By LB Gschwandtner
Facing my computer screen, tacked to a wall are two photos.
One is of E.B. White wearing glasses, sitting on a rough wooden bench with an even rougher slab of a wooden table in front of him, on which sits a typewriter with a piece of paper sticking up from its roller (younger people will have to google that).
His hair is white, he’s dressed in what looks like loose khakis and a shirt with sleeves rolled up past the elbows. His fingers touch the typewriter keys as if he was just caught in the act of writing. To his right side is a rather large, square window that is held up inward from top to bottom like a shutter and across from him is a soft light across the floorboards and the suggestion of a door frame. To his left side on the floor is a rather tall, slender barrel, presumably for crumpled paper discards. Outside the window, you can see water and the vague impression of a shoreline far off. Based on what I’ve read of White, he must have been at his farm in Maine. Where he’s writing looks like a very clean, roughly made shed with a door and window built at the edge of a lake. No distractions, save perhaps a loon cruising by.
The other is of Stephen King, also wearing glasses, his hair salt and peppered, sitting cross legged, with his left hand holding a sheaf of papers against his knee, wearing perhaps jeans, a jacket and dark shirt, his right hand holding a pencil or pen. He is looking intently at the papers. Over the image is a caption that reads: “Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or creatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you need to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing to do is shovel shit from a sitting position.”* I remember reading that King wrote his breakthrough book, Carrie, sitting at an old school desk – the kind that had the chair and desk attached to each other – in his basement next to the oil burner with one bare bulb overhead.
Everyone knows about Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room Of One’s Own** where she argues that a woman writer needs her own space. While she argued for a physical space, it was a metaphor as well for women to occupy their own place among the pantheon of male writers. Still, houses, much less apartments, aren’t generally designed with writing rooms. Artists need studios because what they generally do requires space and materials. And they tend to make a mess in their process. Well, writers also need space to mess around and discard and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
The photo of E.B. White came from The Writer’s Desk*** a book of black and white photos that show 57 writers and the variety and diversity of situations where they choose to ply their craft. Some, like White, opted for solitary and spare, while others preferred masses of papers and more books than any one photo can show. Some wrote at a desk, others in bed.
People like to think of writers as having it easy. Pick up a pen and paper – or laptop – and write a book. The British writer Barbara Cartland wrote some seven hundred books – all dictated from a supine position on a sofa, we’re told. Whatever method she used, her books sold close to a billion copies worldwide. Neil Simon penned one of his blockbuster plays riding the bus to work as a TV show comedy writer.
Personally, I write in what I designed as an art studio. It’s spacious with a large work table and windows on two sides. My computer is set up off to one smaller area in front of two tall windows that in summer give onto a multitude of green leaves, an outdoor shower and one hummingbird feeder. These little guys often flutter right in front of one of the windows, especially when the feeder is empty. They come back each spring and let me know it’s time to get busy with their demands. In winter, I see the bare bones of trees against sky. Although I can write in other places (I have written scenes at writers’ workshops and in hotel rooms) this is where I find my voice, where the spirit of the work moves through me.
If you’re lucky, if you want to write you’ll find such a place. Whether you do or not, the place is secondary to just getting started. Find some place, any place, and write.
* Stephen King / On Writing
**Virginia Woolf Essay
*** Book by Jill Krementz
LB GSCHWANDTNER is the author of four adult novels, one middle grade novel, and one collection of quirky short stories. She has attended numerous fiction writing workshops, studying with Wally Lamb, Lary Bloom, Suzanne Levine and more. Her latest novel, The Other New Girl (on-sale September 26), offers a fresh new take on the literary prep school genre, following two new girls at a Quaker prep school and the drama that ensues when one of them mysteriously disappears.