Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Writing Habit: Desk Job

I sit at a desk.  I face the wall.  If you sit facing the wall, the only way out is through the sentences.
--E. L. Doctorow

Of all the tools of the trade, the writer's desk is surely third only to the pen and paper (or keyboard and screen).  It's here on this playing field of wood--or metal, or Formica, or Little Tykes plastics if you a very, very young author--that we spread our papers, our reference books, our imaginations.

In the bustling hustle of our daily lives, the writing desk is the one calm constant, a place where we can center our focus, channel our imaginations, lasso the words.  The writing table is an icon, a prime square of tiny real estate where we create universes.  I'm fascinated by the places where other writers sat during the composition of their books.  I've already mentioned the thrill I felt when I saw Flannery O'Connor's desk (or at least a faithful duplicate of the original), and I would probably give my left pinkie to be able to sit at Thomas Hardy's desk.

The Guardian ran a series on writers' rooms a couple of years ago, which included a photo of Jane Austen's writing table: "This fragile 12-sided piece of walnut on a single tripod must be the smallest table ever used by a writer."  The Like Fire blog has an on-going feature called Strata where contemporary writers describe the geology of their writing spaces.  And of course, there is the illuminating book by Jill Krementz, The Writer's Desk, which gives us mere mortals a peek into the habits of E. B. White, Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, and others.

Environment is everything to the writer.  At least it is to me.  I must be properly situated, north by northwest, at a casual slump, hydration near at hand, before I can begin typing the first letter.

I've never been one to scribble on yellow legal pads.  I can't sit cross-legged in the bed with a laptop humming on the blankets in front of me.  And, unlike Scott Turow, I simply refuse to tap the keyboard on a daily commuter train.  I must have solitude, I must have my classical music, I must have the coccoon of my books enveloping me.  Surely, I'm not the only picky writer.

No, we all compose each in our own way.  Charles Dickens sat at his desk from nine in the morning until two in the afternoon, as Peter Ackroyd notes in his biography, Dickens:
When he returned to his study in the morning, everything was neatly and precisely arranged; a vase of fresh flowers on his desk....the desk itself always placed in front of the window so that he might look, unseeing, out at the world.  And he needed quiet, dead quiet; in Devonshire Terrace an extra door was added to keep out the noise.  He was surrounded by books.
It's no secret my kinship with Dickens runs deep.  I may not have his frenetic industry of talent, but I feel his passion for the craft.

Back to the desk.  In the photo above, you get a snapshot of what my 10x8 world looks like.  Like E. L. Doctorow, my desk has always faced the wall, leaving me to find my way out only through the sentences.  Besides, the view out a window would only serve to slow the writing process.  I'm the kind of person who is distracted by butterflies.

I work in the basement of our 1920 Craftsman house.  There are two paneled doors which open into the room from the rest of the basement.  The boiler ticks and hisses just outside my work area and I have a good view of the staircase and each morning, at 5:30, our black cat coming down, hesitant as a stalking panther.

My office space was originally designed to hold the previous owner's gun collection.  There are, of course, no firearms or ammunition here these days--only the weaponry which peppers my novel.

Every day, starting at 5 a.m., I sit at the desk my wife and I bought several years ago at either an antique store or a garage sale--my memory's a bit cloudy on the details.  The one thing I do know for certain is, I fell head over heels in love with this desk the minute I saw it.  It has a surface large as an ocean, rises to the perfect height to meet my forearms, and has a cut-out space tailored to the length of my legs.  The surface has a well-worn patina; my wife and daughter once put in many hours refinishing the desk for me one Father's Day.  I've since abused that gift by carpeting the surface with water rings and coffee stains, but all of those marks only serve to make this desk fit me like an aged glove.

Taking a tour of my desk in the photo above, starting at the left and going clockwise:
  • the first two piles of books are an omnibus of Agatha Christie mysteries (I was reading The Mirror Crack'd when I took the picture), Paul Harding's Tinkers, and Ivan Doig's Work Song (which I'll be reviewing for New West).
  • a box of Kleenex for my early-morning congestion
  • another stack of someday-I'll-get-to-them books: The Library of America volume of Flannery O'Connor's collected works, Brad Gooch's biography of O'Connor, and The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps.
  • a Vera Cruz Vanilla Yankee Candle (I'm a scent-whore)
  • a blue glass of water
  • a glass of Riesling (please note: this photo was not taken at 5 a.m.  I generally don't start drinking until noon.)
  • my HP Pavilion laptop--the focal point of the desk and, in general, my writing life
  • assorted gadgetry (speakers, modem, printer)
  • page proofs for a short story which will be published in Connecticut Review later this year
  • above the desk, I've taped an inspirational quote from Strunk and White
  • and, to the right, you see the first two of seven bookcases which surround me like a womb in this writing space.  These are the classics--the Cathers, the Dickenses, the Faulkners, the Hemingways, the Melvilles, the Steinbecks, the Tolstoys, the Whartons, the Zolas.  They watch me with dusty stares and remind me that I'm just one puny writer sitting at a desk in a long pantheon of scribes,doing his best to get the words out of his head and onto paper.


  1. The lack of clutter disturbs me. (As I sit at MY desk, my laptop nestled between two piles of...well, I'm not exactly sure.)

  2. Very well written David... impressive.