I’ve been a working writer now, in one genre or another, for more than twenty years—I was still an undergraduate when my work life began. Throughout those two decades I’ve lived in different parts of the world, in different types of domicile; I’ve lived alone, with housemates, with girlfriends, and now with a wife and son (and three cats). In all those places I’ve lived, I’ve always had a dedicated place to write.
More often than not—especially when I was poor and had to rent—those places were neighborhood establishments of one kind or another. In London, I wrote in the White Lion of Mortimer, my local pub in Finsbury Park. In Boulder, it was a coffee shop called Penny Lane, which (for those who knew and loved it) is now closed. Coffee shops, in fact, have been quite good to me: Misha’s in Old Town Alexandria; the old Stompin’ Grounds on Capitol Hill; Tryst in Adams Morgan, here in DC; the former Cafe Express in Evanston; and—above all else—the dear, departed Funk’s Democratic Coffee Spot in Baltimore.
Rarely, however, have I ever had a place I liked to write IN my own home. When I bought my first house on Capitol Hill, the smallest bedroom was my study… but I was so crammed into the space (which was awkwardly-shaped and poorly-lit) I hated to work in there; more often than not, I’d head out onto the back porch to work. I had a basement office when I rented a house in Columbia, too, but that was miserable in an entirely different way: no light whatsoever, dingy carpet, and a completely nondescript decor. I made the best I could, everywhere… but the best wasn’t very good at all.
For the last year now, however, ever since my wife and I bought a house in Silver Spring, I’ve been closer to my dream space than I’ve ever been before—very, very close, in fact.
To begin with, my writing space isn’t actually only one room—it’s two, with a private bathroom. You enter first into a small but beautiful library, lined with oak shelves and an exquisite rare-variety granite counter. One small chair on which to settle yourself for a few minutes while you choose which book you want, an antique 1941 Philco floor model radio, a few modest but personally important pieces of art, and a supremely soft green-and-gold rug. The room is dark—the walls are a rich brown—which makes it into a kind of cave-like passageway connecting the house proper with the space I actually write in. When I take my son into the room with me, he instantly calms down. I can’t wait to read to him there.
The second room is the much-larger study. Its walls are a soft blue and full of windows—one a great picture window that looks out onto our grassy back yard, another that looks out onto a rose bush and a dwarf bamboo that attract a fair share of butterflies and birds. The effect upon entering the brightly-lit room from the dark, sedate library is—as we intended—energizing. I feel as if I’ve entered a space full of creativity and possibility every time I come in: a real refuge from the rest of the world.
The room holds a great deal of antique furniture: three cherry bookcases; a dark oak library table, which serves as a desk, as well as an accompanying banker’s chair; an oak filing cabinet; a pine farm table; a wooden stenographer’s table. Beneath it all is a broad, blue carpet etched with flowers. I write in a worn leather recliner, my laptop on my lap; to my side is a Deco-styled blue armchair as well, if I need variety—though that’s usually where my wife sits. The walls are hung with a great deal of art I’ve collected over the years, and the deep window sills are lined with an odd variety of antique knick-knacks that have found their way into my possession: a portable letterpress printer, two more antique radios, a bronze fire extinguisher, and a manual typewriter, among other curiosities. It’s all deeply personal and terribly meaningful to me, and it took me these past two decades to slowly, carefully accumulate. Thankfully, the room’s ample size means it doesn’t feel the least bit crowded.
The only nods to modernity—and I value them just as highly—are my laptop, iPod, printer, and XM radio, which is always tuned to the 1940s channel, the classic jazz channel, the classical music channel, or (if I’m feeling whimsical) the old time radio channel. I literally couldn’t work without them.
What’s the importance of all this? I’ve come to think that the space in my home that I allocate to writing is a reflection of the importance of my craft to my life. I’m not saying that one has to have a great huge loft of some kind or one isn’t a real writer — I’m simply saying that the size of my writing space, relative to the rest of my home, is an indicator of how settled I am into my identity as a writer. I’ve given a lot, literally, to making myself into a playwright. It’s taken me two decades to develop this space, to acquire the pieces that have made it what it is. I’m proud of that.
Take a look at your own writing space, if you have one in your home. Think about how it looks, how it makes you feel—and imagine what you want it to be. Don’t stop yourself from imagining whatever might be tremendous for you. You might not get it overnight, but if you work hard, and grow it over time, before long you’ll be sitting in your ideal room, or as close as you might expect to come — that’s my advice to you.
And the same is true, I think, of your career as a writer. Expand it incrementally, over the years. Don’t expect anything to happen immediately; change and growth come slowly, but they do come.
My study is proof.
Come on over sometime and I’ll show it to you.