Before the Internet and multitasking, writers had more static distractions. More than anything, they looked out their windows. Most writers, in fact, still engage in the time-honored ritual of looking away from their keyboard, their manuscripts, and allowing their eyes to take in the landscapes visible through a pane of glass.
Over at the Paris Review blog, a wonderful project is underway in which writers are asked to describe their windows. They call it: "Windows on the World." A drawing accompanies each writer's thoughts.
The most recent entry comes from the Brazilian writer Tatiana Salem Levy, who lives in a city -- Rio de Janeiro -- with many beautiful distractions.
Levy says her best writing comes from her dining room table, where she can see a cityscape and find inspiration in the mornings by looking out her apartment window and seeing "the imbalance and the irregularity of the buildings in front of me." The same window allows her to procrastinate. "Then, throughout the day, inspiration will fail," she writes. "I get up and lean on the window to see what I can't see while seated: a huge mountain to the right with a statue of Christ on top."
The observations of another writer, Andrea Hirata, of Jakarta, Indonesia, sounded familiar to me. "Since my childhood, I have rarely had the power to control where I can be," she writes. "Life has not given me many choices." A friend has allowed her to use of his apartment, and the resulting view of other, neighboring apartment towers is soothing when it brings sunrises and sunsets, and the voices of children playing.
Many of us writers are not in control of where we can write. The view from my own window, as I labor at my fourth book (and write for this newspaper), is always shifting. Family and job obligations mean that I, like many middle class Americans, spend many days on the move.
Before dawn and into the early morning, I work at my dining room table, with a view of my deck and a verdant valley in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles: it's just four miles from L.A. Civic Center and an unlikely place for a bucolic view, which is part of its appeal, of course. Most days, I also work at a studio in nearby South Pasadena, a suburb whose center feels like a small Midwestern town (a role the city has played in countless television shows and commercials). My studio has a view of an alley, with a brick building across the street and rusting fire escapes, and it creates the illusion that I am writing in Brooklyn, or London, or in that distant era when book writers pounded away at typewriters.
But sometimes, as I drive my children back and forth across the city to schools and parks and other places, I find myself obliged to park somewhere and write from the front seat of my car. In 20 or 40 minutes in a parking lot, or on a quiet street, you can get a lot done. (And in L.A., no one thinks it's unusual to see a guy writing in his car.)
If for some reason I'm lacking in inspiration, I can look out my car window and more than likely something I've never seen before will pop into view.