist-stop neighborhood. People wander into my studio every day looking for things to buy. I have no stock, no tangible exchange. But as I’m telling them where to find tea or souvenirs, I keep the essence of their embodied stories. I was raised to catch and release.
But for those few moments they look around my studio, I give them something to consider. My hope is, even if they never read a novel, they can imagine themselves sitting alone in a room, watching people walk by as they sit and struggle to create a story, to produce art. It lures people to slip inside characters’ minds (in this case, mine) and experience life through the eyes of someone maybe extremely different from themselves.
I am teaching myself to write in public because then I cannot toss about lame excuses or elegant rants about how hard it is to be a writer. I rented this space to be visibly accountable so I would show up, walk the walk and demonstrate that this is real work. Damn hard work. My work.
Tick-tock. There is no plan B.
No muse shows up looking like Charlize Theron in a gauzy wrap with a bottle of cold white wine at sunset on the beach at Malibu whispering J’Adore in your ear.
Dedicated writers know you have to drag the fecund beast up from the dark scary place, put it in a cage and shake it like hell. You have to feed it with a long, pointy stick. Watch your fingers, and make sure you doublecheck the lock when you close your eyes and wait for sleep. You get used to its howls of things long gone.
You must scratch 1000 to 100,000 words out of black marks on white paper that shape the creatures we call stories. By grace, they may lead you to your awake life or others who’ve cured their own somnambulism.
To inspire others, I must show this is a decision, a choice. I wanted to create a studio, a space that evokes a desire in others to sit down and write.
If one kid taps on my vintage typewriters and it gets in her blood, then job well done. She will understand the language, its call and tenure. I will have helped shout a voice in the world.
I write in my shop window to prove that somewhere, a human being is physically sitting down and writing a story. People see me doing this.
I’ve purposely set my struggles up as a show going on behind my picture window. By publicly sitting and writing, reading and pacing, talking and listening, I create an opportunity for anyone seeing me in my studio, a chance to experience empathy.
This is the miracle of fiction. It teaches us to see beyond our own beliefs by the ability to change our point of view. We come to understand how others learn to feel how they do. Hate and anger lose their power when we come to know someone’s story. We learn to look out at the streaming world, and recognize shapes of truth.
I never know who will walk through the door, so I leave it open as weather allows. This has brought me riches in the form of people who teach me that we all have a common desire to bear witness, communicate and be heard.
I’ve been befriended by an African American woman who gets up to write at 4 am everyday before rushing to work at a drivethru window. She inspires me to shut up and write. She’s let no one read her work but me. Her diligence, her genius, is humbling.
She has the Fever.
A young Hispanic, teacher of Literature for the US Army, explained to me how he could identify the cadets at West Point who will become leaders, simply because of how they understand the importance of poetry.
He spreads the Fever.
A brilliant young woman from India talked to me for several hours of her dread of confessing to her parents that she was quitting medical school to finish her second novel.
She is aflame.
One of my writing heroes walked in my studio. She is an icon in screenwriting. We had a brief chat before she was whisked away by her driver to make her plane to kick off her European lecture tour. But not before I promised to send her info on how to submit her new short stories to literary journals.
It’s a lonely pursuit most of the time... y’all know this.
Because it’s so hard to go this alone, I crafted my studio to be a Writer Trap. Before…I worked in film designing visual worlds.
That is why I picked a storefront, to attract others of my kind. I feel a longing for a deeper camaraderie and feedback, challenge and validation that is beyond me, sprinters I have to chase to keep up. I hope to convince writers I believe are better than me, to come in and give me a push. I’ve played a lot of sports; this is how you get an edge.
Sweat and Fever.
Sometimes, behind this glass window, I feel like the lone monkey at the zoo. Most of the time, that’s all right. Then there are days when someone walks into my tiny studio and there is a look of wonder and surprise on their face.
I watch them try to decipher the dark red oval sign with just my name and a black crow. Then they step to my door, where another small, framed sign has that crow perching over the words: Writing Studio.
Most read it a few times like they are seeing things, like it makes no sense. Like they are seeing an ancient plank of wood, handcarved: ALCHEMY, ELIXIRS & BLOOD LETTING.
“What do you do in here?” they say, poking their heads in the room. “Do people really hang out here and write?”
“Yes, “ I say. “Come in.”