Essays and Notable Articles

Where We Write: The Merits of Making Do

By posted at 6:26 am on August 17, 2010 36

One of the first essays I ever wrote was about my room. I was in high school, and the class assignment was to write about a place that was important to us. Five hundred words was expected; I think I turned in three times that. I described everything, from the Renoir poster over my bed to the black-and-white satin musical notes mobile over my desk. I delved into the critical importance of each item on my bookshelf and dresser. I highlighted the “I’d Rather Be Dancing” bumper sticker I’d stuck on my closet door (though I didn’t end up a dancer). A major theme was my love of the color blue, how it calmed and inspired me. I remember working hard to get my description of the way the sunlight filtered through the blue curtains just right.

The piece didn’t have much shape, but with hindsight I see what it revealed: I spent too much time setting up my room! By the end of high school, I did most of my homework at a large desk in my father’s office on the floor above. The rest of my time was spent at the piano or in the family room.

After college, I moved to New York with no furniture. A mattress was easily acquired by dialing an 800 number (I still remember: 1-800-MATTRES, leave off the last S for savings!), and my roommate had a sofa and table, so the only thing I needed was a desk. I spent a lot of time looking for one. I was working in publishing, trying to write in the mornings and evenings, and making very little money. I thought if I had the right desk, everything would be easier. I went to estate sales, church sales, the Salvation Army. I considered one of those lap desks from the Levenger catalog, but was afraid I’d feel like an invalid. One day, complaining to my father about this lack in my life, he told me a story. He’d known a man—the father of a childhood friend—who spent his retirement building the studio of his dreams. His whole life he’d wanted to write and paint, and now he would have the time to do it. As soon as the studio was finished.

This sounded fine to me. Where was it? Were they still friends of ours? Could I rent it?

He designed it beautifully, my father continued; the man was a good carpenter, worked on it for years. Apparently he showed it to my father at one point. He walked him through this perfect backyard work space, but what struck my father was how the man talked on and on about all the things that weren’t quite right yet.

The story appeared to be over.

What happened? I asked.

He died before it was finished, my father said. Never wrote a thing.

I kept looking for a desk, but I can’t say I wasn’t rattled. I eventually found something I liked and could afford at a very depressing estate sale on the Upper West Side: an antique, Mission-style writing desk that probably should have been found by someone able to afford to have it restored. I brought it home as it was, rough and rickety, for $150 and used it for a year. When I left that apartment, I sold the desk to the next tenant because it wouldn’t have survived another move. She worked in publishing, too, and wanted to write, so it felt like the right thing to do.

But I also think my father’s story had taken root. I began to suspect I was too susceptible to the idea of the “writer’s desk” and decided it might be better to do without one. Somewhere along the way, I began to work in libraries. More important, I began to get work done in libraries. I acquired a laptop, a padded case for it, and a backpack. I carried pens, a notebook or two, a legal pad, and a few books. Very soon I felt like the academic equivalent of the college student backpacking abroad—I was entirely self-sufficient! I didn’t need a private desk and the talismanic power of special objects surrounding me. All I needed was a warm cardigan (summer temperatures can be freezing) and the ability to ignore certain trivial rules (no drinking in the reading room; I’m very discreet with my coffee), and I had everything I needed to work effectively.

Libraries I have loved: the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; in England, the British Library and the London Library; the Charlottesville Public Library; the Miller Center at the University of Virginia; the Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania; Bobst Library at New York University; and in Connecticut, the Essex Library and the Old Lyme Library. These are the places where I worked on the stories of my first collection, Bending Heaven, and the book that became my first novel, The Report.

As work spaces, they were not always ideal. The small public libraries, for example, were rarely quiet. I asked a librarian about it once and she said, “Silence is not a priority.” Personal observation suggests that middle school math tutoring is.

The university research libraries have established quiet study rooms, but offenders are hard to police. I once asked a couple of undergraduates to take their bubbly conversation outside, and spent the rest of the day feeling like an old grump, which turned out to be not particularly conducive to writing. Oddballs can populate membership libraries like the British Library and the London Library. One man used to exclaim every half hour or so, “1734! Shit!” The date changed (though it was usually in the 15th or 17th centuries), as did the expletive, then he’d rub his forehead and abandon his books for a while.

People like the date mutterer are colorful when you’re writing well; distractors and the reason you can’t get anything done when you’re not. But the alternative worries me more. I’ve watched friends put a great deal of time into the renovation of houses and the decoration of studies or offices, and in this realm they have triumphed. They have beautiful places to work. But a lot of time has gone into those spaces and when I look at the creative output versus the time spent on preparing them, I remember my father’s story and think, No. Better to make do, sit down, get to work.

coverThere is a passage from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety that I remembered recently. A daughter, standing in her father’s impeccably arranged shop, ruefully describes the man who never quite became the poet and scholar he meant to be. A friend of the family says, “Is it compulsory to be one of the immortals? We’re all decent godless people, Hallie. Let’s not be too hard on each other if we don’t set the world afire. There’s already been enough of that.”

Hallie replies, “I know. I sound like Mom. But it does bother me that he never gets past preparing. Preparing has been his life work. He prepares, and then he cleans up.” (emphasis mine)

Wise words, and ones I read over ten years ago. Yet when I went looking for the passage for this essay, I opened the book to the exact page. And it was not dog-eared! It was not my copy, but a library book. I checked the edition to make sure the spine had not been cracked to this place by some other nut worried about spending her life only preparing, but it appeared to be undamaged. How did I turn right to it after all these years? The idea must have haunted me more than I knew.

But there is one more reason I work in libraries. I have a section of a poem about solitude by Jennifer Michael Hecht copied in one of my notebooks:

bestial from not being seeing;
staring out the window with wide, immortal eyes

I’m fairly certain that would be me at home, alone. The date mutterer and the throat clearer and the woman who wears black cardigans (she must have twenty!) and the young man with a spectacularly loud space bar, they are doing me a service. I am grateful to them. God knows what they’re working on, but I see them, and I know they see me. Being seen keeps me sane.

And maybe others feel the same. I’ve just watched a woman come in and sit down in the seat next to the older gentleman who so often works in my current library, the man with the portable word processor, an unusually upright bearing, and wide eyes. He is away from his seat and she has taken one of his books and is browsing through it. Could she know him? I’m hungry and would like to leave for lunch, but I feel I must wait to see this played out. If he doesn’t know her, what will he say? Will he ask for his book back?

He returns and they smile at each other. He says, “Why, where have you been?”

To me, that is worth not having a special pencil cup on my own desk at home.





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36 Responses to “Where We Write: The Merits of Making Do”

  1. The PW Morning Report: Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010 « PWxyz
    at 7:48 am on August 17, 2010

    [...] Where Writers Write: An essay from the Millions about writers’ work spaces. [...]

  2. Alex Herod
    at 8:23 am on August 17, 2010

    Love this post. I’ve moved many times, and each time I longed for The Desk: THE place where I could write. I’m currently back home in the box room of my childhood whilst I finish paying for my MA. I don’t have a wardrobe, let alone a desk. But i’ve found many places I enjoy writing as a result of this, and feel able to up sticks and write wherever I wish. Part of me still hopes i’ll have a beautiful writing desk one day… but to be in a different room – a library in particular surrounded by books, newspapers and the quiet thoughts of others – is stopping it from feeling like a stagnant process.
    Cheers for this post, brightened my day.

  3. Voix
    at 8:27 am on August 17, 2010

    What a gorgeous piece. Thank you.

  4. Doing It in Public | Grierson Huffman
    at 9:14 am on August 17, 2010

    [...] It in Public Posted on August 17, 2010 by griersonhuffman The Millions has an essay by Jessica Francis Kane on writing work spaces. The date mutterer and the throat clearer and the [...]

  5. Steph
    at 10:32 am on August 17, 2010

    I think we all are at least slightly susceptible to the myth of The Perfect Study which includes the Perfect Desk, the Perfect Pen and very often the Perfect Blue Walls. I’ve got them all and I never write in there. I write in the dining room, or on my bed (nice one that) or in the kitchen, where I’ve got one of those super-tiny tables that flip up from the wall.

    But in reality, I only work WELL in a coffee shop, usually Starbucks because that’s all there is around here. Working at home or, worse, in a quiet library makes me feel like life is going on out there and I am missing out on it, because I am in here. When I work at the coffee shop I feel part of that ‘life out there’ without having to engage with it at all. I’ve written 50,000 words of my PhD in a coffee shop and also my film studies monograph.

  6. Gwenda
    at 10:33 am on August 17, 2010

    What a beautiful essay.

  7. Preparation | The Art of Observing
    at 10:37 am on August 17, 2010

    [...] Preparation Posted on August 17, 2010 by Erin A new favorite website, The Millions, today features a lovely essay by Jessica Francis Kane about the search for a perfect writer’s workspace. Please take a few minutes to read it here. [...]

  8. alex
    at 11:27 am on August 17, 2010

    Yep, agree (agreeing to thanking you for the lovely post, and the sentiment). I found movement matters. I go to a coffee shop at 7am, work if I’m working, or then move to one of my local libraries at about three hour intervals, the Lit and Phil (in Newcastle, UK) or my university Library. I’ve got 65,000 words of the novel done this way so far this year. The walk between the different venues gives my back a rest, and also lets me have a think.

    Being out there / being seen is really important. That’s also why I blog and comment on other people’s posts, too, if I know I can’t get out or talk to anyone at the moment as my head’s so in the imaginary world of the novel that i’m probably not making much sense to other people (except writers…)

  9. carol gibson
    at 11:38 am on August 17, 2010

    After investing in that special place to write, it becomes stressful. The feeling becomes one of what you are supposed to do there, as opposed to following a passion. Libraries are magical places. Great read.

  10. Donna Marie Merritt
    at 12:00 pm on August 17, 2010

    What a nice piece! For years I wanted a roll-top desk. When I finally got one, I stuffed all the little “nooks and crannies” with my tools of the trade, organizing to my heart’s delight. When I need something, I go there. When I write, I go to the kitchen table! And, I always have paper and pencil with me. I find waiting rooms at doctor’s offices and such to be perfect writing spaces (though I hate to get dragged into an appointment when I’m on a roll!) and my best work has been done consistently at the beach. : )

  11. Rob
    at 1:57 pm on August 17, 2010

    Hi Jessica,
    I just wanted to thank you for writing such a wonderfully thought-provoking essay. It couldn’t come at a more relevant time for me either, given that my quest of finding the ‘perfect desk’ is becoming more and more of an obsession.

    Ultimately it’s all about writing, and you’ve helped me to realise this just that little bit more.
    Warmest
    Rob

  12. Matt
    at 3:59 pm on August 17, 2010

    Great piece. “Preparing” is just another form of procrastination that preys on writers. Waiting for the perfect desk, the perfect pen, the perfect software, the perfect state of mind means we’re always waiting to write too. It never gets done, but yet we have our excuses.

  13. Chester Kallman
    at 4:07 pm on August 17, 2010

    Jessica: When in New York, you would be wise to try the New York Society Library, a membership library located at 53 East 79th St. My favorite writing spot–but please don’t tell anyone!

  14. Barbara Ehrentreu
    at 4:27 pm on August 17, 2010

    Jessica, I agree with you that you can write almost anywhere. When we move to a new apartment I had to change my place of writing. Before in my old apartment I had used our large round travertine marble table as a place for my laptop. I used to cover my arms so they wouldn’t freeze from the marble. But when we moved I lost my table and found I could write with a cushioned laptop desk on top of my knees. At first I didn’t think I could write in such a precarious way, but now it is the only place where I write.:) I could take my laptop out of the house, but I’m too curious. I would be looking at everyone where I was. As a writer I am always making up stories about strangers. I would never be able to concentrate on what I was writing. So here I sit on my sofa able to watch TV and look out of the window.:) I admire that you can write in a place with other people.

    Great article and I agree that when you take too much time to prepare for writing you lose the time for actual writing. For me I write one sentence anywhere either on the computer or in a notebook and I’m off. It’s the writing that counts and not where you do it.:)

  15. Barbara Ehrentreu
    at 4:29 pm on August 17, 2010

    Sorry, I meant “moved” in the first line.:)

  16. The Writer in the Library « Atlanta Booklover's Blog
    at 4:39 pm on August 17, 2010

    [...] Posted at The Millions [...]

  17. Now this was a breath of fresh air. « Owls on the Answering Machine
    at 7:30 pm on August 17, 2010

    [...] this was a breath of fresh air. 08/17/2010 tags: Jessica Francis Kane by exkathedra Where We Write: The Merits of Making Do by Jessica Francis [...]

  18. Yael
    at 11:09 pm on August 17, 2010

    Lovely! Wondering in which library this essay was written. Hopefully I could check the list of libraries you’ve graciously shared above.

  19. This Week: Deliciously Awful Literary Mashups, Introducing the Facebook Novel & Quasimodo Was Real (Kind of) | Lit Drift: Storytelling in the 21st Century
    at 9:32 am on August 18, 2010

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  20. M. R. Otto
    at 11:16 am on August 18, 2010

    Oh, Bobst! I miss it.

    I now have The Desk with a green glowing library lamp on top, and of course it hasn’t been as transformative as I’d imagined. Maybe I will venture out more in search of accidental colleagues.

  21. Da vantagem de ir escrever para a biblioteca | Bibliotecário de Babel
    at 12:00 pm on August 18, 2010

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  22. Shelley
    at 1:42 pm on August 18, 2010

    The library is such a nurturing place, if the people in it would just shut up.

  23. Igor
    at 4:09 pm on August 18, 2010

    I always go out into the world when I write. Like you, I work much better in a library or other public place than I do in my home.

    It’s like, I seem to psychologically associate my home with things like resting, comfort, laziness, safety, etc. All of these things, of course, are quite the opposite of the sorts of feelings that I, as a writer, feel are conducive to the writing process.

    I go out into the world to write because, well, for the most part, my writing isn’t for myself. Sure, we all write for our own “personal” (and in some cases therapeutic) reasons, but, in the end, I must be honest and admit that the things I write and create are for the world and not just myself.

  24. Doug
    at 6:47 pm on August 18, 2010

    Lovely. Simply lovely. Thanks.

  25. Where We Write | GREYBON
    at 8:43 am on August 20, 2010

    [...] morning Laura RT’d an article titled Where We Write: The Merits of Making Do. It’s a pretty awesome piece talking about how some folks try so hard to make the perfect writing [...]

  26. Lindsay
    at 2:01 pm on August 20, 2010

    Great article. Loved this!!

  27. Dave
    at 9:51 am on August 21, 2010

    Lovely, lovely piece. And I have pre-ordered your forthcoming novel on its merits (in addition to which Graywolf Press is publishing it … a wonderful publishing house for which I used to review manuscripts and which, IMHO, can do no wrong). Congratulations and continued success!

  28. Frank Lee Meidere
    at 12:03 pm on August 21, 2010

    Exquisite. To which I’ll simply add, “Amen!”

  29. JamesPB
    at 10:31 pm on August 23, 2010

    Nice piece, made me recall this poem by Bukowski:
    air and light and time and space

    “–you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,

    something has always been in the

    way

    but now

    I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this

    place, a large studio, you should see the space and

    the light.

    for the first time in my life I’m going to have

    a place and the time to

    create.”

    no baby, if you’re going to create

    you’re going to create whether you work

    16 hours a day in a coal mine

    or

    you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children

    while you’re on

    welfare,

    you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown

    away,

    you’re going to create blind

    crippled

    demented,

    you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your

    back while

    the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,

    flood and fire.

    baby, air and light and time and space

    have nothing to do with it

    and don’t create anything

    except maybe a longer life to find

    new excuses

    for.

    © Charles Bukowski, Black Sparrow Press

  30. Book News Roundup « Buzzed on Books
    at 6:14 am on August 26, 2010

    [...] *Check out this Millions essay about where writers write. [...]

  31. Poetry Pieces
    at 9:34 am on August 27, 2010

    [...] The big secret about writing? You don’t need anything special. [...]

  32. Jeff Woodard
    at 4:59 pm on September 7, 2010

    I received a link to the Illinois Humanities Council (IHC) website from my executive director. Nothing out of the ordinary. I I get these links from him all the time. Always very interesting, entertaining and informative. Then it happened. The link to the essay, “Where We write” sneaked into my vision. Hey, this looks and sounds very cool. I began to read it. After a few distracting incidents and philosophical drifts I finished reading the essay. I really enjoyed it. The problem I now has is is I find myself, conscious of how I present my thoughts to this comment submission, and thinking about the board report I set out to commence writing a earlier with only 45 minutes left in my day here to complete it.

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