Tag Archives: work spaces

Another (Relatively) Clean, (Somewhat) Well-Lighted Place

It’s official: I’ve moved into the new office space.

Just to review, we spent this summer retrofitting our 1930s-era farmhouse for a geothermal air conditioning and heating system, a labor-intensive activity that required us to move nearly everything out of our basement and attic storage spaces. In the process of sorting through the mess, we decided to change the function of several rooms in the house; namely, my upstairs office, just off the master bedroom, would become a large walk-in closet, and we would move me into the front room of the basement, previously the most cavernous, oppressive, and generally yucky space in the house.

We spent the last few weeks steam cleaning and waxing the tile floor, priming and painting the walls, hammering down baseboards, sewing curtains, hanging drape rods, skooching around furniture, unloading book boxes, and rewiring electric and phone lines. There was a brief setback — as I noted earlier — when we discovered some leaky spots in the fireplace that had suddenly decided to go nuclear, but with a bit of KwikPlug, we’re bone dry again.

As a reminder, then, here’s what the area looked like before the conversion, albeit with a cleaned and waxed floor and the beginning of a coat of primer on the wall:

And here it is now, in a photo taken from roughly the same place in the room:

It’s funny the things you surround yourself with. The stuffed bear you see on the mantel behind the desk was a gift my daughter Madi gave me about seven years ago, when I had just started to work on Washington Irving and became sick from a scorpion sting. She named the bear Washington, and he’s one of my Very Favorite Things — so there’s something reassuring about having him there looking over my shoulder as I work.

To the right of him, you’ll see two gifts from my wife, the first a short box where I keep a row of fountain pens, and then a stamp collector’s box where I hold all my assorted stuff, like pens, ink, stamps, wax seals, and stationery. Centered above the mantelpiece is a framed watercolor of Sunnyside, given to me by my mother and stepfather to celebrate the weekend I spoke there. Sitting on the desk, just out of sight on the left side of the picture, is a Snoopy telephone I’ve had since 1983, and in storage since about 1996. It was nice to break him out again.

The desk I’m using here is just an old farm table that once served as a dining table in my first apartment. It’s a lot smaller than the desk I was using in the old office, but that’s because given the space in the basement, I could essentially split my work area into two stations. If you sit at the desk, then, and look to your left, here’s the secondary work area — right next to the cabinet with the TV and DVD player I use solely for research purposes, I assure you:

The table is already cluttered by my writing desk, where I’ve tossed the journals and binder with my preliminary notes on my potential work in progress. You can also see the . . . er, adult beverages on the TV cabinet, and, on the shelf to the right,the ceramic Milk Bone jar our dog Abbey already strolls down the stairs to stare at, hoping to psychically force me into opening it and feeding her. It usually works.

Mounted to the ceiling is the ductwork for the new heating/cooling system. I decided to leave it exposed, rather than having it boxed in. I’m still trying to decide how well I like it.

Finally, looking to the right of the table and down the long wall, is the main reason I’m so thrilled to be moving to the basement: there’s finally enough room to put up my bookshelves and unload most of my books. The shelves are strictly IKEA, but the ability to quickly move shelves up or down is what makes it such an ideal system:

I’ve still got a few things to put away, but I’m finally back in business.

And now it’s back to work — once I shoo everyone out of here, that is. It’s already become one of the most popular rooms in the house. Not that I mind.

Friday Freeforming

I had a great time last night speaking at the Goshen Historical Preservation Society. The crowd was responsive, the food was good, and we even moved quite a few books. All in all, a successful event, and I couldn’t have asked for nicer hosts. My thanks to the GHPS and to all who came. I had fun.


Fall has officially arrived here in Maryland. After weeks of temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s, we’ve finally settled down into a much more autumnal mood. The trees have known what time of year it is all along, though, and have gradually, almost sneakily, been skewing their internal tint knobs over to orange and red and dropping leaves all over the lawn. It’s nice. I’ll miss tending my lawn and the flower beds, but getting the fall weather and fall color is a completely fair trade.


If you’ve been following this blog for a while now — and by god, why wouldn’t you be? — you know our house has been in complete and utter disarray for the past three months as we worked to retrofit our 80-year-old farmhouse with a modern geothermal heating/cooling system. As I reported several weeks ago, the system is up and running perfectly — so we’re now in the process of taking everything we moved out of the attic and basement to make way for the HVAC crew and putting it back. This gave us a perfect opportunity to sort through the clutter and get rid of some junk and, more important, change the function of several rooms.

You have to understand, our house has been added on to several times over its eight decades, expanding from the original one-bedroom/one bathroom farmhouse into its current hodgepodge of many odd-sized rooms. Some bedrooms are barely larger than closets, while others look like handball courts. A bathroom twists its way around the backside of a kitchen pantry. The upstairs doesn’t match the downstairs, and there are no real closets to speak of.

That sort of non-conformity is actually very freeing, in that it’s let us come up with some interesting functions for the various rooms and nooks and crannies. The upstairs room that once served as a makeshift kitchen, then, became my office several years ago. It’s a long rectangular room, only about eight feet wide — which was just wide enough for me to cram a desk and a bookshelf in one end of it. Our plan now is to move me out of the small office into the newly-organized basement, where I’ve got more room for bookshelves and all the random junk I like to collect. Knowing that I’m not much longer for my old office, then, I have adopted an I’ll put it away after I relocate attitude with my space. Thus, my normally tidy little office now looks like this:

Yes, it’s awful — like a Nerd Bomb went off, or something. Anyway, our task this weekend is to begin moving me out of that space, and into this one:

This is the front room in our basement — previously one of the yuckiest spaces in the house, but now gleaming with a new coat of wax on the old tile floor (notice the compass rose built into the middle of the floor — a nice touch that was almost invisible under the 50-year-old coat of gunk and grime we scrubbed off) and shouldering an incomplete coat of primer as I prepare to give the old panelling a coat of paint (a tough call, but the room remains very dark otherwise). The fireplace doesn’t work — the chimney needs to be sealed — but it’s a nice room, and with the new heating system, it’s the most comfortable room in the house.

There’s still a lot of work ahead — including running some new electric and telephone wiring — but our plan is to have the room ready and up and running by the end of the month so I can get back to work.

Have a great weekend.

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.