Write It Sideways

3 Things Small-Space Living Taught Me about Writing

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time now. Four years, to be exact. Because for the past four years, ever since moving back to Canada from Australia, my family of six has been living in a small space out in the country.

Six people. Two bedrooms. One bathroom. A kitchen built for a bachelor.

Think cottage at the lake. Beautiful—but temporary—accommodation. Or, at least it was meant to be temporary.

I understand there’s a trend toward living in small spaces. Perhaps even a trend for big families to fit into the smallest home possible. I am not ambitious enough to purposely put myself in such a position, but I do see how this might’ve been more doable back in Australia where outdoor space can double as extra living space. In the Great White North where the ground is white five or six months of the year and where temperatures can drop to -40 Celsius with the windchill . . . well, let’s just say from October to May we spend a lot of time inside.

But, as most of us understand, when these types of challenging circumstances come into our lives and we’re not in a position to change them, wallowing in self-pity accomplishes nothing. The best thing we can do is search for meaning in the experience and use it to make us stronger people.

Challenges are inevitable, but overcoming challenges helps us grow.

Here’s what I’ve learned about writing from four years of small-space living:

1. Size really doesn’t matter.

Ultimately, size is a non-issue. The size of your home is not directly related to how successful, fulfilled, or productive you are, or how much you give back to your community. Big home or small home, you’ll find things to complain about and challenges to overcome. Big home or small home, you’ll also find things to be grateful for.

Size is what you make it. Size is what size does.

Writing is always challenging—no matter who you are, no matter what you write, no matter whether you’re an absolute beginner or a multi-published author. During the fall semester of 2017, I was one of the teachers for Sarah Selecky’s online writing course The Story Intensive, and one of the things I noticed from both my students and my fellow teachers (with whom there was a lot of collaboration via regular video calls) is that we all struggle with our writing as a matter of course. We may struggle with different aspects of the writing process (time management, drafting, revising, publishing, marketing, etc.), or we may even struggle with the same aspects—but we all struggle.

We, the teachers, discussed our fears that we weren’t as good as our peers, our inability to finish a work-in-progress, a lack of writing time given individual commitments in our personal and professional lives, and our nervousness about not securing writing grants to fund our work this year. We talked about the struggle to find the right point of view for a story, woes over submitting to literary magazines, and more. Not one of us had our stuff together (at least not in the way an outsider might expect). Not one. No matter the size of our writing portfolios!

An integral part of The Story Intensive was coming to terms with this struggle, recognizing your own resistance to the writing process and accepting that it will never stop being difficult, even once you think you’ve made it. Once you accept that, it becomes less frightening and all-consuming.

Today I accept that I live in a small space. I accept that I must share a bathroom with five other humans. I hope this will change in the future, of course, but I understand that the removal of this life challenge will be replaced with another should we find ourselves in a larger home.

2. All you need are the basics.

Small-space living has necessitated an ongoing mission to part ways with anything we don’t need now or won’t need as soon as we move. That means purging clothing we don’t wear often, getting rid of toys as soon as the kids outgrow them, purchasing gifts that don’t take up any space (snowboarding lessons, swimming passes, edibles), and not accepting any new donations of “stuff” unless it’s an absolute must.

Though it can be difficult to keep this minimalistic lifestyle, there’s also something very freeing about it. I’ve noticed the stronghold of “stuff” lost its grip on me ages ago. And it’s amazing how little you can live with when you prioritize space and get creative. In turn, your mental and emotional space grows.

All you really need to be successful in writing are the basics. Strictly speaking, a fiction writer really only needs pencils or pens and some paper. That’s it. Writing by hand has wonderful cognitive benefits. If you can’t afford a computer, most public libraries can set you up with access to one on occasion. I do own a laptop and an external hard drive to back-up my work, but I use only free or very low-cost programs for writing. When I buy notebooks, I buy the cheap ones so I don’t feel compelled to hold onto them once I’ve transcribed my work. For now I use my public library rather than buying and accumulating a lot of books. I do have a desk, but it’s not located in a private writing space.

I’m focused on the basics of writing both in materials and in process: practicing regularly, revising past work, creating new work, reading critically, submitting when ready. Anything else is icing on the cake.

3. You’ll survive.

Seriously: small-space living isn’t all that bad. Even with a big family, long-term living in a small space is certainly trying and inconvenient, but there are also benefits. For example, there’s less space to keep clean and maintain. There’s less focus on material things and more on family.

Writing, with all its ongoing challenges, is not a life-threatening disorder. Of course it’s no easy thing to write, polish and publish a piece of writing, especially one as long as a novel or memoir, but it’s also not something to make yourself sick over. If you fail to accomplish your writing goals—even if you give up entirely and permanently—nobody dies. The world does not collapse. You try again, or you don’t try again. You move on, or you don’t move on.

In either case, you survive.

Likewise, I often find myself these days in Writing Survival Mode. Family and work commitments can be all-consuming at times, so I look for ways to “just keep swimming.” This might involve journalling, reading, mental composting, or jotting down ideas in an idea notebook. But I don’t freak out if I don’t write every day, or even if a week goes by and I haven’t written a word. Because I know that’s a temporary problem and it will sort itself out.

Our small-space living isn’t forever. We’ve made it work and will continue to make it work until things change. We try to focus on the good and ignore the bad and be grateful to have the space we do.

Writing Is a Journey

The truth is, I’ve been on the move for the last two decades. From one family home to another, then off to three different homes while abroad, and finally back to Canada. We’ve been here long enough now that we are starting to contemplate how to get back to Australia for a visit. And as dual citizens, we have no idea what the far future holds for our family.

Sometimes I despair that I’ll ever find a proper place to land, but then I remember that with writing, the journey is never over. There are hills and valleys, times of plenty and times of famine, and there’s a blessing for you today, right where you are.