My Vision: Study Hall
What a Library Used to Be
A friend once opened my refrigerator to reveal twenty-one neatly stacked Rubbermaid boxes. He laughed, but he was impressed. Here was every meal for my coming week. Proof that every Sunday evening I’d boil eggs and steam broccoli and bake chicken. Pack my breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. On Tuesdays I did all my laundry using four washing machines at once in a laundromat. I clustered such day-to-day tasks so that during the week I’ve have bigger blocks of time to write.
A smart friend had once told me that being a creative person is all about time management. You get chores done so you can glom together big blocks of time for your writing, your painting, your music.
Then the only problem was: Where to write?
A terrific big Thank You to my students Past, Present and Future.
The gym is great for gathering dialog and detail. As are parties. Especially parties. But eventually your everyday notebook is filled with details you need to key into a file. After that you’ll need to cut and paste to juxtapose the elements into their best order. Then, to look for holes. Then, write transitions that will carry your reader from one idea to the next. And for this intense organizing job you’ll need a place where you can hear the words in your head. Where you can start and stop. Pour a cup of coffee. Drink some water. All in the comforting presence of other people immersed in the same task.
To have the exoskeleton of other people is crucial. A bulwark of folks to keep you from spiraling down some NSFW rabbit hole. Or simply falling asleep.
A public library used to be ideal. Anymore, not so much. The waiting area of a hospital emergency room can work. Most times it’s quiet with good seating. Coffee is nearby, but mobile phones have broken that spell of worried silence. Surrounded by strangers worried about their stage-four cancer or cracked skulls, the drudgery of keyboarding notes no longer looks that bad. An airport concourse is another nicely trapped place to transcribe and organize notes, but the need to buy a ticket and actually fly somewhere is a bother.
We have community places to exercise, to drink, to eat, to worship… why not a place to get together and tackle the quiet job of writing? To this end I propose such a space. Call it Study Hall. My first version was in Lidia Yuknavitch’s Temporal Writing space in downtown Portland. It took place Tuesday nights and ran from five until ten in the evening. And it was packed. As many as thirty writers — our capacity — sat at long tables or flopped on couches, and they wrote the entire time. At closing I had to kick people out.
More recently I’ve run Study Hall at the Day Theater, where on Thursday nights a crowd works in silence from 6:00 until 9:30. It’s not perfect. A Zumba class pounds away in the hall above us until 6:40, but after that things quiet down. No one pays to attend. I cover the rent. We sit distant from one another. Proximity to others makes writing okay. Makes it not a lonely waste of our lives. What matters most is that people write their awful first drafts. They edit. They proofread. They produce work.
As Tom Spanbauer used to teach, “Ninety-nine percent of what any workshop does is simply give people the permission to write.” At Study Hall there are no dirty dishes calling. No on-demand streaming television shows. There is only you and the work you bring to do, and a lot of people doing likewise.
It’s a place where you are not alone. But a place where you can still hear the words in your head. Rather than spend the evening alone watching stories produced for mass market television, people will have the option of coming together to create their own visions.
With subscription fees from this site, I plan to rent a larger space that can be open more days and more hours. I’ll open the doors for more people to come and go as their schedules allow. Thinking even bigger, it would be great to sponsor similar Study Halls in other cities. In this world of constant noise and distraction, my vision is to give people a clean, well-lighted place. Picture it: A comfortable space where writers can find other writers doing what the noisy, flashy world doesn’t support — writing.
Together, let’s make this a world worth writing for.
I hesitate to say where I found this painting. It was in a sprawling New Jersey mental hospital that had been shut down and awaited demolition. The patients and staff had been relocated to a new facility, and this old one consisted of fifty-two buildings on a couple hundred acres of overgrown, forested land. Director Clark Gregg was filming much of the movie Choke there. “It’s like our own private back lot,” he said. During slack times the crew and I poked around the system of tunnels connecting the structures. The doors were designed to lock behind people automatically so some folks found themselves trapped in wards or cells without power as night fell. Among them was my editor, Gerry Howard, who stumbled into the maze during a growing thunder storm and walked seemingly forever trying to find the cast and crew. He talks about that evening as a nightmare. Me, I found a small room filled with formal oil paintings of long-ago directors and other functionaries. They were all scowling men, their portraits stacked in piles upon piles. Pigeons had crapped over everything, and all the paintings were ruined. Buried in one pile was this small watercolor of a patient sitting, reading. I’m a sucker for readers. Few things look as sexy as someone with his or her nose stuck in a book. So I took it. Matted and reframed it hangs in my office. Nobody said as much, but I think we were all trying to find thorazine.
My co-teacher, Chelsea Cain, is a huge convert to Study Hall. It can be agony to write the first draft of a scene — you know it won’t be great, it will drag, it won’t be the perfect thing you’d pictured — but rough drafts are easier to do surrounded by other writers. In Study Hall, Chelsea says she can pound out the first drafts for three chapters at a time. After that, the revising and editing is a breeze and can be done anywhere.
Re: footnote #1. The first time I see a playmate or flirty friend reading is always a turning point. My heart jumps into my throat a little as I recalculate the person's focus, curiosity, and self-sufficiency. Extra points when they're reading a book by you, Mr. P!
And I never look at them the same way again.
Happy to help you vet spaces in Chicago. The top floor of the Harold Washington Library is a light-filled dream but I'm not sure the cost of rentals nowadays.