My writing room faces the backyard of my condo, and a steep embankment lined with lush, subtropical vegetation. Hidden beneath the embankment runs a stream—sometimes the water is churning and alive, rushing toward the lake a hundred yards distant. In the warmer months, ibis, herons, and other gawky water birds wade and dive, the stream their hunting ground; through the plantation shutters, I’ll pause from typing to glimpse one of these tall creatures perched patiently atop the bank, surveying its lunch prospects. Other times, the stream shrinks and slows to a barely moving, murky pool, as now: the lack of rain and warm winter has left the stream deserted and shallow. A plastic bag flutters, stuck to a floating branch.
On the opposite shore, through the veil of Spanish moss and palm fronds, lies the Eden Bar. Adirondack chairs scatter across the sloping lawn; after dark, the bushes twinkle with white Christmas lights. The bar adjoins the Enzian, Orlando’s premiere independent movie house. Wednesday is free movie night, and the yard fills with patrons on blankets and lawn chairs, drinking beer—special effects boom from the big outdoor screen, tear through the thin barrier of trees. I have written to the pumping theme music of Jaws, the screeches of seventies car chases, explosions, raucous laughter. I don’t shut out the noise so much as let it float over me and whatever it is that I’m writing—book review or dreamed-up scene, fellowship application or blog post. How to navigate the sounds of daily life is part of your territory as a writer, no matter where that territory may be.
Then again, sometimes even the most charming of neighborly activities turns distracting. In March, the theatre hosts the Florida Film Festival, and a giant spotlight illuminates the night sky from the parking lot as if calling for Batman. The festival din creates a dull roar, day and night for nearly two weeks, during which I flee my cozy office to write in cafés. Through the trees, my warm and steady artistic compatriot morphs into competitor as the cinema swarms with filmmakers and indie film buffs late into the night.
I birth new stories on paper, not a glowing screen, and rarely is a story composed in one place, but a series of places. On the red couch in my living room, or underneath my screened-in porch, notebook pressed to my knees. In sunlit cafés peppered with the clatter of silverware, the perky chatter of customers ordering at registers, blending with music I wouldn’t play at home, but here, all sounds mix delightfully in the background. The interruptions of food arriving and small-talk with familiar servers feel timely and right.
Before living in this corner of Florida I wrote in small bedrooms of rented houses and dorm rooms, places whose particulars I have long forgotten. Growing up, I wrote story after story at my parents’ dining room table, between the adding machine and accounting ledgers for the family businesses. More recently I have been invited to writers’ colonies and residencies, where I have written at wooden desks worn smooth, my feet propped up against the heater, overlooking a snowy wilderness, or meadows in springtime bloom. Everywhere, as a writer, you encounter the din of snowplows and someone vacuuming an upstairs hallway, no matter how sequestered the setting, nor how many hours away from urban roar. Quietude is perhaps the most vital component of place, if a writer is to delve deep into unbroken thought and write well. But I’ve found the most productive quietude is not devoid of quotidian sound, but contains the ebbs and flows of life’s routine.
In winter, the tree outside my back window bears wild lemons. While cooking dinner, I wander out to grab one—or several, if I’m in the mood for fresh lemonade. I’ll leave my notebook behind on the red couch, and dine alone, and if, afterwards, my words still stir inside its pages, I’ll return to it, happy, once the meal is through. When I peer through the shutter slats, the moon shines on the lemons. They circle the treetop like a crown.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s fiction, essays, and reviews have been published in The Paris Review Daily, The Southern Review, The Globe and Mail, among many others, and her short story “Shadow Boxes” won the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize.