Monday, October 31, 2011

A Room of One's Own

RHYS BOWEN: A Room of One's Own.Remember that wonderful essay by Virginia Woolf on a writer, especially a female writer's need for personal space. That made a profound impression on me when I was in college and was sure I was destined to become a writer. Well, I've been thinking about it recently.
I love to follow my friends on Facebook and have been bemused by Nancy Pickard always going to a coffee shop to write. (Hey, I know J.K. Rowling did it too and it didn't exactly hurt her). But there is no way I could sit in a noisy, public environment like that and get any work done. I need my own confined space and no distractions. I can't have music playing or I'd listen to it. I can't be facing the window or I'd stare at the view. We have quite a big house and in theory I could choose any one of five empty bedrooms as my office. In fact I still keep to the smallest of those rooms because I have everything around me where I need it. I can swivel my chair to reach a bookcase or the credenza or either printer or the white board on which I jot notes. I have my award certificates on the wall to remind me what I can achieve if I do my best work. And in full confession mode I have a few toys to play with: the hologram top to spin, the wind-up teeth.. I won't go on. Too embarrassing.
I have to know that I'm in MY space, where I can talk through scenes out loud if necessary, swear if necessary, bang my head against the desk if necessary, or even do a happy dance when my agent phones with good news. When things aren't going smoothly I take to my car, another confined space, and drive around in my car, talking though scenes out loud. Thank God Bluetooth was invented because now nobody thinks I'm a dangerous lunatic if they see me mouthing and gesticulating while driving.
So it was interesting to me, a couple of weeks ago, to read that Nancy Pickard has finally succumbed and rented an office to work in. I've been threatening to do this for years - the actual process of "going to work" and being in a space where I can't be interrupted by husband asking where we put a particular file he needs. I've never gotten around to it although the condo in Arizona was intended to be that kind of space, far from telephone calls and obligations. Now if only I could get John to take up a time-consuming hobby...
So Sister Reds: where do you work at your best?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: You'd think I'd have figured this one out by now. Like you, Rhys, I can't write with what I think of as immediate distractions. No TV, no music. But I can do coffee-shop writing, although I don't do it as often as I used to. That's a different kind of distraction--white noise, really, while at the same time I feel free from household demands; ringing phone, dogs barking, the UPS man, husband wanting to know what's for lunch . . . But I'm basically lazy and I like being home. And I do have a lovely, cozy office (my daughter's old bedroom) redesigned for no purpose other than WRITING, with a lovely BIG desk that I can spread all my stuff out on and my favorite London photos and maps on the walls.
The last couple of years, however, I've developed a sort of seasonal migration technique. I write in my office (upstairs) in the winter. It's warm and if I want to take a thinking break I can curl up on the chaise in the window and watch the bare tops of the trees. But as soon as our back garden turns green in the spring I move down to the sunporch, where I have another Aeron chair and a little rolling laptop table I bought at Office Max for $30. And ten windows, so it's like being in a green sea. And I like being close to the kitchen, which to me always feels like the heart of the house. I suppose in my ideal world, I'd have an office that was next to the kitchen, with windows on the garden and opening onto a screened porch for nice weather, and a woodburning fire for chilly winter days...
But my prime rule is that the writing space can't be used for any other kind of work. No filing or bill-paying or business stuff. Just writing.

RHYS: Me too, Deb. Good rule.

JAN BROGAN: How do you write in the sunporch Debs? Doesn't the glare drive you crazy? I love our sunporch, but haven't figured out how to write there (although I do read and edit hard copy there). Particularly if I'm writing non-fiction, which I am now, I need to be next to my boxes and boxes of files. Even with fiction, I tend to have a lot of research accessories I need. But I would like writing in a coffee shop theoretically (never done it) because it seems so COMPLETELY HIP!

HALLIE EPHRON: The first thing I did when I decided to "be a writer" was set up an office. Fortunately I have a sister who told me: "If you don't take yourself seriously, no one else will."
And step one in taking yourself seriously: set up a space where nothing else takes place but you writing. Mine is a little sun porch. For awhile I wrote in a baseball cap because of the glare; pleated window shades were my first investments in my career.

LUCY BURDETTE: Funny I remember very clearly when I started writing (mid 90's), we had only one computer and it was in the living room. So I had to share that iMac with stepkids and husband, the television and all the other family racket. We finally moved to a new house that had a writing cubby built in it just for me. I keep my junk spread out there, but I still usually write with laptop in bed. (Debs, I think that makes me even lazier than you!) And I would no more share my computer now than my underwear...
DEBS: Lucy, did I say I got dressed?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Working in my pjs is half the reason I became a writer. I am, in fact, writing this in my pajamas.
RHYS: How primitive, Julia. At least I'm in my robe!

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I love my office - two walls of books and two walls of windows which look down on my garden and a slider that leads to a covered platform fringed with chimes and in the evening candles. Sometimes I put up the mosquito net and work out there because it's away from the computer and the phone. But my absolute favorite place to write is on a plane. There are no distractions. They don't need me to fly the plane or to tell them where the butter is. I can't decide I need to see where the owls are or need to water the plants or check email.
Strangest place I've ever written - on the ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar.
DEBS: I want Rosemary's office. Jan, I have Roman blinds in my sunporch so just move them up and down according to the time of day and the angle of the sun. But I still want Rosemary's office . . .

JULIA: I have that woodburning fire you want, Deb. In the winter, I've taken to working in my kitchen, next to the wood stove, within easy reach of hot tea. Since my faithful dog and the cats like to congregate there, it's very companionable.
Technically, my office is in the parlour, complete with my reference books, research papers, business-related stuff, etc. However, it gets VERY cold and drafty in the winter, and in the summer, with the kids home from school, it's impossible. Even with the doors shut, everyone barges in and out to share their vital mother-related needs with me. So during the warm-weather months, I often decamp to one of the local university libraries. Quiet, air-conditioned, and there's no chance I'll be lured away from the writing by a load of laundry or a sudden spurt of guilt over the dust in the living room. (It's amazing how tempting housework can be when you're hitting a hard patch in the work, isn't it?)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I love my writing office. It used to be OUR office, Jonathan's and mine, but now I fear it's manifest destiny and it's all mine mine mine. Sometimes Jonathan tiptoes in and asks to use the computer--it's all I can do to keep the flames from shooting out of my mouth.
But it's a lovely lovely tawny-colored room with a fireplace, and floor to ceiling book-and-Emmy shelves, and my desk, which is an antique horseshoe-shaped thing, is tucked into a bay window. Outside is massive and ancient maple tree. Yes, I battle the sun situation in the summer, but I also wear a baseball cap for that one glary hour.
All my stuff is on the desk--the bottle of wine Sue Grafton gave me, and a rock that's carved with "imagine" and "patience" and a feng shui mirror because my back has to be toward the door, and I know that's not good.
I love to write on the Acela train in the quiet car--the landscape zooms by, and it's gorgeous, and peaceful, and it makes me feel like Agatha Christie.

RHYS: I usually get the crying baby in the next seat, or the large guy on the plane whose elbows make it impossible to write! But I also have the feng shui mirror. See pic. Also note Celtic harp for momentary distraction, plus pic of Robert Redford with his shirt open in far left corner!

And it's really cool how different and personal our personal spaces have to be. And aren't we lucky to live in an age when a woman can demand and expect her professional life to be taken seriously!

So, dear readers, any really unusual writing spaces? Anyone write in the bathtub? On mountain tops?


  1. I am also lucky enough to have a dedicated office. Well, mostly dedicated. It also includes the sewing supplies and the door to the attic (and the ironing board).

    One 'place' that has helped me a lot in my writing lately is a free application called Dropbox. Instead of carting around my precious tiny USB drive that contains the master copy of all my important book and query files, I now store it in the "cloud." I can get to the WIP from any of my home computers, from the day job, from anywhere. Whew! I was living in terror of losing that thumb drive.


  2. When I was househunting before moving to Massachusetts, I toured the one we bought, an 1870 Victorian. There's a landing at the top of the stairs--I took one look at it and said, "that's where the desk goes." Although it's not central, it feels like a nerve center for the house: there's a window overlooking our quiet street, and I can hear whatever is going on in the rest of the house. And I'm glad it's upstairs, because going to the kitchen (at the other end of the house) for tea or coffee is most of the ecercise I get. Of course, now the desk is surrounded by stacks of papers--is that like nesting?

  3. This blog is always brilliant. But I have to say, today's has to be my most favorite so far. I have always loved reading about writers' rooms and how they work in them. The Guardian use to have a wonderful column called Writers' Rooms. But sadly one day, it just ended. Though one can still search for it to read all past columns. My room? It's always a work in progress (mostly that involves clearing the top of my desk and dusting.) But this spring I found a gigantic "mission style" desk with hutch for all of my reference books, paper storage and my favorite drawing of Lewis Carroll. It has helped make it all real!
    I can't thank you all enough for sharing your rooms.

  4. What fun! I wish we'd all posted pics!

  5. Sheila,
    I'm picturing your spot on the landing in a Victorian house and it has me intrigued!

    I'm in a study converted from a bedroom. It seems a little boring by comparison!

  6. Sheila's office in the 'crow's nest' sounds divine.

    Ann, I think I could work in your office.

  7. Maybe we will post pix one day. I'm going to try Julia's idea...working in the kitchen. I have a bench and a coffee table there and no internet.
    And I'm embarassed to say that I never thought of simply putting on a baseball cap when the sun comes through the skylights in my office - Hank you're a genius!

    Can I say I passed my first day of the challenge? Hurray! Having no power this morning helped but so what, I could have checked my phone, right?

  8. My "office" is also my bedroom. Husband's snoring is difficult to write through. No, make that impossible. :-)

  9. OH, Ann, we do love seeing you...

    SO Edith, you like Dropbox?

  10. Apparently I have adult attention deficit disorder, or at least that's my story and I'm sticking to it. I must have my own space, taking over an unused living room years ago. The room is set off from the rest of the house by beautiful french doors. I just had wallpaper removed and now the writing space is lighter and less busy. My computer is in a large cabinet which has shelves for items I grab often. Nearby is a small table that I can swivel my high-back chair over to for editing, checking my calendar, and so forth. My walls have awards and book covers (my pub always sends a framed cover with the first crisp one dollar bill). Under my table, I have baskets of posters, mailing supplies,and promotional materials. I bought a filing cabinet last year to house items related to writing. I have a sunroom which I quite often use for editing as well. Recently I sat out there observing geese on our pond in order to write about them in my next book. Edith, I'm going to check out Dropbox. Great blog, Rhys!

  11. What a tease! I want photos from everyone. I love spying in on other writers' spots. Someone should do a coffee table book filled with photos of writers' rooms. My writing room overlooks my garden, has a desk and a Jenny Lind daybed, in case I need a nap. I can see a slice of the ocean. Right now, it's a huge mess, but I know where everything is. Sure.

  12. ...a slice of the ocean...that's pretty cool.
    Yes, you love Dropbox? I opened an account a while back but then got weirded out about my manuscript being out there in the clouds so I haven't continued to use it.

  13. Always amazed to see writers work at small desks or tables with only enough space for the computer. Not me! I need a big desk with room for my handwritten notes and the pages I'm editing, not to mention my tea cup and desk lamp. And the cat. :)

    Love my office! But I also do my legal work in it, so I'm here a LITtle too often!

  14. I used to LOVE writing in coffee shops between the ages of 13-17, but I stopped when I started to realize that it was a total stereotype.

    Also, I began to develop adverse effects to caffeine, so it just wasn't working anymore.

    I have 2 designated writing areas: My bed with my thesaurus, dictionary and extra pad of paper nearby. It's simple enough since my bookshelves are on either side of my bed, anyway.

    Other than that, I'm usually at my desk, also in my bedroom. It's pretty big and the swivel chair makes it easy for me to glide around the room to grab a book from the shelf, put some lotion on my hands in the winter when it's dry and it helps that the desk faces the wall otherwise I'd probably ge too distracted.

  15. Thanks for this post! I love peeking inside other writers' work space ideas.

    I recommend 2 books I found in used bookstores:
    The Writer's Desk by Jill Krementz; and
    Writers in Residence: American Authors at Home by Glynne Robinson Betts.
    Both are chock-full of wonderful black & white photos, and interviews with or quotes from the writers about their work spaces or creativity and the writing process.

    The 1st book shows the writers in their work space: Stephen King with his feet on his desk and his dog nearby, Ross Macdonald writing on a board put across the arms of an easy chair, Amy Tan at her writing table and surrounded by "objects that carry with them a personal history..." Veronica Chambers is perched on the kitchen counter with a laptop. Rita Dove and Saul Bellow are both pictured at standing desks. There is every kind of writer's desk: spare, crowded, neat, sloppy, make-shift, formal, long tables, smallest desks imaginable.

    The 2nd book (Out Of Print) has historic photos of the homes and most times also the writing spaces for the likes of Alcott, Longfellow, Faulkner. Annie Dillard, Henry Miller, Ray Bradbury, again Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar) and this time with his wife Margaret Millar.

    Thank you, Reds, for sharing your writing spaces with us.

  16. I'm sharing with my editor-husband half of a long T-shaped stretch of tables and desk in an office converted from the living room. We're surrounded by bookshelves packed with 5,000 books. (We're lightening up, so maybe it's only 4,000 books by now.) The room is full of light, with a spectacular view of the mountain.

    When Larry's not working in a cafe and I need alone time, I retreat with my laptop to our bedroom with a corner devoted to my tall secretary desk-cum-shelves. I'm sitting on the bed as I type this. No view, no TV or radio.

    I use Dropbox for safety back-ups.

    I love hearing about your delicious sunporches -- oh, and Sheila's Victorian.

  17. I think I am the opposite of many here in that distractions don't bother me and if anything provide the bit of "white noise" I seem to need in the background to write.

    A coffee shop would be perfect with all it's chatter, music playing is usually a must, and the kids have learned that when I'm writing, if they really want my attention just making noise won't get it -- they need to come up to me and actually get my attention.

    Whatever works to get the words on the page I guess! Happy writing to everyone!

    This was a great post and enjoyable read. I do hope that my Mystery Writers Unite blog will be as successful as yours one day. All of you give me something to aspire to.

    Thanks ladies!!


  18. When daughter moved out, I redid her room. I hand painted foe wallpaper and sponged-painted the bottom half of the room, then purchase a love lace curtain for the offset window.

    My office has a lovely desk that I got in the saleroom at IKEA. It was originally a coffee that someone has switched the legs from the consol table with making it coffee table side and dinner table height. I love it and it was so inexpensive. On the desk is a framed picture my sister took of me with the late Stephen J. Cannell who encouraged another dyslexic to become a writer.

    Behind the desk is a hutch and file cabinet—one I purchased and one my former boss was tossing. These hold my printer, paper, tower, etc. I have two sets of floor to ceiling book bookshelves. The walls hold framed copies of my first two published short stories.

    Although I have this lovely office, I’ve learned during NaNoWriMo that I can write anywhere. I have laptop table in the living room with just enough room for the laptop, my reading glasses case and the cat. I take my AlphaSmart in the kitchen when I’m making soup, Alphie goes to the dock in the summer where I write and look at the water, and sometimes to the café or the library. Most of the places I writer depend on my mood, the weather, and what I’m working on.

    I was bad today; I checked the e-mail before I did the writing. I am such an Internet addict. I was better on Monday and Tuesday.

    P.S. I would love to see pictures of everyone's office.