Millions Quiz

Where We Write

By posted at 6:00 am on February 23, 2012 32

The ultimate in writing spaces seems to be the writing shed, a spare, distraction-free room set in some verdant landscape, where, in fertile solitude, the writer may create worlds out of nothing. Roald Dahl had one, so did Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf. Perhaps one day, we’ll each be writing in our own. Until then, as our Millions staffers share in their illustrated entries below, we’re making do (often happily!) with offices, studio apartments, coffee shops, and guest bedrooms. Share a photo of your own writing space using the hashtag #writespace on Twitter and we’ll repost some favorites on our Tumblr.

 

Michael Bourne: That’s right, I write in bed. I used to have a desk, one of those hideous pasteboard rolling-keyboard-drawer deals, but this being Brooklyn, when we adopted our son five years ago, my “home office” became his bedroom and I was relegated to the guest bed. But now I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The big stack of paper in the foreground is my recently finished novel, which I’m now reading one last time before sending out. The yellow legal pads are where I take notes for my reported pieces (yup, I do most of my phone interviews in bed, too). There’s also some old New Yorkers and a Toy Story comic book that I read to Luke before he goes to bed. (Also, I now see peeking out from the Thomas the Tank Engine blanket, a big black motorized toy car, whose provenance I cannot fully account for.) What the photo doesn’t show is the built-in bookshelves that cover the far wall and the prints of Impressionist paintings on the other walls. It also doesn’t show the cats – one ginger tom and a silver-and-black girl cat – who snuggle around me as I write. I thought about cleaning it up, but that would not only present me as a neat freak, which I am not, but more importantly it would convey the wrong impression. This isn’t a work space so much as a work nest. Like a lot of writers, I write a ton of bad stuff. Really bad stuff. Embarrassing bad. But here, behind closed doors, in my messy bed in my son’s bedroom, with the big wall of my favorite books smiling down at me and the cats curled up in purring puddles at my side, I can be my fraudulent self and no one will ever have to know.

 

Sonya Chung: I live in a studio apartment with one other human and two dogs. It’s pretty crowded. I work at a long table that is divided from the sleeping/TV area by bookshelves. I straightened up a little for this photo, but generally, I work, and think, in piles. Writing pile; teaching pile; life administration pile. On the far right end of the table is the miscellaneous crap/mail pile (and, of course, dog biscuits). I included my knitting-in-progress in the photo (a scarf) because it’s a strategy I’m trying out, i.e. I’m teaching myself to knit and hoping (as many people have told me) that it helps to de-stress and focus scattered thoughts. The kneeling chair recently replaced an exerball-as-deskchair (which gradually deflated) — back pain, anyone? The lamp is a Kmart special that was originally all-white, but we spray painted the shade hot pink, couldn’t tell ya why…

 

Garth Hallberg: This probably isn’t the messiest workspace you’ll see, though the handprints I’ve left in the laptop grime are pretty gross. Still, when I behold The Desk objectively like this, any pleasure I might take in the externalization of my own mind loses out to my chagrin at all the work remaining to be done. Atop the compact O.E.D. are six books I’m currently supposed to be writing about – one of them a three-novel omnibus, another a year past deadline. To the left of that, bits of my wife’s dissertation have drifted down on top of the desk references (Shakespeare, Hobsbawm, Trucker’s Atlas, Complete New Yorker). Multiple drafts from my own work in progress lie atop books unread (Juan Jose Saer) and un-reread (Joseph Mitchell), because there’s no open space on the desktop. To the front right looms…well, the less said about that, the better.

The picture of my son is for inspiration. The knife is to be used against hostile invaders. The envelope of inspirational quotations has yet to be unpacked, a year-plus after we moved. The coffee right now is what is keeping me going. If you look closely in the glass of Amos’ Ab/Ex masterpiece, on the wall, you can see me shadowed against the awful pink bathroom tile, camera to eye, heavily caffeinated, but, for a moment at least, no longer quite so hard at work.

 

Kevin Hartnett: Whenever I start focusing on the less desirable features of where I work I remind myself of this: It’s an upgrade.

I started as a freelancer three years ago. At the time, my wife I were living in Philadelphia in a one-bedroom apartment. We got on all right in our small space. Then we had a kid. And another kid. By the end of our time in Philadelphia I had to move two piles diapers and a changing pad just to find a place to put my laptop down.

Now we live in Ann Arbor. I work on the second floor of our house, at an antique secretary, in a room with sliding glass doors that lead out to a deck in our backyard. It’s not strictly speaking “my office,” but from 9am-2pm everyday, when my wife is at work and our kids are with their nanny, I have the space all to myself.

My idée fixe of office spaces is a clapboard shed that overlooks Buzzard’s Bay on the front lawn of a friend’s house on Cape Cod. My present situation is a far cry from that. The sliding glass doors face west, which means I work in dimness. And the view out my window is just a boring suburbanish backyard. Occasionally a scrum of kids will burst into view, toting sleds or soccer balls. More often it’s just me and the squirrels who are so obviously fat and healthy it’s off-putting.

But overall I try not to fetishize where I work. All I really need is quiet and enough light to see by. When I find myself longing for a New England sea breeze I try to remind myself of this: The most consequential feature of any potential office is that I’ll be the one sitting in it.

 

Lydia Kiesling: Before a friend moved and bequeathed us the coffee table, the workspace was just the couch, where I sat with computer perched on lap and fretted about irradiating my womb and/or femurs. Now that we have the coffee table, my womb and femurs are presumably okay, but my back suffers. For now, this is where I do everything that I routinely do–homework, writing, cat-hugging, facebook-creeping, school reading (I prefer to read novels before bed, in bed). Most important: My betrothed, knowing this to be the lint-filled navel of my universe, pried the leftovers from my hands and proposed marriage in this very spot.

 

Edan Lepucki: Last summer I wrote about my workspace for the deliciously voyeuristic Tumblr site, Write Place, Write Time. The photos show my desk at home, which is my preferred place to write. Since having a baby, though, my apartment and the desk within it are far less calm and tidy, and I’ve had to go elsewhere to work. Most days I write fiction at my neighbors’ kitchen table while the baby plays and eats furniture next door. (Don’t worry, someone is watching him.) Since it feels weird to post a photo of my neighbors’ place, I present you instead with a picture of their dog, Saul. He is my muse. He understands only Spanish. His mohawk is growing out. Que lindo, no?

I write most of my essays for The Millions at Paper or Plastik Cafe, the coffee shop down the block from me. The place boasts excellent coffee, friendly baristas, beautiful high ceilings, and internet access, which I need for all these damn links. Here is a shot of my most recent camp-out. Mine is the only Toshiba on the block, but it’s proud not to be a fancy-pants Mac. Who cares if the bottom is duct-taped together?

 

Emily St. John Mandel: I’ll be the first to admit that my workspace is looking a little strange these days. It used to be much less eccentric, but then I decided that I wanted a standing desk, and, since all the standing desks I saw online were either hideously generic or too expensive, I made some improvisations involving a couple boxes, an unused Ikea shelf, and a two-volume dictionary. It isn’t beautiful, but I like it, and I find that I much prefer to work standing up. Other details: that’s Ralph in the desk chair, the papers taped to the wall are notes for current and future projects, and the window looks out on rooftops.

 

Nick Moran: My desk is full of nomads, and much of its population changes regularly. To wit: the five different histories of Russia. Though I minored in the stuff as an undergraduate, and I’ve always been drawn to the place, those are only visiting until I finish something I’m writing. (I don’t always use Red Star Over Russia as a mouse pad, either.) The rest: the asthma inhaler, the little wooden box from an Amman bazaar (labeled, adorably “Cofee”), and the Real Housewives-noise-canceling headphones are permanent residents. So, too, is the stack of aborted articles beneath the VQR. And the computer, of course. There’s also a Qur’an left over from a recent trip I took to visit my mother in Jordan. An exercise in immersion, that was, and a longtime desk resident it’s become. Finally, there’s the art on the wall above, a relic from my AP art class in high school. My theme was “breakfast.” That one you see is a diptych of a pig turning into a slice of bacon.

 

Bill Morris: I like a short commute. So I made an office out of the second bedroom in my apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. Normally the place is not such a pigsty – honest! – but at the moment I’m working on a long magazine article about the future of my hometown, Detroit, and my notes, tape transcripts and drafts have taken on a life of their own. In case you’re curious, that Royal manual typewriter is not a prop. I still write on the gorgeous beast, then use the Mac for editing and sending my stuff.

Looking at this picture reminds me of the beautiful simplicity of the writing life: all you need is a table, a chair, a writing tool, a stack of blank paper (optional), and an idea. How much less could anyone ask for?

 

Mark O’Connell: My desk is normally a lot more cluttered than this, but I didn’t want to let the side down, so I did a little spring cleaning before taking the photo. I work in Trinity College Dublin, where I’m doing a postdoctoral research fellowship; I’m in an open plan office in a snazzy new building dedicated to interdisciplinary research in the humanities. On the right, my desk overlooks an atrium where book launches and wine receptions for academic conferences are often held. As a result, I’ve become a connoisseur of awkward standing. I also get to see a lot of surreptitious lunging (for plates of sandwiches) and timid but determined sidling (toward established clusters of interlocutors). That can be fun to watch, and is often a reason in itself to work late.

On to the desk proper: the obvious centerpiece here is the nifty set-up with the elevated laptop, wireless keyboard and trackpad: this discourages slouching and does wonders for the lower lumbar region. Those books lined up at the back are mostly by or about Walter Benjamin, who might have something to do with something I might end up writing (that’s about an average number of mights for me). A lot of them I haven’t so much as opened, but I feel significantly smarter just having them there in front of me. In that sense they’re like a sort of bibliographic mascot or talisman. On the right of the laptop is a hybrid pencil sharpener/rubber I picked up earlier in the week. I probably paid more for it than I should have (€3), but you’ve got to spend money to make money in this business. I don’t mean for this to turn into a bragging session, but I do also own an electric pencil sharpener. It’s a very high-end machine. I keep it at home, though, because in an academic work environment, a thing like that can be viewed as a vulgar display of status.

 

Janet Potter: Four minutes after this photo was taken, I started packing everything pictured into boxes. I’m moving this month, so my work area will soon be reconstructed in another Chicago apartment with a bigger kitchen and walk-in closets. I can say with some confidence, however, that it will look a great deal like this, because the iterations of my work area in each of my post-college apartments have been built around the following, horcrux-esque elements:

#1 – The Big Blue Desk. How great is that desk? It’s royal blue! It’s a solid wood secretary desk (with the flip-up thing for a typewriter) that I bought on craigslist for $30 in 2005.
#2 – The Posters. The signed cover prints of On Beauty and Ghostwritten were going away presents when I left my old job at Brookline Booksmith, and the signed print of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a gift from a friend at Random House.
#3 – The Chair. That stool with the ugly green cushion was the bench to my grandmother’s vanity.
#4 – The Formative Books. The bookshelf that sits to my back holds only the best of my childhood, teenage, and college reading. The Hedgehog and the Fox, Cloud Atlas, The Harry Potter series, Proust, Natasha’s Dance, Banvard’s Folly. Only the best.
#5 – The Presidential Biographies. Each time I finish another biography in my project, I add it to the ranks lined up on top of the bookcase, supported by Abraham Lincoln bookends that used to be in Conan O’Brien’s New York office (long story).

Show us photos of your writing spaces using the hashtag #writespace on Twitter!





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32 Responses to “Where We Write”

  1. Lydia Kiesling
    at 8:15 am on February 23, 2012

    Garth, I’ll see your grime handprints and raise you a fossilized ass print. Wish I’d run an iron over the ol’ couch.

  2. Rohit
    at 8:34 am on February 23, 2012

    My decidedly unquirky, drab office cubicle is my writing place. Where I ‘write’ facebook comments.

  3. Heather Melcher
    at 10:37 am on February 23, 2012

    Thank you so much for this article. I often struggle with feeling unprofessional because I don’t have a proper office. Most of my writing takes place either at an extremely cluttered desk in my living room with my children playing around me or sitting on my bed (when I can’t handle the distraction of the children playing and watching children’s shows by my desk). There’s no room for bookshelves anywhere near my desk, so most of my books are stored in plastic boxes in the basement (to keep mice out of them). This article has helped me put my dream of an office in better perspective as a long term want rather than a need that I’m missing out on.

  4. Janet Potter
    at 10:39 am on February 23, 2012

    This post is a little bittersweet, because the big blue desk was damaged in the move. It’s lost some drawer function, but it’s still as beloved as ever.

  5. Ali
    at 11:44 am on February 23, 2012

    I love this post and seeing where the writers work! I love Janet’s work space, in particular; I think it has lots of character. And I am curious to know a) what are the books on your blue desk and b) if you are enjoying Nadas’s work.

  6. Louise Wareham Leonard
    at 12:33 pm on February 23, 2012

    Awesome article. I feel redeemed. I started writing in my bedroom. That’s where the bed is. It helps.

  7. Judy Krueger
    at 12:47 pm on February 23, 2012

    Thanks everybody. Sort of made my day, especially seeing the spaces of a few of you whom I admire. I think you know who you are. But whoa, it is kind of like looking in someone’s underwear drawer. I don’t know.

  8. Joni Rodgers
    at 1:25 pm on February 23, 2012

    My first writing space was a 24 inch strip behind the couch. I had my Epson computer on a stack of banana boxes and sat on a folding chair. Wrote my first novel and most of my second, plus queries. Many, many queries…

    A dozen books later, I have a custom built desk in the second biggest room upstairs. Big windows, file cabinets, easy chair.

    Livin’ the dream!

  9. Mrs. Millions
    at 1:36 pm on February 23, 2012

    I love all of these writing spaces, and the stories that go with them. I really do just want to straighten up your desks a bit, though… I do it for Max sometimes, I’m not sure if he’s like me to, but it makes me feel better.

  10. kaitlin
    at 1:36 pm on February 23, 2012

    At first I thought I was wasting time (not writing) by browsing through these, but in a profession that can be isolating at times, this inspired me to see that others have the same quirkiness I have in occupying a writing space. The one in Dublin cracked me up. (“I don’t mean for this to turn into a bragging session, but I do also own an electric pencil sharpener. It’s a very high-end machine. I keep it at home, though, because in an academic work environment, a thing like that can be viewed as a vulgar display of status.”) –Low-brow, non-electric-pencil-sharpener-owning writer.

  11. Laura
    at 4:39 pm on February 23, 2012

    It’s “do.” “Making do” with something. Copyediting is important. This one works on the couch.

  12. Janet Potter
    at 4:51 pm on February 23, 2012

    Thanks, Ali! Sometimes my workspace has so much character that I just like to sit and admire my horcruxes instead of producing any work. To answer your question, the surface of the desk is reserved for to-be-read or currently-reading books. Right now it’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, The Swerve, The Magician King, Messy, Surprised by Oxford, A Partial History of Lost Causes, a continually abandoned and then resurrected copy of The Forsyte Saga, and Nadas, which remains unread, so I have to pass on your second question.

  13. C. Max Magee
    at 4:57 pm on February 23, 2012

    Thanks Laura. We’ve fixed.

  14. Ali
    at 6:49 pm on February 23, 2012

    Thanks for the listing of books on your desk, Janet! You have good taste! (But then I remember being impressed with your previous post about your presidential biography project.) I definitely want to check out Molotov’s Magic Lantern, Surprised by Oxford, and A Partial History of Lost Causes. So I now have more books for my TBR pile. But more books is always a good thing in my opinion!

  15. Morning Bites: Eisenberg And Shawn, Finding @Horse_ebooks, Writing Desks, The Clean On The Road, And More | Vol. 1 Brooklyn
    at 9:30 am on February 24, 2012

    [...] Feast your eyes on the desks (and bed) that contributors to The Millions write on. [...]

  16. Fun Link | threeparagraphs
    at 1:11 pm on February 24, 2012

    [...] tool, a stack of blank paper (optional), and an idea. How much less could anyone ask for?  http://www.themillions.com/2012/02/where-we-write.html Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

  17. jeff and rachel
    at 2:38 pm on February 25, 2012

    hi garth – great to get a view of your personal workspace, as well as a glimpse of your cherub overlord. soon you will have additional hand prints in that laptop grime and another millions “editor” at your side. appears to be a happy spot. thanks for sharing.

  18. John Dirry
    at 7:14 pm on February 25, 2012

    i’m used to work on a standing desk solution too. its really worth the money. you can get a cheap one with electric height-adjustment for about 500 bucks. even cheaper if you build it on your own, but then without the electric adjustment. i recommend to buy a bar stool too.

  19. Κυριακάτικα best-of links… μέρος 11ο
    at 7:02 am on March 4, 2012

    [...] Where We Write: Δείτε τους χώρους που γράφουν διάσημοι αμερικάνοι συγγραφείς (προσωπικά δεν γνωρίζω κανέναν, αλλά στις ΗΠΑ, είναι μάλλον δημοφιλείς…) [...]

  20. Nigel Featherstone
    at 3:37 pm on March 4, 2012

    Great post. There’s something just a little voyeuristic about checking out writers’ workplaces. And please let there not be a follow-up article about writers’ bathrooms – that would completely scare the horses.

    But on a serious note, where a writer writes is perhaps almost as important as what they write. I also love their little habits: who was it who couldn’t start writing without having a certain number of pencils on their desk?

  21. Liesl Garner
    at 12:57 am on March 6, 2012

    This was a fun article to happen upon this evening. I loved the comments also – Heather – your writing world sounds like mine… with kids everywhere. My dream is to have my husband build me a Lighthouse addition to our house where I will get to write and have elevated, expansive views in every direction. It sounds ludicrous – but he’s been promising me a writing room for years… it has now morphed into a thing of ridiculous proportions in keeping with the amount of time I have been waiting.

  22. Where I write
    at 4:29 pm on March 23, 2012

    [...] tag Tuesday posts, and I came across another new list a few weeks ago on The Millions, which shows the writing spaces of the The Millions staff.  It’s surprising how many of their writers don’t have actual desks!  I guess [...]

  23. Bryan Basamanowicz
    at 12:25 pm on April 14, 2012

    Very cool pictures, stories. I do wonder whether Ms. St. John Mandel is taking process inspiration from Hemingway, or whether she’s just dead-set on her cat getting its proper rest. Nice tea pot.

  24. The Millions : Where We Write « Lynn Beene
    at 8:04 pm on September 25, 2012

    [...] The Millions : Where We Write. [...]

  25. Write This Way, Condensed: Top Writing and Editing Links for October 15, 2012 « Write Livelihood
    at 6:16 am on October 15, 2012

    [...] The Millions : Where We Write The Millions, an online magazine offering coverage on books, arts, and culture, asked its readers who are writers to send them photos of where they worked. The photos are both a little astonishing (to me) and reassuring: from the writer who uses a guest bed to create a “writing nest,” to the scribe who created her own improvised standing desk to the gentleman who writes on a Royal manual typewriter and edits and transcribes on a Mac, each set up is quirky, individualized and tells a story about the storyteller. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. Tagged audio, editing links, entrepreurship, journalism, radio, social media, soundcloud, sounds, start-ups, twitter, write this way condensed, writing links [...]

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    at 3:32 pm on March 31, 2013

    [...] to a corner room overflowing with books and papers ( http://www.pw.org/content/writing_spaces; http://www.themillions.com/2012/02/where-we-write.html). I know perhaps one or two people who have the ability to tune out everything around them and be [...]

  29. Esther
    at 12:10 pm on April 25, 2013

    I LOVE this post! I wrote about my own transformation going from home office to real office!
    http://graypicketfence.blogspot.com/2013/02/where-is-your-muse.html

  30. Johanna van Zanten
    at 10:53 pm on July 11, 2013

    Great post, thanks. I am just a beginning Twitter user, so did sent the #writespace a photo of my space. Hope it gets there. ( #Joeke3Van). That was a good incentive for me to send a tweet.
    johanna

  31. Reclaiming your writer’s space | Rubber Ducky Copywriter
    at 11:36 am on July 30, 2013

    [...] you still need some reassurance that a certain degree of messy is okay, check out this article on Where We Write from The [...]

  32. Writers Spaces | allbettsareoff
    at 2:59 pm on May 28, 2014

    […] I’ll be the first to admit that my workspace is looking a little strange these days. It used to be much less eccentric, but then I decided that I wanted a standing desk, and, since all the standing desks I saw online were either hideously generic or too expensive, I made some improvisations involving a couple boxes, an unused Ikea shelf, and a two-volume dictionary. It isn’t beautiful, but I like it, and I find that I much prefer to work standing up. Other details: that’s Ralph in the desk chair, the papers taped to the wall are notes for current and future projects, and the window looks out on rooftops. Click here to read more. […]

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