Thursday, September 4, 2008

Guest in Progress: Robin Gaines

We’ve been bemoaning here and here the difficulties of escaping the pressures of life—and the internet—and finding ways to carve out the time and space we need to be creative. Here’s how writer Robin Gaines has tackled that problem and within her space, been able to recently complete her marvelous first book, Invincible Summers. Remember her name, please: you’ll be headed to the bookstore soon enough, looking for a copy of her book. I was fortunate enough to have read the manuscript in progress, and I can’t say enough nice things about her talent for creating evocative, complex characters who move through a fascinating time and setting (suburban Detroit in the late sixties and seventies). She’s a master at finding the exact word to illuminate a moment and infuse it with intensity. I very much enjoyed reading her work, and so I hope you enjoy her piece here:

I couldn't have finished my book, Invincible Summers, in this decade if I didn't have a writing space to go to everyday. Trying to think and write creatively while staring at piles of dirty laundry, or wondering again what that weird guy is picking out of the neighbor's trash, is difficult for me. Call me unfocused. Call me a writer who lives in one place and writes in another.

I used to write on deadline in a noisy, messy, uncivilized newsroom. My coworkers swore, threw things, smoked, told lewd (funny) jokes, and sometimes drank (after deadline, thank God), and it was in this atmosphere, day after day, that I was able to piece together some semblance of a story. What happened to that writer who possessed such stamina and fortitude in the midst of chaos and distractions galore?

Granted, there was no internet then to quiet us down. But writing fiction is a whole other animal than writing a feature story on acupuncture, or the latest legal drama ensuing with the mayor of Detroit (I live in Michigan). Creative writing comes to me through a different portal than nonfiction writing. And that special gateway needs my body to be sitting in a card table chair in front of my laptop in the dark, dank basement office of the Hidey Hole. This seems to be the only place where I get anything done "making stuff up" (my brother's definition of what I do with my time).

There are three of us who rent the space: Kathleen, a poet; Arthur, the retired college English professor who's working on a different project every week; and myself, the short story-cum-novel writer. Kathleen is the only one who calls our writing space the Hidey Hole. It's "the office" to everyone else. We pay $67 a month per person to the woman who owns the building. For this we get a 10x10 space with a tiny window covered by an overgrown bush. The door locks, but barely, so we never leave anything overnight but our writing table, chair, and lamp. Everything else is portable: laptop, books, files, lunch, coffee, etc. There is no internet or phone service and no one else around but us three to talk to and we're hardly ever at the office all at the same time anyway. The only issue we've had in the five years we've shared the space is whose turn it is to take the trash out. (Arthur usually forgets!!!) Those who've seen the space say we're getting ripped off. The writer in me thinks it's worth every penny and more.

The other basement office, located on the other side of the furnace/storage room, is rented by a therapist (funny how this seems so metaphorically perfect!), but her patients are mostly evening appointments. Occasionally, if I'm working late, I'll hear someone crying. Once, I heard bits and pieces of a heated argument between a couple and I wrote down every word I could decipher. I even thought about returning the following Thursday for more material, but didn't.

Above us are the anchor tenets. The dentist, Dr. Payne, occupies the area above our office, and Dr. Bliss, the oral surgeon, over the therapist's office. (These are their real names, I kid you not.) The walls are thin in our building so it took some time getting used to screaming kids and that awful buzzing from the drill. Now, we think and dream and write right through the torturous sounds. My subconscious thoughts are quicker to present themselves in this dark, underground environment where, most of the time, we don't know if it's raining, snowing, or sunny outside.

Parts of my novel-in-stories were written in other places: the lake house, a hotel room, on a ferry. Once, on a plane, I borrowed my daughter's math folder and wrote a chunk of a skydiving scene on the back of one of her tests. Sure, I've written okay stuff while in my house, but it never feels as authentic as the writing produced in the Hidey Hole. Maybe because it's there that Payne and Bliss coexist, and as every writer knows, that's what you go through writing one great sentence. ~~ Robin Gaines

About: Robin Gaines' stories have appeared in Oasis: A Literary Magazine; Porcupine; Spindrift; The Homestead Review; and are forthcoming in Willard & Maple. She's a former journalist and music features writer. She has just finished her first novel, Invincible Summers.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.