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How to Be a Writer

Susan Straight on learning to write without a room of one's own

Some believe they need seclusion and silence to be a 'real writer,' but a gas station, bedroom and parking lot all did the trick for this novelist.

April 09, 2014|Susan Straight

I wanted that, still, somehow. Then last September my youngest daughter left for college in Los Angeles, my middle daughter left for a job in Santa Barbara, and my eldest remained in Austin, Texas, where she had found work.

It was just me and the dog. In July, she had a cancer in her right eye, and the eye was removed, so she had a permanent wink. In October, she got a different cancer. She was only happy lying on the ancient cement squares of the porch, in the sun that came through the mock-orange hedge. I worked on my new novel in a series of notebooks, sitting beside her on a lawn chair so I could be low enough to pet her now and then. In November she had surgery. Three days later, the retina of my right eye was torn, and I had surgery. This eye thing was actually funny to my daughters, and I have to admit though I was scared, I did laugh too.

We moved outside, the dog and me, onto the porch, from dawn until near midnight. It was a warm fall. I went to work, came home, and she still didn't want to go inside. I wrote at the flimsy green card table left behind by my neighbor when she lost her house to the bank. My dog died in December, and I was alone for the first time in my life, since my birth. I cannot write inside my house, on the computer, now, until I have written whatever it is — novel chapter, essay, story — on a notebook outside. My eye hurts. I write here on the porch, not alone but with neighbor kids coming up the walk to show me their scooters, and the mailman stopping by, and all the people walking their dogs and saying how sorry they are about the absence of mine, and total strangers who see me out here and squint.

For those of you who are beginning your stories, who might believe, as I once did, when someone tells you there are certain conditions necessary to be a serious writer, a real writer, let me say: I am writing this in a dollar notebook from Staples, with purple gel pen. I can't believe I'm still at a card table. I am not alone (my youngest is home for spring break with a friend who cannot fly East, and since they are both tall, they have just changed the burned-out porch light bulb), but I am outside, where my neighbors are grilling carne asada, and a homeless man is pausing at the corner with his shopping cart making that shimmery rattle, and I think I've finally figured it out.

Straight is the author of eight novels, professor of creative writing at UC Riverside and recipient of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes' 2013 Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement.

Festival of Books

What: Susan Straight and Lisa See in conversation with Patt Morrison
Where: Davidson Continuing Education Center, USC
When: 2 p.m. April 12
More info:

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