Antoine Wilson on What He Needs to Write

From a story on headlined “My Hoodie Is My Office: Antoine Wilson on What He Needs to Write”:

I love looking at photos of writers’ workspaces. Whenever I see a photo of one printed alongside an interview, I can’t help but scan them closely. What are the books on the shelves? What kind of device are they writing on? What items surround them—memorabilia, lucky charms, coffee cups, ashtrays?

What am I looking for? It’s not just nosiness, though that is definitely a factor. And it’s not interior decorating tips….When I’m looking closely at the cabins, the offices, the perches, the ADUs, I’m looking for the physical manifestation of a writers’ process.

When I was starting out, I was on the hunt for different approaches I might try in developing my own writing habits. I bought notebooks of the same brand as writers I loved, compared pen choices with mentors, and even dabbled in Nabokov’s index cards and pencil approach.

(I say “when I was starting out,” but I should admit that I recently purchased a used electric typewriter of the same make and model of a writer whose work I admire deeply, as if the secret to his genius lies in the machine itself. If I can say anything about the writing life, it’s this: we are always “starting out.”)

These days when I peruse those images, I’m mainly looking for evidence of what Philip Roth once attributed to Joyce Carol Oates when talking about writers and their habits: Are they as crazy as I am?

While working on my new novel, Mouth to Mouth, or earlier iterations of what would become that novel, I found myself, thanks to the reality of having two young kids in two different schools, having to work wherever and whenever I could.

When I’m looking closely at the cabins, the offices, the perches, the ADUs, I’m looking for the physical manifestation of a writers’ process.

I thought about the book while sitting in carpool, or while waiting out any number of appointments, and these thoughts went into my phone’s Notes app. When they turned more verbose, I graduated to an app called iA Writer. And when my fingers and thumb started giving me trouble, I purchased a folding bluetooth keyboard. Before I knew it, I was writing the first draft of a novel on my phone.

When the words are flowing, rituals accrue, and this setup was no exception. Even when I ended up with alone time at the kitchen table, or a few hours in the shared office space I belonged to, I would forgo my laptop and continue working on my folding keyboard and phone.

I am highly susceptible to distraction, always curious about everything that has nothing to do with the task in front of me. My attention has to be corralled. This is why I write novels—having one big project to work on staves off the question “What will I work on today?”

My little setup was a real life focus mode, and it turned out to be exactly what I needed. No multiple windows open, beckoning, tempting me away from the work at hand, only a tiny screen covered with words, words which backed themselves up in Dropbox, for eventual editing and rewriting on the laptop.

(It wasn’t only the focus that appealed to me. When feeling not quite confident enough to scrawl my words in large letters across the page, I’ve resorted to writing in the smallest notebook I could find with a golf pencil, to convince myself that I was imposing only a tiny bit of my meager creative product on the world. Writing on my phone felt a bit like that, a digital analogue, perhaps, to Robert Walser’s microscripts, diminution as a strategy against writers’ block.)

So, with noise-canceling headphones on—Explosions in the Sky on repeat—I made good progress. Then, for Christmas, my wife bought me what would become my de facto office for the next several years. A light cotton pullover hoodie in a neutral gray with a loose, oversized hood.

With a baseball cap on to keep the top of the hoodie from falling onto my face, and the aforementioned headphones tucked under the fabric, I created the most distraction-free environment possible, a world in which I could hear nothing but music I’d heard a million times before and see nothing but the tiny screen in front of me. I didn’t look like someone you’d want to approach or interrupt. I didn’t even look particularly sane. Nobody bothered me, and I wrote.

I have an office in our house now, with a standing desk, the aforementioned typewriter—an Olympia Carrera de Luxe—a computer, and way too many stacks of books. There’s a window with a bit of greenery outside. It wouldn’t look out of place in any collection of photos of writers’ spaces, and anyone looking at it might think that the magic, such as it is, happens there.

But for the reality, picture Mr Robot plus an extra bolt of fabric in the hood—or a Jawa minus the glowing red eyes—hunched over a tiny folding keyboard and propped up iPhone, in public somewhere, or in a car, waiting for a kid to finish school or camp or an appointment.

Picture someone who has, through trial and error, stumbled into a method for shutting out the world, for focusing exclusively on the flow of words and images, for carving out a writing space that, while not picturesque, is eminently portable.

It may look crazy, but it works.

Antoine Wilson’s Mouth to Mouth is out next week from Avid Reader Press.


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