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Susan Wiggs | The Portable Profession


Writing novels is surely the most portable career there is. The office cube farm is handily located right between my ears. Tools of the trade fit in the pocket of my oversize hoodie–a Clairefontaine notebook, a fountain pen filled with peacock-blue ink, and a smartphone that doesn't actually get a signal at the house.

The commute? My usual route is from the couch to the computer, and the only traffic I encounter is a sleeping dog or a teetering tower of to-be-read books.

When you're this portable, you have the ability to live anywhere you want. So why not pick the place that feels most like home in the world?

My "anywhere," as it turns out, is Bainbridge Island, Washington–a chunky green dot on the map, located a ferry commute away from downtown Seattle. This particular house has everything a writer could want–a nice big stretch of beach, privacy, a separate studio for guests, and a funky '60s vibe that makes it a unique and creative space.

There's a timeless quality to life at the shore, where the work schedule is defined by the tides, and deadlines are dictated by the seasons. Blue herons, scoters and red-winged blackbirds inhabit the estuaries and marshes. It's the ideal spot for me–a dreamer, an optimist, a hard worker, a perfectionist, a bundle of passions and emotions that spill out onto the page.

As a writer, I spend at least half my time staring off into the distance. Although hard-pressed to explain the process to my family, this is when the real "heavy lifting" of fiction writing takes place. Living here gives me no end of things to stare at while my imagination takes flight. From any window of my house, I can see a blue, busy waterway filled with sailboats, ferries and Navy vessels. In the distance is the island's piece de resistance–a dead-on view of Mount Rainier, painted pink by the dawn, or sky blue in the afternoon sun, or deepest amber at sunset. It's probably no accident that some of my bestselling novels have titles like Just Breathe, Return to Willow Lake or The Ocean Between Us, expressing themes of love, family, connection and peace.

All my first drafts are handwritten in Clairefontaine notebooks from France. Because I'm left-handed, I use a fountain pen with peacock blue ink, which dries quickly and saves me from smudging things with my sleeve. It's a habit I developed while in high school, and it's still the most portable way I know of to craft a novel. Writing this way feels more organic and immediate–as writer Anne Tyler says, like "knitting a book." The technique also frees me from being tied to any one place in the house for my writing. Depending on the weather, I can be found in the lounge room, the study, out on the patio or at the beach, putting my stories on paper.

Readers often ask where ideas come from. My answer is that I find them on the beach or in the forest, picking up storylines and plot twists like colorful bits of seaglass on the beach, or pinecones in the woods. Because when I'm not staring into space, I'm putting on my gumboots and heading out, either afoot or on my bicycle, kicking my brain in gear with a brisk walk or ride. The key to a character might be found while poking around in the wrack line along the beach. I might figure out a book's resolution while tromping with Barkis in a rain forest populated with 200-foot Douglas firs, majestic cedars and electric-green mosses.

People will warn you about the dreary winters here. They'll tell you it rains all the time and gets dark at four in the afternoon. They'll regale you with stories about slugs the size of Volkswagens and bathtub mould with the half life of uranium.

For me, the dark, damp season is essential. Our summers are an intoxicating riot of sunshine, when the temptation to play hooky is impossible to resist. Ah, but the winters–that's the time for stories to unfold from the deepest part of the imagination.

When the rain comes and the sun refuses to show its face, I make a fire and a cup of lavender-scented Earl Grey tea, put up my feet and get busy writing. I haven't yet found a use for the slugs and bathtub mould, but the rest of it is working well for me.

About Susan Wiggs

Susan Wiggs's life is all about family, friends...and fiction. The author is a former teacher, a Harvard graduate, an avid hiker, an amateur photographer, a good skier and terrible skate boarder, yet her favorite form of exercise is curling up with a good book. Her latest novel is called Return to Willow Lake. Readers can learn more on the web at www.susanwiggs.com and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/susanwiggs.




16 comments posted.

Re: Susan Wiggs | The Portable Profession

I LOVE your commute and your anywhere office! And as a fellow lefty and veteran smudger, I enjoyed learning about your peacock-blue-inked fountain pen!
(Felicia Ciaudelli 1:41pm September 4, 2012)

I do the random paper and napkin thing when inspiration hits me. I just hate having to type it up afterwards.
(Sally Hannoush 3:30pm September 4, 2012)

It was interesting to read about your office/commute and where you find your inspiration. I wish my commute were as easy as yours...unfortunately it does involve a car, traffic, and time. The upside to that is I have discovered audio books, and have been able to increase my reading thusly. I was so excited to see a new book coming out by you, and can't wait!

(Sandi Shilhanek 3:57pm September 4, 2012)

My commute has always involved driving.. Your books are wonderful and I'm looking forward to your latest! Thanks for sharing some of your life with us readers!
(Cate Sparks 4:48pm September 4, 2012)

Thank you for inviting us into your home. It was interesting to read about your house and where you write your wonderful books.
(Rita Wray 5:47pm September 4, 2012)

All that was missing from this posting were some pictures of what you see when you go out seeking inspiration (or waiting for inspiration to find you when walking or biking!).

A friend of mine was just out there, and she had the gall to keep telling me about the beautiful sunsets, and interesting wildlife. I just about killed her!

That's an area I would love to visit someday in person. Until then, I'll have to visit it in books.


(Lynn Rettig 7:01pm September 4, 2012)

It was such a thrill to read your posting today!! I don't know if it has anything to do with being left-handed as well, but I can't believe how many things we have in common!! I really thought that I lived in one of the prettier areas here in Michigan, being surrounded by acres of farmland and forest, but after reading about your picturesque setting, I would give my eye teeth to be where you are!! The herons have always been my favorite bird, and to see them would be a bit of a drive for me. Your view sounds like heaven as well, and I can picture it in my minds' eye. I also understand how hard it is to write in notebooks and about the ink smearing. It does get to be a problem!! Anyway, I'm really looking forward to reading your book. I think the cover is as breathtaking as the view from your house. Congratulations on your book, and it's definately on my TBR list.
(Peggy Roberson 7:04pm September 4, 2012)

Thank you for the lovely post!
(Mary C 8:22pm September 4, 2012)

Since I love your stories so much, I am thankful the dreary winters that allow your imagination to run free. Thank you so much for the many hours of pleasure your books have given me.
(Robin McKay 8:23pm September 4, 2012)

Living in land-locked eastern Nebraska, the muddy Missouri River is my only source of water "freedom". Thank you for writing characters and plots that I can get lost in.
(Joanne Hicks 10:02pm September 4, 2012)

I live in a beautiful area where all of the trees are starting to change color. It's natures way of showing off just how beautiful fall colors can be. I believe your surroundings have a lot to do with your inspirations for writing. Keep up the good work.
(Cheryl English 10:15pm September 4, 2012)

I really love your post. Being a foreclosure defense Kane
County lawyer, i really like your idea. I'd like to do
this someday.
(Warren Scott 2:26am September 5, 2012)

Natural surroundings are ideal for letting the mind rattle around in the subconscious and dig out a plot twist or a true action for a character. Another way can be driving, provided it's a relaxing drive. Just removing the focus on carrying the plot forward allows the subconscious to produce half-formed ideas for your attention.
(Clare O'Beara 5:14am September 5, 2012)

I'm also left-handed and when I was in high-school and vocational-technical college, I always wrote everything with a fountain pen in peacock-blue ink!! I was shocked to read this. I also own most all of your books! Your views sound beautiful, and I'm a bit envious...but I'm sure it's a plus for your great writing!
(Linda Luinstra 7:15pm September 6, 2012)

I agree that being by water is indeed refreshing and rejuvenating. You get energy from the water and transform it into creative passions. Getting in the "Zone" by water's edge isn't difficult. You just have to show up and let the ripples flow through you. Whenever my spirit needs refueling I find water of some kind and get renewed and go forward.
(Alyson Widen 2:26pm September 8, 2012)

Hi, Susan -- I've moved from the center of Florida to the mountains of Colorado, and there's something peaceful about writing with nature as your surroundings, whether it's water or swaying aspens. But the longhand -- that makes me run away. I'd need a pen with cut and paste before I could go back to that "technology"
(Terry Odell 3:59pm September 8, 2012)

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