A writer needs a writing nook. A space that is the perfect combination of inspiration and (dis)comfort. My nook started out in a perfectly nook-appropriate place in our home: the little study by the front door. For months I burned the midnight oil typing away on our family iMac while seated on an old office chair whose back is so stiff that it could cure my husband’s scoliosis. I especially appreciated the uncomfortable chair. “A writer needs strife and hardship to write well,” I told myself, feeling a certain kinship to Dostoevsky, a fellow Russian, who once said, “the most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything.”
Then again, Dostoevsky was exiled to a prison camp in Siberia, while I was merely sitting in a study in my home in Westchester. Reevaluating my circumstances in that light, I realized the wireless keyboard and mouse seemed pretentious. Dostoevsky would not approve, I thought, starting to feel nostalgic about typewriters. If only I had one, I surely would produce a masterpiece. I needed a different writing machine.
Once I convinced my husband that the only thing standing between us and a financially independent future (thanks to my best-selling novel which would be made into an Oscar-winning movie, of course) was a modern-day typewriter, I purchased the 2.38 pound MacBook Air, and my writing was on the move. It was even better than a typewriter. Since it didn’t click-clack-ding like a typewriter, I could write on the train commuting to and from work, sneak write at work, and write in bed after putting my daughter to sleep, which quickly became my favorite place to write.
Sadly, writing in bed was contraindicated by the strict bed rules inculcated in me long ago by my Russian parents—rules that withstood the test of time because of their wise counsel. In fact, everything important I learned while living with my parents in our less than 300-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Moscow can be distilled to two rules. First, avoid being cold. Ever. Being cold is the cause of countless illnesses. I remember Mama bundling me up in multiple layers most days of the year, and when I protested that I couldn’t move my limbs, she would point her finger at me and ask, “Ti hochesh prostuditsuh?” Do you want to catch a cold?
There are two ways someone can get sick in Mother Russia: zarazitsuh, someone infecting you, or prostuditsuh, catching a chill from a draft or being outdoors in the cold without proper insulation.
Mama cautioned that to remain warm at all times, I must stay away from drafts; drafts are dangerous because they cause painful radiculitis. We came to America in late 1985, after eight years of being refuseniks—Soviet Jews who were forbidden to emigrate. (Refuseniks has to be one of the best English-Russian words out there along with failurchka, little failure.) One of my first memories of that time is Mama running around our apartment in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, shutting all the windows and screaming “radiculit!” Radiculitis sounds a bit like ridiculitis but is an actual disease of the nerve.
In America, no one believes that being cold can cause illness. My daughter is nine years old, almost as old as I was when I came to this country. She thinks her babushka, my mother, and her superstitions are crazy. I don’t want my only child to think I’m crazy too, so I haven’t mentioned that I inherited this obsessive fear of cold yet. I don’t want her to know that I’m just as superstitious as my mother. That even though I lived only a small part of my life in the Old World, its insanities may be just as deeply embedded in me as in her babushka.
The second and likely most important rule that I learned on the eighth floor of Apartment #31, Building 15 Bozhova Street, Moscow, is that the bed is to be used for only sleep. The bed is a special place where the body, especially vulnerable to germs and evil spirits while asleep, is sent to sojourn nightly.
The rules my parents taught me weren’t just part of some daily routine, like brushing teeth, which could be forgotten on a drunken night; they were as basic as eating and drinking. I carried them with me all my life with such dedication that I imposed them on my husband—no outside clothes on the bed, no lounging in bed during the day, no electronics and, God forbid, no television anywhere near the bed. The bed was for sleep and sleep alone. The bed was sacred.
When I started flouting the bed rules, crawling between the covers with my laptop, still dressed in my outside clothes, I innocently ignored my mother’s voice in my head (and felt guilty the entire time). Later I flagrantly disregarded the rules by justifying to myself, “So what? It’s my bed. I can do what I want in it.” My husband chimed in, “You don’t need to do stuff just because your parents brought you up a certain way, can we get a TV now?”
Before long, the ratio of sleeping-in-bed to writing-in-bed became grossly disproportionate toward writing. Unfortunately, I am not someone who can lead a perfectly productive life on little sleep. I need sleep. Lots of it. And preferably all in one chunk. I am not a nap person. Although in a state of desperation I would have settled for a nap, if only I could. I couldn’t do it in my office at work; one entire wall was made of glass. Once, I tried closing my eyes in a bathroom stall, but my boss needed something and sent an agent into the bathroom to fetch me. That was the end of napping at work. It is conceivable that there may have been other things causing my insomnia. But the coincidence of ignoring the sanctity of the bed and getting less shut-eye could not be ignored. And so, I went in search of a new writing nook.
I returned to the study. But my writing program was on my laptop, and I was so used to writing on it that using the desktop didn’t feel right anymore. The desktop monitor was 17 inches. It towered over my laptop. I didn’t want my laptop to feel insecure. Nor did I want my thoughts displayed on such a large screen. What if my daughter saw them? Eeek. (How did I not think about this previously?) Plus, the office chair felt stiffer than before. Worst of all, there was a draft coming in from the window directly at me. The study was not going to do.
I next turned to our worn couch in the family room. On a Saturday, I convinced my husband to take our daughter for a playdate, and the entire house was mine. Sweet freedom. I just needed to stay awake. The family room seemed like the perfect place to write: warm and flooded with natural light from a wall of windows facing south. I plopped down in the middle of the couch and raised my legs onto the coffee table. I wiggled into the cushion and opened my laptop to write. Ahhh. Yet as I happily typed away I couldn’t help peripherally seeing my daughter’s toys scattered everywhere. I could feel her favorite Beanie Boo’s giant eyes on me, staring at me with a judgmental gaze that looked remarkably like my mother’s. I looked up from the screen only to notice the wall-mounted television watching me. In the corner of the room stood our much-loved-though- underutilized leather chair whose “distressed” look cost us a lot of money. I could almost hear it groaning in disappointment that I didn’t choose to sit on it. There were too many spectators here, all pointed at me. I shook my head in disapproval. The expectations were too high. I didn’t need this kind of pressure. I couldn’t write here.
Maybe I needed to take my writing outdoors. Maybe all I needed was some fresh air inspiration. I decided to try it out one day while visiting my parents in Brighton Beach. But as soon as my parents heard my plan to go writing by the beach they confiscated my beloved laptop.
“For safekeeping,” they explained. Mama and Papa had each been mugged on the boardwalk recently.
“Okay. Do you have a notepad I can borrow?”
“Yes, but eat first. Do you want to faint?” my mother implored, while stirring a big pot. My mouth watered as the magical combination of pork and chicken and rice reached my nostrils. Rice pilaf. Yum.
“Maybe just one bowl,” I mumbled, taking my old seat at the kitchen table.
“So where is the rest of your family?” Mama asked.
“Oh they’re enjoying a father/daughter day,” I answered and felt a pang of guilt hit me in the chest.
Mama and Papa exchanged a meaningful look. I knew exactly what my mother was telepathically telling my father: “She works long hours as it is and should spend all her free time with her husband and child. Who leaves their family to go off writing?”
“I’m just trying to finish writing something and need a little time alone,” I said quietly.
My father’s kindly look made me know he didn’t disapprove. Ever since I was little, Papa always encouraged me to write.
“Did you hear Rasputin closed?” Papa asked, changing the subject.
“I know. Read something about a shoot-out. My American friends will miss it.”
“No, no, the owner ran some fake debt settlement company,” Papa waved his folded-up Novoye Russkoye Slovo (New Russian Word) newspaper, at me.
“Oh, too bad. It was a great supper club.”
“It was!” My father declared passionately. “Americans don’t know how to party. They go to a restaurant and gorge themselves until they’re sleepy. Where is the show? The dancing? The wodka?”
“I know, Papa. No one knows how to party like a Russian.”
After inhaling two plates of rice pilaf, I kissed my parents and thanked them for a delicious meal. I left my laptop safely behind and went old-school—a small notepad and a pen tucked into the pocket of my navy pea coat. With a full, happy belly, I marched down to the boardwalk, under the elevated D train line, past the Gambrinus restaurant on my right. “Not like Rasputin, but still better than any American restaurant,” I heard my dad saying in my head and chuckled.
I headed straight for the rocks that break the waves. Finding vacant rocks is challenging at Brighton Beach, any time of year. Someone’s always fishing or sunbathing. Temperature is irrelevant. And that day was a particularly warm March day, so even the people who usually don’t venture out onto the beach until summer were on the beach. Just as I was getting ready to sit down on the least populated island of rocks, I met the gaze of a fisherman stationed a couple of feet in front of me. His eyes followed me lowering myself onto the rocks and taking out my journal and pen. I gave him a quick nod. He smiled and turned back to his sport, forgetting me only momentarily, for he occasionally turned around and threw quizzical looks at my notepad. I sighed. He probably thought that I was an artist; lots of budding artists come to the beach to explore their talents. Poor old man—if only he knew that I was writing and not drawing.
As I sat there pondering the absurdity of feeling guilty that the poor bastard thought I was an artist, he turned around again and smiled a big toothless smile. “Look,” I wanted to say “Save it! I’m not drawing you.” Then all of the sudden I saw my mother looking at me over his shoulder and saying: “What are you doing? Get up! You know you can’t sit on damp, cold rocks. Do you want to give your ovaries a cold?” Even though my American education taught me that you can’t give your ovaries a cold, I got up anyway. I couldn’t write with Captain Ahab looking at me over his shoulder and my mother looking over his other shoulder. Relocating to a bench on the boardwalk would be more productive for my writing (and healthier for my ovaries, just in case my mother was right).
I came to the beach to be alone, to think. You can never be alone at Brighton Beach. What was I thinking? I walked to the boardwalk, sat at the first empty bench I saw, and looked around. There was someone sitting on a bench to the right and to the left of me. Families with strollers were walking behind me. Someone walked very close to my bench, and his jacket brushed against my back. Maybe he, too, thought that I was an artist and wanted to peak at my masterpiece. “I am not an artist!” I wanted to scream to the world.
The following Saturday I tried one last place: our town library. I sat at the end of a long rectangular table close to the corner of the reading room, so that I could see everything around me, without everyone around noticing me watching them. I took a deep, greedy breath as though I could inhale all the stories contained in that one small building. This is where I belong, I thought. If only I could live here.
My eyes scanned the rows and rows of books neatly organized by the Dewey Decimal System and past the bulletin board announcing the coding class taking place next weekend. A tall figure in paisley moving by the stacks caught my eye. She stood near the 100s. “What is that, the philosophy section?” I thought to myself. I watched her consider the books—the careful analysis, the engagement of all the senses. She touched one of the contenders, running her fingers across its glossy cover and weighing its heft in her hands. We both heard the book’s spine creak as she opened the cover to read the inner sleeve. When she brought the book close to her face and took an invisible whiff, I inhaled along with her. She’ll be spending a lot of time alone with it; perhaps she’ll invite the book into her bed. I stifled the urge to warn her against doing that.
Reading is such an intimate exercise. Picking the right book is like, well, picking the right lover. Writing is different. When you write you’re only reading your own thoughts, not someone else’s. And then I understood. It doesn’t matter where I write. It doesn’t matter if I’m a Muscovite living in a Russian hovel. It doesn’t matter if I’m at the epicenter of suburban America. There is no such thing as the perfect nook. The perfect nook is wherever I am. Writing. I practically skipped all the way home.
“Any old nook will do,” I repeated my new mantra. I speed walked by the family room strewn with toys, past the study with the old stiff chair frowning at me, and headed upstairs to our bedroom. There was one place I hadn’t yet tried: the beige kidney-shaped loveseat in our bedroom by the window. Involuntarily I slowed down my climb up the stairs, weighing the risk of being in such close proximity to the bed, like a recovering alcoholic walking by a bar. I opened the door and glided to the loveseat. I sat on the little couch and moved around a bit—a cat kneading its bed. I turned sideways and lifted my legs onto it. Comfort level: check. Room temperature: warm. I looked out the window at the swaying maple trees. How many a writer sat by a window creating while looking out on nature, just like this? This feels right, I thought. As my fingers happily started their dance on the keyboard, out of the corner of my eye I noticed the bed, beckoning to me. Maybe the temptation will produce the conflict I need to create my masterpiece.