Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Katharine White

Writing in hotel rooms

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Vladimir Nabokov

I got back yesterday from my brother’s wedding in Los Angeles, where I spent four nights with my wife and daughter at the excellent Omni Hotel. Along with a mountain of baby gear, I somewhat optimistically brought a few pages of notes for my novel, thinking that I’d have a chance to do a little work in my spare moments. Not surprisingly, that’s not how it worked out: staying in a hotel with a toddler presents enough of a challenge without trying to write at the same time. (We ended up stashing Beatrix’s travel crib in the bathroom, where she slept happily for most of the trip, much to the relief of her exhausted parents.) I felt a touch of regret at this, since I’ve always enjoyed working in hotels. Most recently, I vividly remember spending much of a trip to Las Vegas in my hotel room at Mandelay Bay, scribbling notes and trying frantically to think of a new title for my third novel, which my publisher had asked me to change. I wasn’t able to come up with much, and it was only while browsing at an airport bookstore on the way home that I finally hit upon the pleasing but relatively meaningless title Eternal Empire—although I still prefer The Scythian.

Writers, of course, have frequently used hotel rooms as places of work. Nabokov spent much of his itinerant life—and his summertime pursuit of butterflies—moving from one hotel to the next, spending his last fifteen years at the Montreux Palace in Switzerland. One particular stay, at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, evidently served as a catalyst for the plot of Lolita, in which a pivotal scene takes place at a hotel called the Enchanted Hunters. (Thomas Mann, a writer for whom Nabokov had little respect, derived similar inspiration from his own hotel visits.) Maya Angelou rented a hotel room by the month in her hometown, where she worked every morning, lying across the bed, the sheets of which she insisted remain unchanged for the duration of her stay. Describing her routine to The Paris Review, Angelou gets close to the heart of why hotels are so conducive to certain kinds of creative thought:

I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything.

Maya Angelou

There’s a sense in which a hotel room occupies a unique place in the spectrum of the writer’s routine. Many authors can’t write away from a particular room or desk, to the point where some construct special writing shacks. Others prefer a particular lunch counter or restaurant, like The Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder, who had his favorite booth installed in his house after the coffee shop went out of business. And a select few take pride in being able to work anywhere. A hotel room represents a kind of compromise between these extremes. All hotel rooms are essentially the same, while remaining subtly different, so they provide a neutral setting for undistracted work while avoiding the boredom or monotony of the same unchanging space. Even now, when few of us write letters on hotel stationery, a writing desk and chair are still among the few standard furnishings of even the most modest of motel rooms. We may not get a chance to use the desk—I don’t think I even sat down at mine at the Omni for the four nights I spent there—but without it, the room would seem subliminally incomplete.

And there’s something fictive about a hotel room, which exists, like a short story, as a sort of simulacrum of real life. Nobody’s real house can or should look like this, although there are certainly people who spend much of their lives shaping their surroundings in imitation of what they’ve seen in hotels, from the towels to the robes to the sheets, just as many of us end up deriving our ideas about life from the books or movies we’ve experienced. Nabokov hints at this in a letter to Katharine and E.B. White, with a wonderful play on words that seems unintentional, although with Nabokov you never know: “I have no illusions about hotels in this hemisphere; they are for conventions, not for the individual.” By “conventions,” Nabokov means the gatherings of the “thousand tight salesmen” who descend on Lolita at the halfway point of the novel, but I’d prefer to focus on its alternate meaning. A hotel life is a conventional life, built up from a stranger’s idea of comfort or convenience, a vacant stage that we fill with our presences for a night or two. It’s a blank page. So it’s no surprise that those two areas of emptiness—and possibility—go together so well.

Written by nevalalee

September 3, 2014 at 10:12 am

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