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Friday, August 5, 2011

The Writer at Home

As soon as I knew I was going to be a regular member of the Author Expressions blog I started a list of things to write about and came up with the expected topics, but as the list grew, I thought perhaps I should introduce myself and give readers an idea of how I think and what matters to me as a writer. I scribbled down a list of eight things, and as I looked it over I could see that this list pretty much defines my life as a writer and has for several years. But then I looked at the list again and to me it seemed like a classroom exercise--how to be a dutiful writer.

While I was mulling over what to do I came across a notice that the University of Virginia has put online tapes of readings by William Faulkner. That got me thinking about the many voices of writers in this country and the many places they lived. And of course, that sent me into another room to locate an old book that belonged to my mother called Literary America (Dodd, Mead, 1952). This book is full of photographs of the homes and settings of American writers, and Faulkner's section includes five photographs of homes that lurk in the background of his stories. The grand house where Miss Emily might have lived enriches my feeling for the story and its characters.

Thomas Wolfe's section has a photograph of his mother's boarding house in Asheville, NC, which I visited with friends. The guide told us that young Tom, after a certain age, had no room or bed of his own. Instead, every night he wandered through the boarding house looking for a bed that was empty. When I told this story to another friend, she said, Well, yes, you can see it in his sentences that seem to go on forever, sort of wandering and meandering until they just stop. I look at a writer's home now with a very different eye.

I frequently come across another book, American Writers at Home (Library of America, 2004), which includes photographs of the writers' desks and work rooms and, often, of the writers working at their desks. Eudora Welty sits up straight and types with her arms outstretched. Hemmingway's table in his writing room sits beneath a mounted head, with french doors open to a bright, sunny day.

I love these kinds of books because I think we are shaped by place, not just as people but also as writers, and because I'm endlessly curious about how other people go about their work. My work space isn't nearly as serene or beautiful or messy as some. But I suppose it does reflect me. Every writer needs a space of her own (if not a room, as Virginia Woolf insisted), and I am fortunate to have a room of my own, which I usually share with the dog.

My desk has changed over the years, but whichever one I have, be it a long picnic table, an old vanity table, or my father's old desk, it sits in the same spot, giving me a view of the front door through one window, and a view of the sidewalk (if I stand up a bit and crane my neck to see over the printer). I keep the surface clear as much as possible, trying to stack papers neatly while I'm working.

The best part is that I'm surrounded by books, perhaps too many books, since many of them sit on the floor and on stools waiting to be read or put away. I have a comfortable chair to sit in, which desperately needs to be reupholstered, and another chair that the dog likes to stand on (when I'm not around to stop him) so he can see out the window.

This is my space, and I come here all times of the day and night to work. It's always ready, always set up for what I want to do. I like the calm, the dedicated space, the familiarity of the place. When I've finished a book or a story, I rush around trying to tidy the place up--a sign that I really have finished the job. I weed out old papers, make stacks of books to pass on, and make lists (I do love lists) of things to get done in the next few weeks (I never finish them all).

This is my setting, the place where I will be writing the next Anita Ray, working out the details of a new series character and her life, writing short pieces like this one for Author Expressions, and daydreaming. I'm a big believer in daydreaming.

14 comments:

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Welcome, Susan!

I enjoyed your blog very much.
Everyone needs a place that is
uniquely their own. And we writers are no different. I was forced to give away bookcases full of books when we downsized from our house to an apartment. For me, this was a real loss. However, I have my own workspace where I can concentrate and write and connect with other authors like you.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I'm sorry you had to give up so many books, but having a place to yourself, to do the work that matters most to you, is important. I love seeing photos of other writers' spaces--it helps me feel I know them better.

Alice Duncan said...

I live in a two-bedroom house and have converted one bedroom into a home office. It's actually pretty much where I live, complete with a bunch of doggy beds, a TV, etc.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Susan: What a lovely post. Like you, i've wondered where other writers write, so I found the post an interesting one. I do have an office where I write, butl sometimes I use my laptop in the recliner, with the dog at my feet, and I think the words come easier there, sometimes, away from my office which reminds me of deadlines and edits and the work that goes into being an author.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I have a wonderful office in a loft just off our bedroom. It overlooks the living room below and I can see out two very tall windows that are located on each side of the rock wall behind the woodstove. I was fan club president for country singing artist Kevin Sharp for thirteen years and the wall behind my desk has photos from newsletter covers and various venues and photos of Kevin and the band. Since I have an A-frame ceiling I can mount posters of Kevin and my addicition Gerard Butler. It is a very cozy room with a built in oak bookshelves that are topped with favorite family photos. I guess I can say I surround myself with beauty and inspiration.

We live in the mountains and don't have a heater, but a pellet and wood stove. My handy husband built a table for me so I can sit in front of the stove when it is really cold and type. How fortunate I feel to have two kinds of offices.

After the RWA conference in Atlanta I was fortunate enough to visit Margaret Mitchell's house and see where she wrote Gone With the Wind. Awesome and inspiring.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Alice, you clearly have your priorities right if you're using one bedroom for an office instead of a guest room or whatever else second bedrooms are used for.

Joyce, having a laptop that keeps its charge and lets you move around really changes the way we work, I think. I always sat at my desk but now with a new laptop I too find myself sometimes moving to the living room to read articles or do some editing. But I do have the feeling that I have to sit at my desk to do real work. I'll have to get over that.

Paisley, thank you for sharing your workspace--it sounds truly lovely. I'm not sure I'd get any work done in a space where I could stare at the mountains all day. I live in New England, which I love, but I regularly visit friends who have a place in the Methow Valley in Washington state, and I just love to sit on their deck and stare at the mountains.

Susan Oleksiw

Anonymous said...

Loved sharing and 'visiting' - my daughter and I have our computers in a back bedroom and it's full - those, our printers, chests with supplies and a file for my manuscripts - our running over bookshelves are the best argument I've ever seen for ebooks-LOL. We're both avid readers.
Anyone who wants more can go to my blog, page, or Amazon.com for profile and list of books. If you visit, please leave a comment, love meeting new readers and writers.
Jackie Griffey

Rebbie Macintyre said...

I love this post, Susan! Thank you! It's a little like being a voyeur, although a harmless one. :) Here's a link to one of my favorite articles about writer's rooms. It has pictures, too!
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/writersrooms

Patricia Stoltey said...

I like that idea of cleaning up the space and making things orderly before starting the next project. I wish I would do that. :)

Susan Oleksiw said...

Hi, Jackie,
I do worry that my books will take over the space and I'll have to move out and start over in another room. But I can't give up all those TBR piles.

Rebbie, thanks for the link. I look forward to spending some time perusing . . . yes, it is a little like being a voyeur.

Hi, Pat, maybe in a future post I'll talk about writers' compulsions. I'm guessing we all have them. Cleaning up after finishing a book is one of mine.

Again, thanks to everyone for commenting. I'm looking forward to learning more about all of you and how you go about your work.

Susan Oleksiw

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan,
I agree that each of us needs our own space. My husband and I share a 20X20 room that we both use as our study.

There's an invisible line across the space, separating His and Hers. Trespass over the line with paper or magazine and you're dead meat. His half is a shambles stacked high with boxes and papers. Mine is neater and contains most of the technical equipment.

We have no problem both working there in the evenings (I'm there much of the day) except for the occasional phone call when one of us leaves the room.

The big dog and two cats pay no heed to lines or vows of silence, and interrupt us from time to time to lighten us up.

BTW I believe that Faulkner's house has a room where he's written out the full outline of the Sound and the Fury in order...on the walls.

Thanks for your interesting post.
Kat Fast

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Susan,

My writing space is very important to me. I also need to be able to see out the window. If I crane my neck just right there's a little sliver of river that I can see. That makes everything all right.

Enjoyed your post.

Maggie Toussaint
On The Nickel

Maryann Miller said...

I have a room in our home that is my office, and it is set up pretty much like an office with a large desk, filing cabinets, bookcases and a small table that accumulates a lot of stuff. It is important to me to have a dedicated space for work, and like Maggie, I think having windows is important. I have two. For a while I worked in a small room that had no windows and I hated it.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I need windows too, just something to turn to so I can refresh myself.

Kat, I don't think I could share my space with someone who was messy when I need to feel I'm neat (note the qualification). You have my admiration.

Susan