Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Mess of One's Own

Writers love to see where other writers write. Come to think of it, non-writers also love to see where writers write.

I remember one memorable trip I took to Key West, Florida, where I visited Ernest Hemingway's home. Overrun with six-toed cats and wallpapered with photos of immense fish, it also had a palm-cosseted blue tile outdoor pool and an open, sunny writing room over a building adjacent to the main house. (photo above left)

I remember the near-reverent hush that came over our tour group as we passed through that room. I found myself wanting to touch his typewriter, give those keys a few good clacks of my own. I'm no Hemingway fan, but I couldn't help but feel awe as I stood in the space where he wrote Nobel-prize-winning novels. This is where it all happened, I thought. As if a writing place is somehow magical space.

So not my office.

I wrote my first novel in the basement. Granted, there's heat, and the floor is carpeted. But my "office" was a windowless area off the furnace room, and I allowed it to become a dumping ground for files and boxes of photos and ... shells from Florida and my old baby shoes and ... oh, the list goes on. The horror, the horror. I've actually included a picture of that computer desk in the slideshow I present to students when I do author visits. I wrote Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress here:

Things picked up a bit after Brett. I abandoned my hopelessly dark and messy cave and moved to a corner of the den, where there are windows and a delightful woodstove. I can get away from everyone here and work in relative quiet and if I cran my neck hard enough can check out the weather through the line of small, high windows behind me. I wrote Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best here:

To date these far-from-magical spaces have worked for me, but I'll confess: I want more. I want the Hemingwayesque Florida studio. I want the daybed for lounging when I feel the need to "create" from a horizontal position. I want the cozy writer's cottage surrounded by flowers, perhaps with a view (the ocean?)and most certainly with an amazing desk. Pottery Barn makes a nice one:

Ask anyone who knows me: I'm not a materialistic person. I rarely shop, I don't care about cars or jewelry or stuff of any sort. The only things I buy which I probably don't need to buy are books (I'm a sucker for a beautiful hardcover ...) But when it comes to a writing place, and I check out where writers work, I feel true longing.

When we first moved to Maine, my writing place was pretty amazing. It was an old stable which had been converted into an artist's studio and it gleamed with blond wood and white bookshelves. One entire wall was lined with long windows, and the only heat source was a woodstove. I would write on a makeshift desk that looked into the yard, and whenever I pulled my attention away from the page I could see the resident red squirrels run up and down the trees.

Unfortunately, that studio was part of a rental, and we eventually had to move. I took to writing in coffee shops after that, mostly because we had very young children and I needed to get out of the house for a couple of hours. The "white noise" of patrons chatting and the smell of really, really good coffee actually helped me carve out a focused, creative space in my head, and I got some good work done at Wild Oats and The Bohemian Coffeeshop in Brunswick.

Still, as I take my first tentative steps into a third novel, I'm wondering whether an upgrade is possible. One writing friend put a shed in her backyard and fixed it up into a very cozy writing "house." I think Annie Dillard writes in a shed. It's worked quite well for her ....

Of course, the good news is that while an extraordinary writing place is a wonderful thing, it's not a necessary thing. Quiet, paper, and a few square feet that you can walk away from and trust that what you've left there will remain undisturbed until your return, is really all that's needed. Ultimately, the magic is all in your head. In the imaginative mess of one's own we writers create.


  1. I'm with you. My hubby recently repainted and floored my office space. I love to be here but sometimes the laundry, et. al. is too much and I feel the pull of the library or a café. You might find something in Ft. Andross.

  2. Interesting snapshot of Hemingway’s office. It’s funny that in all the times that I’ve visited your house, I never saw your workspaces until now.

    I’m not convinced about a shed in a Maine winter, especially without plumbing if you’re drinking tea or coffee. Anna’s Fort Andros suggestion is better. I have a bunch of artist friends that rent space there, but it might be too cavernous for writing.

    My home office has a beautiful desk and big windows, admittedly just facing the garage, but I write facing the wall on an ugly computer stand. The good view has to come from inside. Annie Dillard and you are right about that.

  3. Yeah, and Ft. Andros has some VIEWS, for sure, esp. if you get an office that faces the Androscoggin River. But this midlist writer doesn't want to pay rent!

    Sarah, I hear you re. a shed in a Maine winter, but many intrepid Maine writers have done it! Portland writer Monica Wood's "shed" is quite cozy, and she's managed to keep it warm (and I believe wired it w/ electricity). As for plumbing ... hmmm. That could be a problem.

    Anyway, back to my "cave" for some work!

  4. LOVED this blog! :) I'm presently lusting after Pottery Barn's Bedford Corner desk set ( I've also realized that I want that light airy room with windows that the desk is pictured in. Ahhhh we all have our dreams, right?

    Write on!

  5. FYI - Roald Dahl wrote in a shed! If you want to see for yourself -

  6. Thanks for showing me this, Tammy! Terrific site! They show photos of his "writing hut" and you can even scroll around and get lots of views. I must say, however, it looks better on the outside!

  7. Ooh, I like the idea of a back yard shed for my writing space! No rent and a way to get out of the house... Love it!