Category Archives: desks

(d)Evolution of a Workspace

Over the last ten years, I’ve written three books at my desk in my home office in Maryland. Below is the desk where I wrote Washington Irving over the span of just ten months in late 2006- early 2007.


My office at that time was in a long, narrow upstairs room, just off our bedroom. When we moved into the house, it was an old and unused kitchen (don’t ask). We removed all the old appliances, laid down some vinyl tile, painted the walls blue and brown, pulled some phone line, and moved in a daybed, IKEA bookshelves and an IKEA workbench (with the unfortunate IKEA designation of JERKER). While the room was small, I could keep nearly any reference I needed within arm’s reach on a bookshelf directly behind me (which you can’t see in this photo). as well as on the low shelf just over my computer screen. At that time, I was writing on a Dell desktop, which we bought new just for me to write on, since our main computer was located in a public space in the parlor.

This was a small, cozy set-up, and I actually enjoyed writing here.  Getting Irving done in ten months meant getting up every morning at 5 a.m, writing until about 7:30, then heading for my day job in local government. I’d return here each evening at about 5:30 p.m. and write until 11 — then repeat the next day for the better part of a year. One of the nicest things about this set-up, however, is that from time to time, Madi — who was barely a middle schooler then — would sometimes crawl into the day-bed and fall asleep while I was working in the evenings.

When I began work in earnest on Jim Henson in 2010, it was immediately clear the space in the upstairs office wasn’t large enough to contain all the notebooks, books, and other resources I was using — including a gigantic white board that I was using to map out family trees and outline chapters. So, in the autumn of 2010, I set up an office in our basement, making a desk out of two farm tables pushed into an L-shape in front of the corner fireplace.


Sorry the photo is blurry–but as you can still see, it got messy in a hurry. Instead of the Dell, I was now working on a desktop Mac, with a gigantic screen that made it easier for me to look at multiple documents on screen at the same time. For 2 1/2 years, all I did was Jim Henson–the elected official I had worked for had opted not to run again in 2010, which permitted me to dedicate myself to Jim full time. As you can imagine, then, this particular corner got messier and messier, and the piles of books and notebooks deeper and deeper.

Forward now to late 2014-early 2016. Initially, I was writing George Lucas in my basement office, sitting at a new, modular L-shaped desk that took up roughly the same footprint as the two farm tables shown above. However, as I began my work on each chapter, I would pull out all the books and notebooks and interviews anything else I needed, and start making piles on my desk–and it was clear that this was book was going to be more than my desk could handle; I simply needed more horizontal surfaces on which to pile and stack and spread out. By mid-2015, I finally took over our dining room table.


While I’ve got an old MacBook laptop in the middle of things here, I eventually moved my desktop Mac up here as well. And I’ll admit it: while the hardbacked chair is uncomfortable, there are windows on three sides of the room, making this a much warmer and brighter spot in which to write than the basement. It was also much less isolated; while Madi is long gone, the dog would come in and sleep under the table while I worked, and Barb could come in and check on me every now and then.

I was also back at work full time while I wrote this one (working for a different elected official), which could make for some long days. I’m not the early riser I was when I was writing Washington Irving; instead, I would get up around 7 each morning so I could be at work by 9 a.m.–then, once home by 6 p.m., I would immediately sit down to write, stopping for about thirty minutes for dinner with Barb, then write non-stop again until 2:00 a.m. or so . . . then do it all over again the next day.

What I find so interesting about all this is that as the projects got larger and more labor intensive, my workspace seemed to get less and less formal. While I’m one of those writers who likes a dedicated space for writing (like Washington Irving, I love cozy writing rooms), what I found as time went on is that I preferred a less formal, more spacious, and much less secluded writing area.  Not that it made things any less messy.

This Week in Mess Making

My mess of books and binders finally became more than a mere desk could accommodate. I’ve now relocated to the dining room table, which I’ve quickly taken over. We’re at 80,000 words and counting–much, much too long already, but c’mon, when writing about the guy who brought you Star Wars, it’s really hard to be stingy.


It Just Works.

That’s biographer Robert Caro, one of my all-time favorite writers, in the pic above, standing in the New York office where he does all of his writing.  Does a writer’s space need to be ritzy? Does it need to be crammed with bookshelves or filing cabinets or piles of notes?  Nope.  It just needs to work for him.  Considering Caro’s won the Pulitzer twice, I’d say this space has done its job.

Caro does his writing on an old Smith-Corona 210 typewriter, which you can see on his desk just right of center.  I don’t envy him that–I haven’t had to use a typewriter since 1984, and while I love the way they look, I don’t really miss using one–but I do love that he’s a notebook and binder type of guy. 

I’m often asked how I organize my notes and resources, and which computer program I use to keep things straight.  I keep hearing the merits of a program called Scrivener, where you can use a virtual bulletin board and Post It notes and outlines to keep everything straight. Thanks, but no thanks — I like to use actual paper, notebooks, Post It notes, and journals.  It’s a mess, but so far, it works for me.

And that’s why I love this picture of Caro.  His office is a place that works — a reflection of Caro’s own work ethic (he wears coat and tie to his office every day, to remind himself that writing is his job and that he’s there to work). Perhaps a visitor to the office might not be able to find anything, but that doesn’t matter.  He doesn’t have to.

Caro has his own order to things. There’s a method for shelving his books (as he told Newsweek, general non-fiction on the post-Cold War is farthest away from his desk, while those on his subject are closest).  The binders crammed with his interview transcripts and notes are stacked in an orderly manner by oldest to newest.  And I love those pages tacked to the wall behind him:  a gigantic outline, mapping out Caro’s progress from book one of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, through his still unfinished fourth volume.

A mess?  Maybe.  But it’s Caro’s mess — and he knows every inch of it.  “I trained myself to be organized,” Caro explained.  “If you’re fumbling around trying to remember what notebook has what quote, you can’t be in the room with the people you’re writing about.”

More (Somewhat) Clean, (Somewhat) Well-Lighted Places

Courtesy of a heads-up from Pat McNees at the Washington Biography Group, I point you to a terrific piece in the Guardian on writers’ rooms. Click here to go get it. I’ll wait.

I talked about this a while back, how a writer’s space is, more often than not, his or her sancto sanctorum. And while I continue to admire — and slightly envy — those who have the Dickensian ability to work almost anywhere, I tend to agree with John Banville, whose own workplace is featured in the piece:

“How I envy writers who can work on aeroplanes or in hotel rooms. On the run I can produce an article or a book review, or even a film script, but for fiction I must have my own desk, my own wall with my own postcards pinned to it, and my own window not to look out of.”


What’s really interesting about this assortment of rooms is how normal they look. None of them look like stage sets; there are very few mahogany desks or oak bookshelves sagging under the weight of uniform leather volumes. Most of them are filled with unmatching furniture and pressboard bookshelves, while some desks are simply pieces of wood laid across filing cabinets. The only common denominator seems to be books — as Simon Armitage notes, “Writers need to be more interested in wall-space than square footage,” so they can fill the walls with bookshelves.

Other than that, rooms are crammed with assorted piles of stuff — boxes, scrap-metal robots, Fellini movie posters — and lots of other items that make the spaces intensely personal. I think Simon Gray sums it up best: “This is my room and I can do what I bloody like in it.”

Amen, brother.

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.