Po Bronson wrote his first book, Bombadiers, in a closet—and not one of those walk-in, McMansion closets. His closet had no window. There was room for one folding chair and one stool to put his Mac on. Nothing else. No joke.
Everyone has their own ideas on what works for them and what doesn’t. What about you?
It’s all about focus
Some people require zero distractions. Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You) likes her space small and unadorned. She works in a closet with windows but nothing else to take her mind off writing. Marjan Kamali (Together Tea) refers to her home office as ‘the cave,’ “because I like to work with all the blinds down and curtains drawn to shut the world out.”
In contrast, the astonishingly prolific British author Margaret Forster writes with a window in front of her desk and another one to her right so she can sit there and gaze out at the orchard trees in the gardens below. She says, “I feel cut off, as though I’m in the sky, suspended and enclosed.”
The infamous luddite Jonathan Franzen wrote The Corrections in a sparse rented office with no Internet connection. Forget temporary tricks like Freedom or RescueTime, according to Franzen: “What you have to do is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it.” (Wonder what he uses that shovel behind his desk for…)
Would a tiny corner nook, a cushion on the floor and a laptop work for you? That’s how Collum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin writes. “It concentrates my vision. No windows, two very tight walls,” he says.
But can anyone rival Sylvia Bodmer (The Wednesday Group–out 2015), who finds that she writes best in airports? “I have missed flights, yes plural, while at the gate writing, even as my name was called on the loudspeaker,” she says. “That is honestly how focused I am at airports.”
Others have the exact opposite needs. “Empty walls really distract me. I like my working space to be really rich, visually,” says Tasneem Husain (The Longest Thread). “I tend to put up a lot of posters and photographs, and also surround myself with lots of little knick-knacks.”
For former magazine writer Susan Carlton (Love and Haight), noise and chaos equal productivity, “I have a cozy home office in our attic, but I hate it—too isolating.”
Sometimes necessity dictates our habits. Peggy Shinner (You Feel So Mortal) used to prefer absolute quiet and solitude, but in her new home there isn’t space. She now actually shares a single desk with her partner, who likes to listen to music and dance in her chair while working. Somehow, it’s okay: “She works, I work,” says Peggy. “Often for hours without any direct communication, but there is a certain hum of joint productivity.”
Mother of eight, Dixie Coskie (Unthinkable) wrote her memoir in the middle of her insanely busy kitchen with her toddler at her side. Peace and quiet would have been preferable, but when you’re driven to tell a story you find a way. Laura Hillenbrand wrote the bestseller Seabiscuit confined to her bed for years on end.
Recently, I moved out of my home office and for the first time in my career, I rented office space. Yes, I now pay a good chunk of my hard-earned money to rent a room about five minutes from my house.
I’d just had it. I was going to lose my mind if I had to spend one more day working in that cramped space with bills pouring out of every drawer, teenagers using up all my toner, and a work-at-home husband stopping by every five minutes to share his latest thoughts.
Not to mention, people kept moving my stuff. And I have a lot of stuff. I have corkboards with lists and timelines and images. My walls are taped up with sticky notes and quotes (which makes working in cafes not very practical). I am one of those writers who likes piles, and since I work on five things at once my piles get big. Files from my projects were stacked in a teetering pile next to my old desk. That is, until the cat knocked them over.
But the real problem was that the last book I wrote in that office had been no fun at all—and it nothing to do with the subject matter or the people I was working with. The problem was that I wasusing up all my energy simply trying to focus. For the first time ever, the writing process felt like an exhausting chore.
Taking the plunge
It’s ridiculous to pay for space when you have room in your own house. Right? Yes, but… I wanted to keep working, and I wanted to stay sane.
I started with this:
I spent a weekend painting hospital green walls bright turquoise. I begged, borrowed and stole furniture. One snowy day, I made a cool pendant lamp. One trip to Ikea and I had a massive, inexpensive bookshelf. I ended up with this, from where I am now writing:
What about you?
Does it matter where you write? Are you one of these people who can write anywhere, anytime or do you need silence, beauty, and a view to find inspiration?