Updated: Jan 29, 2019
With so many articles written about the importance of good writing habits, it’s surprising that the physical writing space is often overlooked. Where are these writers actually doing their writing?
E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, argued that “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” There’s some truth to that – it’s a rare moment when any writer feels completely inconvenience-free – but for most of us we would prefer our writing sessions to run as smoothly as possible. That might mean the silence of an isolated room, the background burr of nature, or the chatter of homely living. No one situation will be the best fit for everyone, but in this post we’ll look at some of the ways writers utilise what they have to create an environment that encourages their writing.
Arguably the most well-known writer’s space, Roald Dahl’s writing hut has taken on its own gravitas, so much so that there is even a book written about it. Specially designed by a friend, the hut was crammed with artefacts, and Dahl himself adapted the furniture to minimise his aches and pains. In the bottom of the garden, Dahl wrote his enduring children’s stories (and also his short stories) because his space worked for him: it was isolated, it was bespoke, and it was brimming with inspiration.
A writing space doesn’t have to be on your own property. J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, preferred local cafés to her own home, and Maya Angelou, author and poet, went even further afield by renting her own hotel room: “I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible … I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room.” (Maya Angelou.)
Angelou’s approach differs from Dahl’s in its sparseness: she removes distraction whereas Dahl invites inspiration from the stimuli he has collected. The common factor, as with Rowling, is that they removed themselves from their home environment to somewhere that is associated exclusively with work.
But for most of us it’s not feasible to rent a hotel room as an office or to repurpose the garden shed. For the writer working from home, the house itself will often serve as multi-purpose environment. E.B. White, quoted earlier, describes how:
I never listen to music when I’m working. I haven’t that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn’t like it at all. On the other hand, I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.
Most writers, however, will set aside a room exclusively for their craft. Even a cupboard under the stairs can be fitted with a desk and an office chair: if there’s space for a laptop, or even a laptop, there’s space to write. A room designated as an office or study ensures all your materials are within arm’s reach if you need them, as well as promoting an atmosphere of writing. Moving to the study can be a mental preparation, an act of “going to work”. But that space is easily customised.
Poet Steven Bruce favours a minimalist setting that is cut off from everyday concerns:
[T]he writing area … is a simple set up: a table, a chair, and a printer. Now don't get me wrong, I don't write solely in this spot. I tend to write anywhere and everywhere: cafés, buses, funerals, etc, but these are merely rough drafts and ideas. When I bring them to my desk it's time to get serious. It's important to get into a good work habit in your habitat. My goal when I sit down is always to write, edit, research, find magazines, submit work, read rejection emails, and fight against self-doubt. Then, as the kitchen becomes familiar with cooking, and the bedroom becomes familiar with sleeping, the habitat becomes familiar with good working habit.
Photo courtesy of Steven Bruce© http://www.stevenbrucewriter.com/2017/02/my-writing-habitat.html
For others, the study might become filled with everything that builds up writing. This can include books on writing and the process of publication, inspirational sources, materials needed for research, drafts, edits, feedback … Writing anything is a busy process and practically impossible to undertake in a vacuum. You couldn’t expect a detective to complete a case without having access to the evidence, and a piece of writing has many aspects that need to be drawn together to create a finished product.
It can be difficult to compromise space and necessary equipment, but as you write you’ll know yourself how much stuff you need to surround yourself with. And remember, drawers and cabinets keep clutter to a minimum while ensuring you can reach what you need.
Even the stereotypical set-up can be adapted. A.J. Jacobs, author of articles and novels that include four New York bestsellers, has an unusual alternative to the desk and chair buddy system most of us view as the norm: “I write while walking on a treadmill … One doctor told me that ‘sitting is the new smoking.’ So I bought a treadmill and put my computer on top of it. It took me about 1,200 miles to write my book. I kind of love it — it keeps me awake, for one thing.” (A.J. Jacobs)
There’s no “right” way to write. Whatever your space, whatever your habits, make them work for you. Try things out, see what forges your story. And if you’re after more inspiration, check out the following photos:
Photo courtesy of Yolande ClarkJackson© https://twitter.com/YClarkjackson
Sometimes all you need is something to type on and you’re good to go. The balcony offers beautiful views as well as the opportunity for people watching. With laptops and tablets, the writer doesn’t have to be locked in a garret, toiling over their craft by candlelight. Make your space somewhere enjoyable to work in.
Photo courtesy of Carmel Breathnach© https://twitter.com/AuthorCarmelB
If you have the space, surround yourself with the tools of the trade so they’re always on hand when you need them. It’s disappointingly easy to lose your flow after searching the house for something you know you have somewhere. Books on the craft can also serve as a reminder to press on with the job at hand.
Photo courtesy of Alison Peirse© https://twitter.com/allypeirse
The plans are up (and even look colour-coded) so you only need to look up from your laptop to see where you’re going, who’s doing what, and how everything relates to the plot. By having your paper on the wall, you free up the desk for books, computers, and your beverage of choice to power you through.
Photo courtesy of Linda Marie© https://twitter.com/MarindaSkynner
How could you not be inspired to create a masterpiece in surroundings like this?
Photo courtesy of Alessandra Torre© https://twitter.com/ReadAlessandra
A whiteboard can be the perfect tool for a writer. Scribble, draw, make links – and if it doesn’t work, wipe it off and start again. With a cork board to pin on anything of value (sticky notes, cards, reminders, pictures, even Dahl-style momentos) the desk is left clear to give you freedom to work.
Photo courtesy of Arwen Paris© https://www.instagram.com/arwenparis/
Your first book cover above your workspace? Check. Dual screens for cross-referencing? Check. A thoughtful and supportive partner? Check. This organised study for two even has fresh flowers on the desk.
Did we miss yours? Share your writing space with us on Twitter with the hashtag #writingspace and be sure to tag us @stirlingrobyns in it.