Some writers can write anywhere and any time; more neurotic ones need to be at the perfect desk in the perfect room overlooking the perfect view
There is, among writers, a topic rarely discussed: how they arrange their desk, what they keep upon it, and whether they have some ritual to prepare for the task of writing. Two writers I know in New York, a couple, have never seen each other’s writing desk arranged for work to commence. She joked that she half-suspected he lined up paper-clips in a talismanic pattern before he started shuffling notecards and hitting the keyboard. As a topic it may be taboo because at its root lies a great fear: that no writer knows precisely from where creative ideas arise, and whether the next day there will be another idea, whether that muse or phantom can again and again be summoned. One New York writer, Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, told me that to ask about what she had on her desk, and what she did right before she began to write, was akin to asking a golfer, at the moment as he was lining up his putt, whether he breathed in or out as he struck the ball. It was a question likely to induce acute self-consciousness.
Quite understandable when one learns just how strange these practices can be. John Donne, the early 17th-century metaphysical poet, used to lie in a coffin to remind himself of his mortality. The aim of his writing, then, was presumably to serve as a hedge against oblivion and his personal extinction. The aristocratic and eccentric 20th-century British poet Edith Sitwell was another coffin-lier. She explained that she adopted the practice to prepare herself for the even greater horror of facing the blank page. A different sort of recumbent, the poet Charles Simic, recently mentioned in the New York Review of Books that he is only able to write while lying in bed propped up on pillows, after which revelation he blurted, with remarkable defensiveness, “Big deal!”
Nevertheless, despite this taboo, and in spite of the self-consciousness or defensiveness provoked, it was for some years my duty to ask writers precisely these questions and to send forth interviewers, like teams of anthropologists, into the field and into writers’ studies, to do likewise. I was an editor of The Paris Review, an American literary magazine that specialised in launching the work of new poets and short story writers and in publishing in-depth profiles of celebrated ones, from Toni Morrison to V.S. Naipaul. Along with a reproduction of a manuscript page showing the scribbled process of revision, a photo of the subject sitting in his or her natural habitat, and a description of the writer’s workplace were, and still are, the staples of the magazine’s literary interrogations for its Writers at Work series.
Since writers have no tool unique for their métier, theirs and theirs alone, no musician’s violin or painter’s palette, it is natural that curiosity would fix on their desks. More than that, however, it turns out that when it comes to writers, the most revealing answers tend to come from asking the very simplest questions: “Do you write with a pen, pencil, or a computer?” “Is there a special place that is good for writing?” Somehow it is always the most practical questions, rather than the high-flown or academic, that open a door to the creative process, keeping the subject matter grounded while leaving an opening for something ineffable… or about their domestic life and personal obsessions.
For novelist A.S. Byatt, the essential key to writing is a cat who will loll on her desk. Thackeray required pots and pots of coffee in order to produce his eight daily pages. And it was always eight, even if that required beginning a new book if he’d finished another novel while writing the seventh. Roald Dahl holed up in a shed at the bottom of his garden with an enormous leather chair with a board across it, and kept himself “locked in” until his pages were done.
In a quiet, rural corner of Pakistan, Daniyal Mueenuddin, the Pakistani-American author of the celebrated debut collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, has created his own separate, special space to work. He explained to me recently that when he was first thinking about becoming a writer but still consumed with a budding career as a lawyer in New York, his girlfriend at the time teased him that he seemed better at assembling and decorating the perfect study than actually putting it to good use. He has, in fact, now created that perfect (for him) space, on his family’s farm in Southern Punjab, which his wife (not the aforementioned girlfriend) rarely looks in on, nor presumably comments upon. “At the far side of a garden,” he emailed, “my brother, an architect manqué, built a little tool shed, a mini-me after-thought to the colonial house he built himself. He lavished upon it the sort of attention normally reserved for a principle residence: doors made of rosewood, stained glass, a fireplace. I appropriated this place, a square ten-feet-by-ten, and left it with little adornment other than a picture of my wife, postcards of Chekhov, Proust, and Joyce. No internet, and no furniture but my desk. Sitting there, or pacing from wall to wall like a caged beast, I’ve had my greatest adventures. The desk there is a ‘rescue’, found by my father, who happened to visit an old factory that was being dismantled. The machinery had all been bedded on heavy marble slabs, which, being full of bolt holes, had no value, so he bought the lot, a dozen of them, and had a sculptor fashion the holes into flowers, filling them with different coloured stone. The dining table at the farm here is an expanse of that same florid marble. And then the smaller one is my desk in my study.”
John Ashbery, the writer who brought surrealism and the baroque to New York poetry, gets a vague idea for a poem while scribbling in his notebooks, and then steps away from his desk to go for a walk, composing in his head as he strolls his Chelsea neighbourhood. He believes that the rhythm of his steps plays a role in the metrics of his poetry. One New Orleans-based crime novelist keeps a deck of cards handy and when the going gets rough he lays out a game of solitaire… anything to keep himself rooted to his desk, as if lashed to a mast like Odysseus resisting the sirens.
The virtues of mess
The late George Plimpton, the progenitor of “New Journalism”, as well as a founder of The Paris Review, would, when he encountered an obstacle in his writing, step away from his study to the next room and play a rack of nine ball on the pool table in his living room that overlooked New York’s East River. In time he grew so proficient that he once, for a magazine assignment, played a creditable series of games against the vaunted pool champion, Minnesota Fats. Some time after that, on the odd days when writing went poorly, he used to console himself with the notion that if “the well” dried up he could always fall back on hustling a game of pool to eke out a living. During the years I worked with him, I noticed that when days went well, particularly when he’d moved on to a second draft of what he was working on, he would spread stacks of his manuscript out across the entire pool table, making that his desk for days on end. He would perch above the table in a high director’s chair, fiddling happily with the work, adding words here and there, rearranging paragraphs and pages. The “pool table phase” of composition was always for him the happiest time of work.
The social scientists Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper theorised on this point. In The Myth of the Paperless Office they wrote:
Paper enables a certain kind of thinking. When a group at Apple Computer studied piling behavior several years ago, they found that even the most disorderly piles usually make perfect sense to the piler, and that office workers could hold forth in great detail about the precise history and meaning of their piles. The pile closest to the cleared, eighteen-inch-square working area, for example, generally represents the most urgent business, and within that pile the most important document of all is likely to be at the top. Piles are living, breathing archives. Over time, they get broken down and resorted, sometimes chronologically and sometimes thematically and sometimes chronologically and thematically; clues about certain documents may be physically embedded in the file by, say, stacking a certain piece of paper at an angle or inserting dividers into the stack.
A writer’s messy, paper-strewn desk, or pool table, then, should not be taken as a sign of disorganisation, or a Luddite-like fear of technology, but instead as a hallmark of complexity. The piles of paper and their baroque arrangements are simply cues to get us from Act II to Act III.
This theory of creativity centering on piles of papers also falls down when it comes to the example of Winston Churchill, the prime minister who won a Nobel Prize for his series of histories and made it his custom to write in a bath while dictating to a secretary in another room. Another writer who favoured dictation was the Anglo-American Henry James, who during the late phase that produced his prolix masterpiece The Golden Bowl ,would compose aloud to a series of young male secretaries whose muscular fingers banged out his words on a relatively newfangled invention, the typewriter, while the august novelist strolled about the room. Mark Twain liked to operate these early machines himself, and funded the invention of a number of early typewriters, eventually losing a fortune in companies he bankrolled that manufactured them.
Of course, young writers today use a different sort of machine, the computer, and seem focused as much on their virtual desktop (their computer screen) as on their desk. The Pakistani essayist Huma Yusuf is one such. She seems (for the purposes of this essay) disappointingly neurosis-free. From Karachi she recently told me: “I have a horrible black Ikea desk, which I chose because it has a very long table top, three times the length of a normal desk. It fits neatly in a bay window area which looks out onto my small garden. The middle part of the desk is completely bare, meaning that my MacBook Air has lots of empty space around it. I sit in front of the desk on a harsh, straight-backed chair, and work on my laptop. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I used a pen on that desk. No rituals, I just sit down with a cup of tea and a sliced apple.”
I turned next, with hope, to a lyric poet, a writer forced to summon elusive muses on a daily basis, but again, perhaps because she is also a novelist, found another computer-centric writer. Tishani Doshi works in the morning after breakfast, pyjama-clad, at a rosewood desk that faces south against a wall, with light coming into the room from the side. She arranges her desk with notebooks in various stages of use, a penholder filled mostly with pens that don’t work, a thermos flask of water, books she’s reading, lip balm, a spectacles case, computer screen cleaning fluid, incense stick holder, and to-do lists. “I will usually organise the piles of paper into two neat stacks and clear a space where I can write longhand before transcribing on to the computer. I like a sense of orderliness but worry about being too obsessive. Normally, I begin with a relatively tidy desk, which descends into a state of chaos, which then becomes an excuse not to write until I clean up. I’m not happy with my chair at the moment, so I’ve been sitting cross-legged and lean slightly toward the screen.” Doshi is also an ardent traveller, and sometimes works on the go. Asked the one essential for an itinerant writer, she says, “A door I can shut.”
Not getting down to work
For some writers the days revolve not only around a desk, but also around the approach to that desk. New York wit Fran Lebowitz, a comic essayist who as a teenager was part of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, has made a second career as a comedian. She likes to discuss her trouble writing on late night TV, and claims that the first half of her workday is spent preparing, with all the logistical planning of a military campaign (approach, retreat, provisioning with rations, subterfuge), how to cross her living room from the sofa to the desk to begin work.
Many other writers, especially male ones, take a different sort of military approach, arranging their “kit” just so, making sure they have their “machine” as well maintained and in working order as a soldier might his gun. Throughout his career, Ernest Hemingway liked to write by hand, standing up at a large lectern-like desk, shifting his weight from side to side, leaning on one arm and then another, generally building up a head of steam and a sweat. When in 1957, George Plimpton visited Hemingway in Havana for The Paris Review, he described his writing set-up:
“He has a special workroom prepared for him in a square tower at the southwest corner of the house, but prefers to work in his bedroom, climbing to the tower room only when “characters” drive him up there. The bedroom, on the ground floor, is large, sunny, the windows facing east and south letting in the day’s light on white walls and a yellow-tinged tile floor. The walls are lined with white-painted bookcases from which books overflow to the floor, and are piled on top among old newspapers, bullfight journals, and stacks of letters bound together by rubber bands. It is on the top of one of these cluttered bookcases—the one against the wall by the east window and three feet or so from his bed—that Hemingway has his “work desk”—a square foot of cramped area hemmed in by books on one side and on the other by a newspaper-covered heap of papers, manuscripts, and pamphlets. There is just enough space left on top of the bookcase for a typewriter, surmounted by a wooden reading board, five or six pencils, and a chunk of copper ore to weight down papers when the wind blows in from the east window.”
The Nobel laureate kept track of his daily progress on a board off to the side of his desk, marking down the number of words each day, aiming for about 500, i.e. about two pages worth each day, attempting to double that daily number if he were to take a day off for fishing, hunting, or to watch a bullfight.
Mark Twain’s beloved sister, hoping to keep him from distraction and from hare-brained business schemes, built for him on her property an octagonal study-cabin and set it some distance from her house, overlooking a valley. Looking at pictures of him in the study, now transplanted to a college in Elmira, New York, you wonder if Twain wrote happily in this ideal environment, or if he just liked being photographed there. I know a bestselling contemporary American thriller-writer who had a copy of Twain’s octagonal cabin built at his upstate NY country house, but found he was unable to spend more than a few minutes in it without succumbing to despair.
Cats, coffins, green sweaters, and progress charts aside, other essential elements for writing are silence and solitude. Jeffrey Eugenides, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Marriage Plot, recently retreated with his MacBook to the attic of his house, the most monastic cell-like room in his house in Princeton, NJ, deliberately depriving himself of a window or a view.
In New York, Jonathan Franzen customarily writes in an empty studio apartment, (his former home) in which he has permanently disabled the internet capability of his work computer. He has also taken to wearing earplugs and an eye-mask to block out all external stimuli while he touch types. Franzen adopted this extreme regimen, akin to Marcel Proust’s practice of writing Remembrance of Things Past in bed in a cork-lined room, as the only way to keep the digital world at bay and to hear his own “writer’s voice” as he composes.
By contrast, the Indian novelist Anuradha Roy actually invites potential distractions into her workplace: “My favorite desk is my grandfather’s, which I have used since I was about eight years old. It’s scarred and wobbly because it’s travelled a lot: the hills, where it is now, is its fifth home. It’s a black Burma teak desk with paw-like legs, a sloping top you can shut, and lots of little drawers and alcoves – so you tend to put in things which you then forget and rediscover years later. It looks northward, into tree branches and beyond them, the Himalayan peaks.”
Also favouring a nature view from her desk, the Italian screenwriter Francesca Marciano, when she wrote Rules of the Wild, her novel about young expatriates cavorting in Kenya, would drive a Land Rover into the Masai Mara game reserve, pitch a tent in the middle of this savannah, and spend day after day writing, gazing out at the wildlife that passed beyond the end of her fold-up card table, and going for walks trying to figure what her characters, many of whom bore resemblance to her friends, might do next.
Modern-day Prousts like Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen might be positively appalled to learn that short story idol Thom Jones writes sitting at a desk made from an old door and listens to music at full blast. Fifteen years ago, in Olympia, Washington, he wrote his very first published short story while listening to The Doors’ eponymous album on repeat. The late short story master Raymond Carver, a proponent of minimalism, wrote his first book, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, while sitting in the front seat of his car and using the steering wheel to prop up his yellow notepad. He was hoping to escape the noise and interruptions of his young family, but that sense of remove, of the outcast male sitting alone outside, clearly made an impression on his fiction as that became his principal theme. Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle liked to write at home but was known for composing on trains, boats, and even at cricket matches when innings got slow. He simply propped a sheaf of foolscap upon his knee. Screenwriter Paul Schrader not only wrote his breakthrough script Taxi Driver in his car, a somewhat broken-down vintage Chevy, he was at the time actually living in it, and his desperation led him to complete the work in two weeks and informed the distinctive, paranoid lead character, Travis (“You talkin’ to me?”) Bickle.
In contrast, the mid-century American Nobel laureate novelist William Faulkner, master of the microcosm he created, made unique use of his own capacious writing room on the ground floor of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. A decade after his death, when that house was being restored as a museum, workmen discovered that while writing one of his masterpieces, As I Lay Dying, he had made the room an extension of his desk by outlining the novel across all four of its walls, as can be seen today.
An early representative of the change of focus from desk to desktop was TheNew Yorker contributor Harold Brodkey. When I visited him to interview him for The Paris Review, he was preparing publication of a novel, The Runaway Soul, decades in the making. At the time his collection of technology was revealing of the long period of the novel’s composition, from the era of the typewriter to that of the word processor. Brodkey’s study was a large, white-walled made-over bedroom crowded with library tables, a drafting board, outlines and notes taped to the wall. Upon the tables lies a collection of computer equipment worthy of a bond-trading room – computer systems of different makes, a monitor, another monitor of a vertical-rectangular shape that can show a single whole page of text, printers, and a scanner that Brodkey had used to input the many pages of manuscript he wrote before he went “high tech”.
But despite all the digital tools available to the writer, many writers today still seem committed to a desk arranged just so, out of a certain wood, a desk with a history or a story, in a special room, sometimes a room with a view… or not, relying on pen and paper, scribbled outlines and, even if there are computers involved, piles of manuscript. Aside from the neurotic coffin rituals of Donne and Sitwell, or the languid plumped pillow ritual of Simic, another extraordinary secret is revealed by studying the habits of writers, the key really to all creativity and literary endeavour: the extraordinary efficacy of simply planting one’s posterior in the chair, behind a desk, and in front of a blank page, and going from there. As Goethe put it: “Action has magic, grace and power in it.”
Salman Rushdie, an elaborator on the page, assured one interviewer simply: “I don’t have any strange, occult practices. I just get up in the morning, go downstairs, and write.”