Monday, February 18, 2008

The Inspirational Surround

HALLIE: For Christmas, one of my daughters gave me fingerless gloves. My other daughter gave me flannel slippers with buckwheat/beanbag soles that can be heated in the microwave. My husband gave me a lovely soft, pale gray wool shawl. As I type this, I'm wearing all of them (the things, not the family) and sipping a cup of hot tea in my office, a little room that hangs off the side of our house. In realtor speak: a solarium. Actually it's a winterized sun porch, barely eight by fourteen, with 7 windows all around. I love this light-filled space, and it has the great virtue of smallness,\ so I can't indulge my inner packrat. But when the temperature outside is seven degrees, which it was the other morning, it's COLD in here, and it feels even colder because I like my computer right up agains the window so I can watch the sparrows shivering the bushes as they peer longingly at the frozen birdbath.

Very glamorous, my writing life. So, how glamorous is yours--because it's one of the truths of life that misery loves company.

JAN: How glamorous is my office? Think painted paneling and bulletin boards. Not one bulletin board, mind you, but two because I'm the kind of person who needs visual stimuli pinned up in front of her so not to lose or forget anything. There's also an enormous office-sized printer with mental issues (its paranoid that its paper drawer is open -- sort of like that bad dream that you've gone to work without your shirt on). Lots of wires and storage drives I don't quite understand (my husband comes home with computer periferal extras) a guitar stand with the guitar missing, and a dog bed with my dog, Amber, currently snoring -- or maybe its more like doggie groaning.

The color scheme is beige and brown. Need I say more?

RO: It's a room we added on top of the house so there's a rather skinny set of steps to get up there. High ceilings, skylights, floor to ceiling windows and a slider to a small deck with a platform and pergola. Right now I'm watching a woodpecker nibble on a branch outside my window and I have to stop whatever I'm doing if I hear one of the owls.

My desk is a long slab of wood on top of two iron sewing machine bases. I have a bunch of mix-matched vintage furniture including a china cabinet filled with shells, a rattan sofa covered in barkcloth and a birds eye maple chest. There are books everywhere, a tree in the corner with a pink wrought iron flamingo stuck in the pot, and a telescope for when I need to check out the nighttime sky. One wall is floor to ceiling bookcases - just mysteries and gardening books. Like Jan I have two bulletin boards, filled with everything from my agent's first wonderful email to me (I Love It!) to pix of Bettie Page, Edith Wharton, the Virgin of Guadalupe..the list goes on.

It's a wonder I ever get any work done.

ROBERTA: I have a small nook off the bedroom with an astonishing view. But the part I like best is the slanted wall over my computer and printer--slathered with photos, poems, cartoons, an NYT bestseller list to give me inspiration. Here are a few samples:

1. a cartoon from Byline, one guy is handing another guy a book
and saying "We've started with a small print run. Here's your copy
and I'll keep the other one."
2. a photo of my stepson Andrew with our old dog Poco. The dog
has a sign around his neck saying "Andy is my valentine."
My son has a sign around his neck saying "Poco is my valentine."
I think he was a freshman in high school and we'd gone out to
dinner leaving him home without a date!
3. a list my husband passed on:
free your heart from hatred, free your mind from worries, live
simply, give more, expect less...
HANK: Sometimes my study is so sunny I have to wear my Evita baseball cap (Where the heck did I get that? Don't remember) to be able to see the computer screen. I'm sure I'm quite a sight: ponytail sticking out of the cap, no makeup, a big sweatshirt from the Gap that says Ti(RED) on the back. Sweatpants and those cozy clogs that I can't remember the name of that have tyrolean braid around the edges. Very very glam. Very.

I can see trees and sky out the bay window in front of me, squirrels fighting with the blue jays. A whole wall of books. A wonderful photo on an easel beside--but I can't see the photo anymore because I've covered it with so many signing posters and memorabilia(me at B and N, Borders, other bookstores. The best seller list with my books on it. My special fave is a cash register receipt from the Borders cafe that has "come meet Hank Phillippi Ryan" printed on the bottom).

I'm surrounded by books I might need. Hallie's in case I get stumped. Stephen King On Writing. Strunk and White. Baskets of file folders with notes in them. Again, via Hallie, my "compost" file of newspaper stories. I dig into them when my brian needs fuel, maybe for just a word. My word count chart. My scene and character and timing notebook. A sign that says: Hook. Stakes. Beautiful Writing.

On my desk, behind the monitor,the glittering beribboned bags that people used when they gave me book-deal champagne. In front of the monitor, two engraved little rocks. One says: Patience. The other says: Imagine.

HALLIE: I wonder if that's a universal among writers--that we surround ourselves with words. Our talismans. One of mine is a quote from an all-time favorite children's story from Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories:
And a secret ambition is a little creeper that creeps and creeps
in your heart
night and day, singing a little song, "Come and find me, come and
find me."
Read the story of "Three Boys With Jugs of Molasses and Secret Ambitions" and have a lovely, inspired day with your very own freckles and secret ambitions.

So, with what talismans do you surround yourself?


  1. Hallie -- those are some rockin' gloves. And how nice to have your family metaphorically all around you while you work!

    You know the classic image of the starving writer tapping away up in some garret room?
    Well, that's my office, only I'm not starving. The fridge is exactly 22 steps away, if you count going down narrow stairs from the attic. I burn precisely 8 calories on the trip down to get cookies and 10 calories on the way back up.

    It's not over-big, my office, but room enough for two bookcases, a leather club chair, and a small 1920s writing desk that somehow manages to bear my computer, keyboard, and monitor.

    I also have a bulletin board, which functions for me somewhere in the grey area between gentle encouragement and boot camp abuse. It displays a few great quotes from Anne Lamott. A couple of old, old photographs of women with dogs. Puzzle's CrimeBake program cover! A photo of my best friend and her son. A funny little note from author Michael Perry, after one of my foster dogs ate an autographed copy of his book. And a photo of my agent from his own author site on the Internet. He looks encouraging and upbeat. Since the photo was taken, I believe, after publication of his own first book, it's an inspirational image of survivorship, too. See? The book has released--yet he is vertical, smiling, and appears to still be a sensible person who can count to ten and remember his own name.

    A coaster on my desk is a cast of a pawprint made by a dog on the ship, Mary Rose (ca. 1512). Almost 500 years ago, he stepped on terra cotta that would form part of the ship's oven. There's something sweet about that enduring dog, whose pads must have burned a little when he crossed those still-cooling bricks.

    I also have a toy on my desk -- an Indian figure astride a horse -- part of the Spirit of the Cimarron toy series that was offered by Burger King when that movie was out. That toy's whereabouts was a significant question in the first search I ever worked, for a missing 6-year-old boy. Though I need few reminders to think of that little one, the toy reminds me how important it is to think three-dimensionally in the search field and, it would seem, in the process of writing, too.

    This would be the garret office:

  2. I actually lied. I don't have two bulletin boards, I have three. The two right in front of my desk are work boards. They have those touristy-walking maps of both Providence and Newport (locations for new book), hand-drawn maps of Hallie's old apartment, her new condo, and the Chronicle newsroom, character sketches of the major characters, Mark Arsenault's great column on how to get through writing a book, and a quote I copied off the Internet that says Be PROFOUND, Be FUNNY or Be QUIET.

    Bulletin with photos of family, friends, fanmail and my own second grade Father's Day card to my dad, is up over the fax.

  3. Susannah - Thanks for sharing! You ispired me... and Jan,check on the BBoards. My office has none. No walls to put one one. See:

  4. Because my office is so cluttered I have three quotes..
    "All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on"...Havelock Ellis

    "We must cultivate our garden." Voltaire

    And this from the Roman poet Horace..
    "This is what I prayed for...A piece of land not so very large, with a garden and near the house a spring of ever-flowing water, and up above these a bit of woodland."

  5. When we bought our house many years ago, it had two spaces that could be used as offices. One had been a dining room (oh, please, instead of an office?), and it had hardwood floors and a big picture window. The other was, I think, one of those canning rooms--built in under the house, with concrete floors and some wooden shelves. To get to it, you had to walk outside, go around the house, down the stairs and in at another door. My husband who craves isolation and solitude when he works, looked at that one and said..."Ooh, can I have this one?" I thought about the hardwood floors, the nice indoor entry, and the nearby stove & fridge, and I made the ultimate sacrifice. Of course, dear, if it means that much to you!

    We did drywall and put down some real floor and he built in a great desk and took the nice stereo downstairs. And he added a big window, so he, too, can look out at the trees and the deer that stroll by.

    And we did get rid of the hidious yellow wallpaper & chandelier that adorned my "dining room" and closed up the Mary Tyler Moore window that went through to the kitchen, so I could have more bookshelf room.

    My office is also the guest room, so on occasion, I have to vacant it for a little while. But I know so many women staying at home with the kids and trying to do their own work who have a little desk in the kitchen or in the hallway. I have tons of bookshelves, all stocked with my favorite books, and I have those windows that let me watch the trees and the birds and the occasional deer who wanders through the gate.

    No bulletin board, but I do have a big whiteboard I found at used office supply place. I use it occasionally, but I'm so computer-based these days that I tend to do most of my brainstorming with the keyboard.

    Virginia Woolf said it--a room one one's own. I feel very lucky to have mine!

  6. Becky,
    Your office view sounds beautiful!!! But I have to admit, I'm envying your husband's remote location. Not so much now, but when the kids were younger, I would have done anything to be able to walk out of the house, and into a nearby, but isolated space!!

    I had to think for a minute what you meant by mary-tyler-moore-window and then all of a sudden the picture flashed clearly!!! Guess I watched a few episodes!!!

  7. Hank, I wear the same slippers. Haflingers!

    My office is the former law library of the judge who owned our house before we did. But it's in the basement & very dreary in teh cold months! So I take the laptop and sit in comfort in the living room--fewer steps to the cookies, unfortunately!

  8. Hallie, I've got the same sun porch! My husband gave me a polar fleece scarf with inserts on the back of the neck and inside pockets at the ends for those microwaveable buckwheat packs. Warm hands, warm neck and warm feet (thanks to polar fleece socks from REI and high-top slippers). I also have a little space heater for winter and fan for summer that I can never get adjusted quite right. Here's my theory of why New England and the South have produced so many great writers: It's the most productive thing you can do while huddled in blankets or sitting still, if you're lucky, in front of a fan.

    Unfortunately my porch is also over-run with stuff we moved "temporarily" while our upstairs dormer was being built. I'm slowly weeding out the old sports equipment and books I'll never read, the Goodwill donation bags, the old candles, flower baskets and gardening tools. I have a filing cabinet I can't fit anything in, one long bookcase and a stack of plastic drawers for office supplies.

    I have a couple of FWQ's (favorite writing quotes), including the Mark Twain one on my blog. Here's another from Robert Heinlein, "The Notebook of Lazarus Long":

    "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, and die gallantly."

    I don't know of any one person who could do all that, but it's an interesting assortment to pick from for characters!