A (Somewhat) Clean, Well-Lighted Place

It goes without saying that writers–for a variety of reasons–are an odd bunch. We obsess over lots of different things, but one of those little issues that gnaws at us most is a sense of place. Because writing is an inherently lonely profession, we’re very picky about our work space.

Now, certainly, there are many writers who can sit in a noisy cafe or a random park bench with their laptop and immediately lose themselves in their work, blanking out all outside sound and other stimulus. Charles Dickens was that way. He could allegedly sit in the corner of a room with a party whirling around him and scratch out (in longhand, no less!) chapter after chapter of his latest doorstop.

I’m not like that, though. I need quiet, I need a closing door, and I need a space of my very own with my own stuff. It doesn’t have to be a big space — in fact, I sorta like a smaller, more intimate space. It’s like having my own clubhouse. And if it’s a mess, it’s my mess and mine alone.

Anyway, writers like to see where other writers work. We like to visit their houses and see their desks or the places they hunkered down with a piece of wood in their laps to grab a moment to write. Our passion for those places has even inspired a beautiful book, American Writers at Home, that provides sumptuous photos — and really spry prose by poet J.D. McClatchy — of the homes of writers like Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Louisa May Alcott and, yes, Washington Irving. You’ll see how writers made use of their own personal spaces, often writing plot outlines on the walls or scratching notes into the windows.

What’s most surprising about these spaces is just how inelegant most of them are. Most writers don’t have a workspace that looks like a stage set. We might think we long for a room with an enormous oak or rolltop desk, with huge, creaking bookshelves groaning under the weight of leather-bound classics — but really, we wouldn’t get much work done sitting in the Merchant-Ivory version of a workspace. Most of our workspaces are much less elegant and disorganized–and therefore more useful and conducive to the way we work.

Here’s mine.

It’s a bit cleaner than normal (I knew you were coming, so I tidied up my piles), but for the most part, it looks exactly as it did for the ten months I wrote Washington Irving here — all the way down to the row of Post-It notes stuck to the bookshelf just over the computer monitor.

The room that I turned into my office was originally a small, narrow upstairs kitchen (odd, I know — the home’s previous owners had at one time hosted missionaries, and our upstairs area was essentially a dormitory). It’s essentially a long skinny walk-in closet. We ripped out the cabinets and the rather gerry-rigged plumbing, painted the walls, shoved in a day bed, desk, and bookshelf — all courtesy of IKEA, nothing fancy there — hung some blinds, and there you have it. It’s small, cozy, sometimes messy, but it’s mine, and I always know where everything is.

At some point, I’m actually going to move my office to a new spot in the house, mainly to give myself just a bit more shelf space. And while the new room has a fireplace, giving it a bit more of a 19th century look, the feel of the place will be essentially the same — cavey, cozy, and inelegant. And really, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

5 responses to “A (Somewhat) Clean, Well-Lighted Place

  1. I see you strategically cropped out all of the Batmobiles on the shelf behind you…and the dog biscuits. Yes – I know you spoil her…

    Your Loving Wife Who Loves You


  2. Wendy Pinkston Cebula

    I’m impressed with your orderly workspace. Mine is…well…I had good intentions to keep it clean at one time. It used to be a maid’s room (I live in a pre-war apartment), but the whole room is only 6X10. If a maid ever lived in here, I pity her.


  3. What? You’re not on a Mac? Blasphemy!


  4. Jaye Wells

    I’m one of those who can work anywhere. But I do have an office set up, which I’m using more. Although, I always have music playing if I’m not in public.


  5. Brian Jay Jones

    Barb: But of course!

    Wendy: Well, this is a SOMEWHAT idealized version of it. When I’m working, I tend to have more piles sitting around, though I do tend to keep them somewhat orderly. The real mess is on the bookshelves immediately behind the desk (which, conveniently, I cropped out, as my wife glibly and very accurately noted…)

    Anon: I’m getting there…

    Jaye: You’re one of those Work Anywhere People? Get thee behind me, Satan!