Since “sheltering in place” has become a necessity, and many of us find ourselves confined to the cagibi that is our life, we thought we would compile answers to the last question of past Cagibi Express interviews. Here are some of these answers, from a wide range of authors.
Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?
Jill Bialosky: No. But I’ve read in hotel bathtubs when sharing a room with my family.
Jess Row: I always try to work in a room with a door, and if I can’t have that, I wear headphones. So in that sense I’m always, always hiding when I work. And I vastly prefer working at home to working anywhere outside the home. I always prefer to take off my shoes, and I have to put my feet up on something, which makes working in coffee shops awkward. So in that sense, I’m absolutely a writer who hides, and I have to deal with the psychological consequences of that, as many writers do. Winnicott famously wrote that “It is a joy to hide, but an absolute disaster not to be found.” The solitude that comes with writing takes a huge toll on those of us who do it day in and day out.
Naomi Shihab Nye: I have written in many uncomfortable airplane seats. I would not exactly call it hiding. Often I sat there for 14-15 hours. By the time I got off the plane, the seat felt like my home. One thing I always loved about writing since childhood—it is surely the cheapest, most portable art.
Jonathan Galassi: Hiding in plain sight is the ideal writing situation, as I understand it.
Rachel Cline: You mean, other than the uncomfortable space between my ears, where I am hiding this very second? When I was 16, my mother remarried and moved us from Brooklyn to the New Jersey suburbs—an act of betrayal I still haven’t quite forgiven. I had a room of my own there, and no one was interested in spying on me, anyway, but I spent most of that first winter in my walk-in closet, writing poetry. There was a full-length mirror on the inside of the door, where I periodically checked to make sure I still existed. Maybe that was just what one does at 16?
Akhil Sharma: As a child, my parents did not want me to write. They believed that all sorts of shameful things could be imagined and so they preferred I not live in my imagination. Still, I would go sit in my room with the door closed and write.
Eavan Boland: I’m afraid I’ve a dull answer. No I never did. Poets often have fugitive, flexible writing circumstances—at least I did. My writing was done openly in open rooms. My mother, however, was a painter. She often locked the door of the room she was working in, maybe even hiding in. But different arts make different circumstances. For myself, I’m glad I never had to hide. Now whether the poem I was writing hid from me—that’s a different story.
James Lasdun: No, but I had a friend who was writing a book about a prison in the UK. He was offered a cell to work in and became so attached to it he could hardly bear to leave when he was finished. I can relate to that!
Chantel Acevedo: I can’t say I’ve had to hide in order to write. Usually, closing the bedroom door is enough if my family is home and being noisy. I do recall skipping class my senior year, however, hiding in a one of the stalls of the girls’ bathroom, and writing poetry. Does that count? How nerdy is that, by the way? Skipping class to write poems in a bathroom?
John Domini: Not tellin’.
Mary Pilon: Myself? I know that sounds nuts and a bit existential, but the hardest time I’ve ever had writing is when I’m locked in my apartment, stuck. And per the question above, I know it has nothing to do with my actual living space, but my head. That makes it almost worse. If I can’t get on a plane out of the city, I’ll go for a walk or a run, but that helps my writing enormously. For my books and screenplays, that feeling can go on for weeks, months, years, in and out of wherever I’m living and working. I’ve had this Camus quote scrawled into one of my notebooks for years, that “what gives value to travel is fear…travel robs us of such refuge. Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn’t know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves.”
Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?
Nick Flynn: I have spent my life trying to come out of hiding.
Sheila Kohler: Oh, yes, I’m afraid in a way writing is almost always like hiding. It enables one to leave the real world and create a fictive one where one can transform much of the real world as one likes. Of course for the writing to be any good one has to use this fictive place to find an inner truth, which may not be something that is easy to do. So often students will tell me a fascinating story about their lives and I will say, “But write that!” and they say, “Oh! I couldn’t!” I think one needs to hide in order to discover what really lies within which is a difficult task.
Philip Schultz: I’m so often rendered uncomfortable while writing that it’s hard to blame it on any particular place. But while working on a novel in verse that pretty much took place in a basement cubbyhole surrounded by the dead files of a welfare building, I spent much of my writing day living in those dank secluded quarters. To the extent that imagination merges with memory, the experience can indeed become both physical and hauntingly present.
Alexander Maksik: No. I’ve been very lucky.