Category Archives: work spaces

(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.

In Media Res (1991 Edition)

Speaking of workspaces . . .

I opened my e-mail this morning to find a photograph (seen below) from my pal Marron, with whom I shared an office in my first years on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s.  She and I (and usually two, sometimes three, others) worked in this office in the U.S. Senate Dirksen Building — a building that had all the charm of a 1960s-era high school — from 1990 until about 1995. It was here that we first learned that airplanes were on their way to the Middle East for the opening volleys of first Iraq war, where she and I answered phones over Columbus Day weekend during the infamous Clarence Thomas hearings, and where we generally worked long into the night when the Senate was in session. Marron and I could also get into quite a bit of trouble together; we took great delight in pranking our fellow staffers, and each other.  (Marron once crashed our office phone system by forwarding every phone in the office to my direct line.)

Anyway, if you think from watching television or movies that the life of a Hill staffer is glamorous, and that we all work at enormous oak desks in offices lined with gigantic bookshelves crammed with leather-bound books and framed prints of the Founding Fathers on the wall, well . . . not so much.  Here’s me in my workspace in 1991 or so, as photographed by Marron from her desk across from me (you can see her own inbox in the foreground):

(Click on it if you want to embiggen it and enjoy me in all my twentysomething glory.)

Yeah, that’s me with a head full of hair.  Shut up. Given the way I’m dressed, the Senate was likely in an extended recess, when we didn’t have to wear our usual suits and could come in a bit more casually dressed.

Sitting on the desk in front of me is one of those gigantic old IBM desktop computers.  Back in the early 1990s, the only people in our office who had desktops were the low folks on the totem pole — and that’s because we were using them to draft responses to constituent mail, which we could then save onto an inner-office network, where anyone with a desktop could pull them up. And let me tell you, we worked those things hard, responding to about 10,000 pieces of mail each month.  (And as Marron reminded me in her e-mail  accompanying this photo, it wasn’t too long after this picture was taken that my computer monitor actually caught fire.)

All other office business — including a rudimentary e-mail system — was carried out on computers we called The DeeGees — old green-screened Data General computers, hooked into a central system that made it possible to share files and send messages. Mine was on the desk’s return,  just behind the clunky IBM.  (If you think your computer currently takes up too much space on your desk, try having two.)

The bookshelf to the left in the photo was my filing system — and you can see that, even then, I was still a black binder kinda guy. There was an old dot-matrix printer in the space just behind the bookshelf, where our assistant press secretary would print out wire stories once each day, making a loud zzzt zzzt zzt! for about 30 minutes.

The television you see — which we used to monitor the Senate floor — wasn’t mine or Marron’s;  it belonged to another staffer we all called Joe T, who had one of the two desks next to the window. And on the wall?  Not Founding Fathers, but Georgia O’Keeffe prints (the one behind my desk was a painting of the Taos Pueblo)  and framed photos of New Mexico scenery.  And it looks like I also had a small promo poster for Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta taped to the wall just above my DeeGee.

Finally, it appears there’s a pile of papers on the desk in front of me.  Some things never change. Apart from the hair, of course.

In Media Res

It’s probably due to the upcoming premiere of the brand spanking new movie The Muppets (coming to a theater near you on November 23), but over the past few days I’ve been asked more and more, “How’s  the book coming?”

The short answer: really well.  I recently finished writing extensively about The Muppet Show, which puts me about two-thirds of the way through.  But there’s still a lot more to go — that Jim Henson was a busy and productive guy — and as I make the turn into the final third of the book, my desk is officially a mess. And to respond to some of the other questions I’ve received, here’s what my workspace  presently looks like:

Whatta mess.

It’s a bit blurry — I took it with my phone — so let me guide you around.  On the wall behind my chair is the gigantic white board I use to draw up the timeline for the chapter I’m working on, along with any random notes (at the moment, there’s a scribbled address for the long-gone Muppet Stuff store in New York City).

On top of the desk (which is actually just two old tables pushed together, with a filing cabinet shoved into the open corner) is an assortment of black binders (filled with transcripts of interviews, notes, and newspaper articles) along with several journals and scattered Post-It notes. You might also see the corner of Christopher Finch’s fantastic Jim Henson: The Works peeking out, as well as Caroll Spinney’s The Wisdom of Big Bird. And that piece of red striped paper is actually part of my Bible for this project: a well-thumbed and marked-up photocopy of Jim’s Red Book, generously provided by the Henson family.

What else? On top of the filing cabinet in the lower left hand corner are all four volumes of an 1862 edition of The Life and Letters of Washington Irving—still a fellow close to my heart—and because I believe you should always have your subject looking over your shoulder as you write, the mantlepiece behind me (yeah, it’s a real working fireplace) sports a framed photo of Jim Henson lounging across a set of theater seats with his arm draped around Kermit.*

What’s next? During the last week of November, I’ll be interviewing not one, not two, not even four, but five more Really Neat People, and I’m producing chapters regularly, which keeps my editor happy.  And while I try to spend most of my days sitting right there in that leather chair you see above, I have to admit I’ll be spending several hours out of it next Wednesday.  I’ll be at The Muppets, you know.

Thanks, everyone, for their questions and enthusiasm!

* Just for fun, see if you can also spot a 1960s-era Batmobile and the Mach 5 among the mess, as well as a Jim Henson action figure, strumming a banjo.

Batteries Not Included

I was in a sporting goods store the other evening, looking at the rows and rows and shelves and shelves of equipment and clothing available for almost any kind of sport or activity, and it got me thinking: I’m not sure if it’s an American thing exactly, but we seem to love our gear and accessories.

When we pick up a new hobby — whether it’s baseball or lacrosse or running  — we love to go out, before we’ve even set foot on a ball field or track, and buy all the gear.  Wanna play golf?  Apart from the clubs, balls and tees that are the required equipment, you can buy golf shoes designed by aerospace engineers, and golf shirts with almost any kind of logo. There are golf bags with jillions of little pockets that can fold up to fit in a briefcase, and golf umbrellas that span large enough to protect Montana from the rain. There are ball markers and ball cleaners and spike tighteners and club scrapers — all of which seem to have bottle openers on them — and countless other little toys and accessories to make life on the links that much easier.  We take all of that stuff, put it on, throw everything in the car, head for the golf course and discover…

…well, we discover that golf can be hard work.  We find out that no matter how fancy the gear is, how great as all the accessories might be, what looks like a fun game still takes a certain amount of skill and work to do well. Even if you never want to join the PGA tour — or even want to become a scratch golfer — it still takes some skill and practice to keep from spraying your ball into the trees and spending all your afternoon in the rough.  Which sucks.  Take it from me.

It can be the same way with writing.  Writing looks fun and relatively easy — after all, the only real equipment you need is a computer with some sort of word processing program or, if you’re old school, a pen and notepad.  And there are plenty of accessories, too — we like desks and laptops and colored pens and stationery and printers and Post-It notes. We picture everything in our work space being just right, precisely conducive to the creative process, so we can get to work.

There’s a great moment in the movie Funny Farm where Chevy Chase — who’s moved from the city to a picturesque farm house so he can write that novel he’s been thinking about — finally sits down at the typewriter in his perfectly ideal and secluded office, types the three-word title at the top of the first page (“THE BIG HIT”) and then . . . sits and stares.

We’ve all been there — that moment when you realize that it doesn’t matter whether you’re on a Mac or a PC, whether you’re using a chewed up pencil or a Mont Blanc pen, or whether you’re at a mahogany desk or the Formica-topped kitchen table.  Regardless of your accessories, you’ve got to get something on that piece of paper.  Writing — like golf or baseball — is suddenly about more than the accessories.  It’s time to create words, to create worlds — and while writers love doing it, it’s still work. As the brilliant William Zinsser says: “I hate writing, but I love having written.”

What tends to happens, then, whether it’s writing or golfing, is we start paring down on our accessories, settling into what’s comfortable — and comforting — to use. Sometimes its a matter of experimentation — maybe the most expensive golf ball doesn’t fly as far for you as a cheaper brand, simply because of the quirks of your particular swing.  Writers do the same thing, discarding gel pens in favor of ball points, using old fashioned, beat up filing cabinets to store story ideas, research notes, and interesting photos, or coming to realize that that great slab of polished oak you’re using for a desk is too intimidating and moving back to the cozier climes of the smaller, coffee-stained IKEA modular.

Or maybe you do find you need a leather golf glove on each hand to keep your swing under control, or you write better with a gold-nibbed fountain pen at a spartan mahogany desk.  Maybe you don’t even need it, maybe you just like it and want it. And that’s okay, too.  Accessories can be a fun part of your work — but it is work, so it’s up to you to determine what you need and what you don’t to get it done. No one else gets to decide that for you.  As I’ve said here before, you just have to go with what works for you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the new Levenger catalog just arrived.  Surely, there’s something in it I have to have. No, really.

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.”