In a recent essay at The Guardian, Yaa Gyasi (author of Homegoing) describes her anxiety awaiting the delivery of her new writing desk. It’s not just a desk, but an important part of her writing practice. It allows her to get down to work.
“Now, instead of discipline, I have a desk, and every day that I sit at it I dig a little deeper. At some point, I get deep enough that suddenly, amazingly, I find it — the great rush of water that I had hoped and pleaded for.”
I have a writing desk too. I bought it about a month before starting the first of the two novels I wrote this year. I’m certain that desk had a lot to do with the hundreds and thousands of words I managed to write over the following few months. Sitting down at that desk with a cup of coffee was that first step I needed to get typing. It doesn’t make the writing any easier, but it helps me get down to work.
My desk is very small. It holds only a plant, my laptop, a mug of pens and pencils, and a small stack of books and notebooks I like to have handy. Sometimes it gets a bit messy with extra notebooks and writing utensils, depending how creative or overwhelmed I’m feeling about my writing and about my life, but I don’t have bookshelves or cupboards or filing cabinets nearby. There are only three small drawers, just big enough to tuck away my morning pages journal and sticky notes and extra bookmarks and a spare charger and a deck of cards.
The magic of place
What is it about place — just a desk, made of mere wood or metal or plastic — that is so important to the writer? There seems to be magic in where they choose to write and emptiness everywhere else.
And it’s not just desks. At Poets & Writers, Alexandra Enders explores the unique and often exacting requirements of many authors, from Marcel Proust in bed (along with many, many others!) to Andrew Motion at a glass table surprising himself with the crossing and uncrossing of his own legs, to Maya Angelou working in hotel rooms with all decorations removed. Joan Didion sleeping in the same room as her manuscript. Ernest Hemingway (and others) standing up. Enders examines the peculiarity of writers being sometimes so fussy about their environment and at other times so oblivious to what goes on around them.
Perhaps once the writing has begun and the writer disappears into their work, the place itself doesn’t matter anymore. But disappearing into the work can be the hardest thing the writer does all day.
Perhaps it’s not so hard if the place is right. If all the requirements are met, the place itself can transport the writer to that other place. The other place where it’s possible to bring out of themselves and onto the page whatever it is they are trying to say.
Yet there is something strange in the idea of needing a space so precisely meeting your requirements in order to become so immersed in your work that you’re almost not in the world at all.
In search of a place
Although my desk has served me well this year, I don’t sit at it every day anymore. It makes me anxious now, for some reason. Perhaps because I’m not putting in the work I know I should be. Often I’ll write at the dining table or on the couch in the living room or in the chair in the bedroom. Sometimes even in bed, on my phone, typing unblinkingly in the dark. But it’s not the same.
What’s your writing space like? Or are you still in search of one, like I am?