writing environment

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I’ve been thinking about what I need to work efficiently and productively, and, perhaps more importantly, what I don’t need.

I’m lucky enough to have an office, which because it is primarily mine to use, is set up in a way that makes me comfortable and happy. Which is good, since I spend most of every day in here. It’s recently been repainted a color that I love, and I gave my desk and other furniture ā€” some of which I have had for many years ā€” a makeover with some fresh white paint. The room is now cheery and bright, which is something I need in a home office. …There’s a window, but it’s not too distracting, since you have to stand right next to it and crane your neck to see anything much.

But what do I need to write? At the most basic level: Just my laptop. Ok, and maybe some coffee. But one of the things I like about having an office is that I can keep pictures, books and other things around me that inspire or that I sometimes refer to. So there are reference books in here: Chicago Manual of Style, a 4-year-old Writer’s Handbook, an AP style guide, some writing-related guides, a pile of lit magazines, and a few anthologies that contain writing I admire. I keep writing magazines in here (Poets and Writers and the Writer’s Chronicle), and I keep my notebook full of submission guidelines and deadlines. There’s a folder for rejections on my desk, and folders I use to keep track of administrative things related to freelancing. I’ve put images (art in the form of postcards) I like on my bulletin board, instead of (well, mostly instead of) reminders and practical things.

My desk is almost always a mess. It’s rare to be able to see the surface. I am usually jotting down things in notebooks, and sometimes (like now) I have three going at once. (Yeah, ok, so I have a thing for stationery and notebooks…) The notebooks are all over my desk, as are two calendars (weekly and monthly) a bunch of pens, printed research for a story I’m working on, various assorted dirty dishes (I tend to eat breakfast and lunch at my desk), a tangle of power cords for a ridiculous number of devices …(I recently quarantined these in a bucket, which has helped a lot), some carpet samples, a stuffed Totoro, the dog’s vet paperwork …my desk is kind of my dumping ground. Some people might not be able to work amidst all that clutter, but I don’t mind. I guess I kind of require it.

Other things in my office that are helpful from a writing perspective:
– a USB jump drive …I used to back up my work every day, particularly when I was working on my MFA thesis. I’ve started to get out of the habit a little, which is bad. Don’t do that. I keep mine on my key chain with my house keys, so where ever I go, my writing goes, too.
-speakers. I don’t necessarily need to listen to music when I’m writing, and I can only listen to certain types of music (jazz…and, um, jazz) when I’m sitting down for a serious writing session anyway, but when you work from home, it can get pretty quiet and music sometimes helps with the conversational silence.
-a headset I attach to my cell phone so I can do interviews and type at the same time.
-a good chair. This one is probably the most important. I have horrible posture and having a decent chair that forces me to sit correctly is a must. Otherwise I end up with muscle spasms and knots in my back and all kinds of carpal tunnel fun.

Things that I don’t need in order to write, but think I do:

-The Internet! Wireless is an awesome technology, but it has really increased my Internet addiction by about tenfold. This is my greatest distraction (she says, while blogging) bar none. The writer Stephen Elliott wrote a great piece about his experiment to not use the Internet for a month which I greatly admire and fully admit that I would be unable to do. (via After the MFA)

-Snacks!…chocolate chip cookies, jelly beans, pretzel sticks, dry cereal, and Twizzlers being the ones that have me making regular trips down the stairs to the kitchen recently. It’s a time suck, getting snacks, because inevitably, once I’m down there I’ll get distracted by something else (the mail, the backyard, the dog…). Plus, not healthy, too much sugar, watch that figure, blah, blah, blah. And snacks are not a good way to ease writer’s block, stress over deadlines or other such woes. Except that sometimes they are.

What do you need to be able to write?

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5 thoughts on “writing environment

  1. I LOOOVE your writing space! It reminds me that I ought to carve out a consistent writing space for me here at home–I tend to travel throughout the house, never feeling really comfortable anyplace (the dining room is my current fave place, but there aren’t many plugs and it’s, well, the dining room. I’m building an office nook now, in one of my guest rooms…but it’s really time to settle in there!

  2. My desk is a long glass dining table from Ikea, with a string of colored Christmas bulbs snaking around beneath the glass. It is big enough to have books and interesting types of paper (from Japantown and the local art supply store) piled on one side. I get excited about one project or subject, like drawing a big map of Greece recently and writing in all the place names in Greek, and I pile all the reference books I’m using for that project all over the place. Then every month or two I purge the desk and start piling stuff up again. I have a jar with some calligraphy brushes from Shanghai sticking up — brought back by a friend from a trip there, along with an ink-stone and paper — and a paper towel folded in half with different sizes of metal nibs from old-fashioned steel pens drying off after they’ve been washed. I’ve got bottles of ink — red, black, purple and metallic gold — and some blank journals, one leather bound, one bound in brocade cloth. I’m writing a book by hand, and write my letters by hand, so I don’t have a computer on the desk. If I need to write something by computer, I do it here at work, after writing it out by hand. I’ve got a wooden pigeon-hole type thing with various little notebooks and stamps and envelopes tucked into it. There are Greek dictionaries and flash cards lying about.

    The notebook I’m writing my manuscript (literally) inside is one of those Chinese-style books where there are two end covers that aren’t attached to each other, and you can open the entire book out like an accordion or a slinky and see all the pages if you want. I keep it closed with a rubber band so the many bits of paper like ATM receipts where I’ve scribbled down scraps of inspiration won’t fall out and blow away. Each page is written in different ink, depending on what I had in hand that day.

    My desk looks out a vast, broad bank of windows at the lake, five stories below, with downtown Oakland spread beyond. The sheer variety of birds and people going past below gives me plenty to enjoy and write about, if I choose. The sunsets are spectacular. I can always write about the different moods of the lake, which is shiny some days like a mirror, or dull gray in choppy wind, or blue or murky. Different seasons bring different birds — next month the baby geese will be hatched, and will swim, even as tiny tennis balls of fluff, in neat lines between their watchful parents. There are two parakeets in a cage in the same room with me, and they periodically burst into opera. It inspires me that such tiny creatures, who weigh nothing when I hold one in my hand, so tiny, can hold within them so much music. It helps me remember that I’ve got a lot of creativity in me, too.

    I bring my iPod out if I want to write with music, which I do, most of the time. It’s a second hand iPod, bought from my wife when she bought a new one for herself. Sometimes, in the evening, I have a glass of some Drambuie or something (I just finished a three-month experiment to make a flavored liqueur by soaking three whole oranges and some coffee and sugar in vodka in a jar in the fridge) and I often forget to take away the empty aperitif glass and it sits there for a few days.

    I collect posters and paper to write on, but never use all of it, so I end up with big stacks of odd-sized paper hanging over one side of the desk. I also put bills and things on there, since I have no filing system for them, and Christmas cards and other letters I plan to reply to but don’t always get to.

  3. i am so envious of your space! ryan has taken over the second bedroom we use as an office (you’ve seen his desk at work–dare i say it’s worse at home??). buried somewhere in there there’s a desk for me…

    my primary working spaces are the couch and the bed. on both surfaces i am accosted by cats trying to climb onto my lap. sometimes i sit at the dining room table but it hurts my back to sit there for a long time.

    i realize i would be much more productive if i actually did have a designated writing space. i’m losing notes all the time. like you, i’m a big notebook person. i have one general notebook where i jot down all my notes, and every time i decide on a book project i want to expand i buy and designate a notebook for that purpose. (i wonder, too, if your notebook predilection hails from your days in journalism?) only recently i realized i should probably try to stash all my drafts in one location instead of dropping them all around the house and then panicking when i can’t find anything. if i were really smart i’d keep all my notes beside me while i write so i can look up a character i’ve created instead of writing in XXX to fill in later.

    i’m one of those that can’t really listen to music when i write. not when i’m _really_ writing as opposed to just brainstorming or playing with ideas or doing exercises or rough drafts.

  4. To write, I need adequate sleep, two-hour blocks of time, and Snapple.

    On my desk I have two plastic racks that hold six file folders each. One rack holds the papers and notes for six freelance articles I’m working on. The other holds the papers and notes for six fiction projects.

    Taped to the fiction rack is an old Peanuts cartoon, with Snoopy sitting on top of his doghouse and typing “It was a dark and stormy night.”

    Half of my office is Benny’s playroom, so when I get stuck I can take a break and play with his trains.

  5. To write I mostly need silence. For some reason, I can’t write with music. Although I can do art to it quite nicely. Pen, paper, or laptop, and a pot of French Roast. Open mind, submissive heart.

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