Monday, May 28, 2012

Writers and Their Writing Spaces…Or Spaces of Writers…Or Spacey Writers…Oh, Never mind

by Juliet Bond

There are many reasons why novelists write – but they all have one thing in common: a need to create an alternative world.
John Fowles

Most writers try to carve out a space for themselves.  Virginia Woolf, for example, famously insisted that a woman needs money and a room of her own in order to create fiction.  Ms. Woolf hid herself in a nearby shed on the property of Monk’s House when she wanted to write.

Virginia Woolf’s writing shed

Like Woolf, some may prefer one specific room, desk or corner while others may be flexible or even mobile.  My favorite place to write is the living room in my in-law’s vacation house.  I begin at five AM, before everyone wakes up.  Then, if I’ve caught the muse, and the story comes hurtling forth, I carry a purse-sized notebook with me in the car, at restaurants, to parks – wherever my family is going – and I keep writing.  I write between meals, reading stories to my kids, taking a shower, teaching a class; this works for me. 

Jane Austin wrote amidst the chaos of family interaction too (er, not that I am comparing my writing prowess to Jane Austin, just my ideal setting.) 

Jane Austin’s writing desk at Chawton Cottage

One glance at that tiny chair and table and it’s easy to imagine a busy room of women, stitching, reading, laughing and plonking away at the piano.  For many, the distractions would have made it impossible to concentrate.

But I’ve never been very good at total solitude.

The Pulitzer Prize nominated writer Francine du Plessix Gray wrote, "The whole thing about writing is how to be able to withstand solitude."  For me, withstanding the solitude of writing is so much easier when not alone.

Still, every writer is unique.  D.H. Lawrence preferred to write while sitting under a tree.  Toni Morrison had to shell out cash for a hotel room to nurture her muse.  The venerable Audrey Niffenegger enjoys the white noise of a chocolate scented, local café.  And rumor has it that Gertrude Stein felt most creative in her car while Ben Franklin composed best in the bathtub.

When I poled the Swagger group, most said that they prefer a messy desk, surrounded by the items that comfort or vex them:

·               A coffee cup, not cleaned for three days
·               Pictures of their children for inspiration
·               Poems, quotations or inspiring images on crumpled paper
·               The books that made them want to be writers in the first place (both comforting and infuriating because they are the tantalizing holiest of grails for each individual writer.)

Kathy Weichman’s writing desk

Other writers need a ritual to get them started, slipping out of bed, brewing a fresh pot of coffee and eating a banana maybe.

And some rely on a time of day.

Simone de Beavoir claimed she got bored if she didn’t begin working right away each day.  She then took a break for lunch and socializing, and would resume writing again at five pm.

The luckiest of writers had the money or resources available to create their own ideal spaces for writing.

George Bernard Shaw’s writing shed

Mark Twain’s writing structure

Linda Aldrich’s tree house

Roald Dahl’s writing shed

And then there are artists who celebrate creative spaces by creating art about creative space.  A 2008, New York Times article features a mural by visual artist Elena Climent depicting the rooms of some of the most famous writers including Edith Wharton, Zora Neal Hurston and Washington Irving.

And true literary junkies, (who have a few thousand dollars burning holes through their golden pockets), can essentially stalk their hero’s creative spaces.  One can take a trip to peer through the windows of Hemmingway’s Florida Spanish Colonial or cavort within the tiny rooms at Shakespeare’s childhood home.

If I had a ticket to England I would hijack my friend Barb and drag her to Greenway, a Georgian Mansion where Agatha Christie commissioned an architect to make sure she had, “…a big bath and a ledge because I like to eat apples.”

In the end I suppose it doesn’t matter where a writer writes as long as they are writing.  The place, as fantastic, messy, quiet or chaotic as it may be, isn’t the point.  Writing is about what is produced not where it was produced.  And where a writer writes is as unique to each writer as their own ache to create.  As Anne Lamott said,

We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little.

So write where you are, wherever that may be.


  1. My cluttered desk is messy, yes, but most of those other places have views I would find distracting. Some distractions are easier to shut out. (30 years ago, I wrote longhand while I worked in a game room. Picture PacMan & Space Invaders noises all around, but I didn't hear them.) Such an interesting post. I can picture you with your notebook, jotting down the words that flow from your brain.

    1. Hi Kathy, I con totally relate to the views are distracting comment! I sometimes write in coffee shops but can't resist listening to other's conversations :)

  2. As soon as I sell enough books, I'm going to buy myself one of those pre-fab storage sheds that look like a little house (conveniently, there's a nearby business that custom makes them). It will be my creative workshop. I will install my computer for writing, my sewing machines for costuming, and my beads and other materials for general crafting.

    My husband isn't too keen on this idea, though. He said if I had something like that, he'd never see me again. But I'm thinking I'll have to go into the house to eat and use the bathroom; he'll see me then.

    But the simple fact is, I can't write unless I'm alone and it's quiet.

    1. I have that same fantasy! But it's completely antithetical to my actual writing productivity style. My husband has promised me that if we ever have the money to install a garage, he will build me a small loft with hundreds of shelves for my books, a writing desk and a fireplace. I imagine that I would love it!

      And mostly take naps and read there...

  3. I'm currently trying to set up my perfect writing space (it is going to include two desks, actually) but one of my favorite writing spaces ever was a tree house in my parents backyard. I was currently in the midst of tearing off the walls and repainting and putting up new walks, but for a while it was just a skeleton in the woods, with a floor and roof, and it was the absolute best writing space. So jealous of Linda Aldrich's tree house!

  4. Me too, the treehouse is amazing. One of my favorite writing desks is Jane Addams "partner desk." Have you ever seen one of these? They are two sided so that two writers can share the space. Isn't that a lovely idea?