For every writer in the world, there is a different ideal work space. Of course, ‘ideal’ doesn’t mean that’s where we do our business. In fact, I’d bet good money that almost every writer in the world actually does their work in something far from their perfect vision of a functioning work space. Not surprisingly, there has been much documentation about this particular issue.
If there is a universal idea of what a writer’s work space looks like, it would be the sparsely decorated office. Books and papers are stacked around, the light is harsh and dim. The room is cramped, yet somehow remains functional. There’s a typewriter, for some damn reason, and a half-empty bottle of gin (or rye, or bourbon) in the top drawer of the filing cabinet. It’s a crock, though.
The Guardian did a very extensive series of articles, examining the various offices, studios and kitchenettes of writers in England. Some of them are stripped down, antiseptic cubes, but for the most part, they are comfy and cluttered. What is shocking to me is how different they are from one another. None of them have much in common, but the common elements are so very superficial. Some of the best places to work aren’t even indoors, in any meaningful sense.
Take a look at Allain de Botton. For a week in 2009, he was the ‘Writer-in-Residence’ at Heathrow International Airport. At first glance, it might seem to be terrible – or even just a gimmick – but Mr. Botton actually seemed to enjoy working there. He claimed it was such an unlikely place to get anything done, that it was a welcome challenge. In fact, he actually turned out a book because of it, A Week At The Airport: A Heathrow Diary.
Harlan Ellison famously worked in storefront windows – at least a dozen times – and managed to crank out some memorable works literally in the public eye. There are authors who have written in glass cages, on top of mountains, under water and just about any kind of location you can imagine. Writers have done work naked, while flying, on the side of the road and in the back of bars and pubs. I have friends who write in bed, only write longhand and one friend who writes in the shed out in her back yard. You have to go with what works, I guess. As anyone who’s ever been on a deadline can attest to, sometimes your very best work is done on the bus – typically while on the way to turn it in.
I don’t believe in “feng shui”, but there are some lessons to learn from the concept. I try to think consciously and deliberately choose my working environment. “Intentionality”, is what it’s called. But of course, we are all creatures of habit and prone to the constant creep of chaos. A quick glance around my work space is depressing. No one has taken the trash out in weeks. Empty pizza boxes and fast food wrappers glare at me. Several stacks of papers have been knocked to the floor and then shuffled together. I have a perfectly good bookshelf that is only half full of books – the rest of the books are kind of scattered around, wherever they were dropped.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s how to count my successes, even in the face of staggering loss. It’s also called spinning bullshit into gold, but that’s beside the point. The point is that my actual work space – where I write, where I type – is clean and ready for work. There is a place to put my coffee and a spot for my MP3 player. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, my little slice of space is ready for me to get to work.
I’ve also learned that it pays to try new things. In my first real studio space outside my house, I set up shop in a closet. It had an alley-facing window, space for my stool and a tiny writing desk and that was it. The floor wasn’t even finished, just a random smattering of fake wood flooring. For some crazy reason, though, it was just what I needed. In the end, you have to go with the best you can get.
Someday, I’ll get to design my own writer’s studio. You can imagine the amenities I fantasize about, I’m sure; redundant backup servers, customizable lighting, high speed internet, gigantic music library, private washroom and a personal assistant. Honestly, the only thing I really need – the only thing any of us seem to need – is the hardest to come by: Time. Well, that and a door that keeps the rest of the world away for a while.
Patrick Jennings-Mapp is a co-founder of and an editor for Escape Collective Publishing. Another co-founder (who shall remain nameless) recently complained that they couldn’t keep a cleaning lady for more than a month or so. Patrick bit his tongue and shook his head in a show of fake sympathy. Because he KNOWS.