Desk-bound or free-range?

I’ve noted in a previous post that some writers, and creators in general, have a preferred time of day for working (Good morning brain). But what about in a preferred – or even required – location?

Listening to an interview with writer Donna Tartt, from a few years ago, this response struck me:

I can write anywhere. I can write curled up in the corner of somebody’s house. I can write on the Madison Avenue bus. All over the place. Always have been able to. In the bathtub… I wrote a lot of Goldfinch in the New York Public Library…”

Tartt also stated that she [would] “…carry a notebook with me wherever I go because if I don’t write it down when I think of it, I’ll never think of it again.” I think most people who write will recognize that, and similarly carry around a notebook and pen, or a device on which to jot ideas when inspiration strikes. I think that’s rather different, though, from actually sitting to write, to concentrate, for a number of hours straight.

Then there are writers who’ve been highly specific about their creative location (and, often, routine). Maya Angelou was known to keep up payment on a spartan hotel room that she could inhabit from early morning, in which she could be alone to focus and write. James Bond author Ian Fleming said the idea for his famous character came to him at his Jamaican estate Goldeneye; thereafter, he wrote all Bond novels at the same desk on the estate.

Jane Austen’s working environment was apparently rather less private as she penned all her novels in the family parlour at Chawton, where she must have been continually interrupted by domestic life going on around her. In Austen’s case, it was perhaps a matter of needs must. We may think, too, for instance, of JK Rowling, who had the initial idea for her Potter books on “a Manchester-London train” and continued much of the earlier drafting in the Elephant House Café in Edinburgh, to avoid the bills that heating her apartment would incur.

However, it’s possible that, like Tartt, Austen had no issues with writing in public spaces – and indeed, 18th-century notions of ‘privacy’ were presumably different from those we have today. Again, this may be akin to the person who is happy – even happiest – to set up their work station in a coffee shop, observing life around them. Technological devices have made the biggest difference here, of course, the modern-day equivalents of the portable writing box.

Lack of options aside, the psychology of why some people prefer specific, dedicated places to work does not seem opaque. For some, there is an association that triggers their work mode, they become anchored to specific places associated with work. Like Angelou, others need peace and isolation in order to concentrate. Then there is a possible correlation with success: as with Fleming, some writers found early success by working in particular place and wish to continue that winning formula. It may become a superstition, like a sports person wearing their lucky shirt or playing under their lucky number.

What about you? Do you need a specific location and environment in which to work, or can you do it anywhere?



Image thanks
Main photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

37 thoughts on “Desk-bound or free-range?

  1. I can work anywhere, but I saw in the Jame Austen museum in Bath her tiny notebook she could cover if anyone came in the room.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that detail. This also makes me think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the practical factors, primarily money, that prevent women having their own space in which to work.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lots of interesting detail, you’re always a thoughtful read Libre Paly. Ok I’m not a prolific writer but I enjoyed challenging myself for an hour or two. A post would begin on the morning commute to work, I’d jot down sentences and ideas that came to mind, then once at home I’d write the post in COMPLETE silence, NO distractions…………..appears I’m not a very good multitasker!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am a ‘train jotter’, too. Or was! Should finally be back in the office soon. I think it’s more individual preference than multi-tasking, though. I wonder how we’ll all work in a more irregular, hot-desking type of environment.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Apart from the three months ‘house arrest’ last Spring I’ve worked right through, as of today workshop technicians are still the only Staff on campus, everyone else on the Group, admin and academics are working from home……..but as the months have passed by I’m getting the sense most of them are enjoying the new way of working a little tooo much! Still good luck LP 🙂 and I’m sure you’ll do just fine.

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        1. Thank you. We’re back next month – feel oddly apprehensive. Sure we’ll all soon get back into the swing of it.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I was more than apprehensive if that helps… 🙂 but it sooon passes.

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  3. Hello. How are you? There are five rooms in my house that I write in. And occasionally I write in places outside my house. I like variety!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That sounds wonderful, different rooms for different moods. I liked Tartt’s comparison of setting up to write outside / on the go with artists who set up their easels in the open air.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. AnYWHeRE
    i AM i Dance
    i Sing

    A Story
    With
    All
    That
    Comprises
    BreatH And
    Never Ever

    With

    Copy

    Right

    Concerns

    Finger

    Print i Am😊🎼

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This sounds wonderfully liberating. Art and creativity bound up with life.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks For
        The Inspiration
        my FRiEnD librepaley🙌😊

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I can write anywhere on anything.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That creative urge sounds wonderful, to be able to tap in any time.

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  6. Optimally, I need privacy and silence to write…a room with no distractions. I have a bad back, and sitting in an office chair can sometimes cause it to flare up. When that happens, I write in my comfortable recliner in the living room, ear buds in listening to classical music on Pandora to drown out the TV and my husband. 😆

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think working to music versus silences is a whole topic on its own. There’s the ‘drowning out’ effect, and some people say it makes them more productive. Perhaps it’s the mood-altering effects, or the rhythm.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. When listening to music, I can’t concentrate on forming my own words, but know it works for some people.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I have something similar – I can listen to music, but nothing with singing.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Michael Graeme Aug 26, 2021 — 10:23 am

    I have a fantasy about a quiet writing room, or a garden room where no one else is allowed. I’ll have a desk and a plain chair, and view of hills and mountains. The desk will have nothing on it but a notebook and my laptop, hobbled so it cannot get the internet. And I shall look up spellings from the Oxford English dictionary, like we used to do in the olden days. I will disappear in there and days might pass, and no one will mind or notice, and I shall not be interrupted.

    In practice though, sharing a house with others, interruptions are frequent and inevitable. I have a nice desk in a corner of my living room, but it gets dumped on with all sorts of stuff, and none of it mine. In any case one is too exposed at the desk, victim of the casual remark, which never-the-less derails the train of thought. So I move around, setting up sometimes here, sometimes there. I’m writing in the summer house in the garden at the moment, and all I can hear is a chain-saw. I have to be adaptable. And patient.

    When the creative mood takes me it has to coincide with the opportunity, which is sporadic, but somehow the writing gets done. The pocketbook is a good idea, because those killer lines do have a habit of coming at the most inappropriate of times, and I do have one, but I never have it on me when I need it. Unlike the professional though, I’m not to deadlines, so – if at times frustrating – a chaotic work pattern doesn’t matter. If it was my living, I’d have to be more disciplined. Set time and place, set hours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a wonderful fantasy place, like the ultimate writers’ retreat.
      Your actual situation sounds a bit like mine: I have an office but it’s for use by all, homework, piano lessons – and yes, every flat service in this house offers itself as a handy dumping ground. There is a big plus for the amateur in no externally imposed deadlines, but we cannot necessarily give in to any creative urges either.
      The Guardian did a series on Writers’ Rooms some years ago – Maggie Gee’s looks relatably messy https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/mar/14/writers-room-maggie-gee

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      1. Michael Graeme Aug 27, 2021 — 9:12 am

        And she had tidied it for the photograph. All the same, it looks a wonderful, comfortable room, and full of the writer’s personality. I have wondered idly in the past about eliminating flat surfaces, making them pointy, so stuff can’t settle on them.

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  8. I like to write at my desk. I can get into the zone there. I am not good at writing in other places

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am a bit the same – I can jot and make notes ‘on the go’ but not write. It would be good to be more flexible!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know…but if I can’t be in the right headspace….bleh…

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  9. This is such a fascinating topic, Libre. I think psychologists call this familiar place and ritual state-dependent memory. For some of us, a beginning ritual helps us ease into the writing. A designated place can bring that about for me. I also find that certain rituals like getting the tea ready, lighting a candle and playing my favorite instrumental medley softly help my brain recognize: “Oh, it’s writing time now. Time to get to work!”

    I am completing my first book (fingers crossed that I’ll release it in October). I have a tendency to sit in the same room facing the same direction on my card table in my office that is set up temporarily each day and then put away at the end of the day. Oddly when I’m working on other tasks in that same room, I seem to feel the need to turn toward different direction. I can’t do my budgeting while facing that same direction, so have to move my chair to a different side side and turn 90 degrees or more. Not sure why that is, but it seems like it might “spoil” or confuse the writing space to do other things there.

    It’s different when I’m editing. I seem to be able to edit anywhere and everywhere. In fact editing can be easier for me when I am not in the same place as where the words pour out. I’m learning to edit online but I have to admit I’m old fashioned about that when it comes to manuscripts and I kill lots of trees by printing drafts every 2-4 weeks or so. I’d better start planting some to make up for it… 😉

    Love this topic especially in light of the “hot desking” that may be more prevalent in the future (once the threats of the Delta variant might be quelled – hey people, get your vaccines…).

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    1. Thanks for the insights! I love understanding the psychological aspects of creativity and motivation. The ‘beginning ritual’ is very recognisable – for creating and for daily life – the morning coffee, organising of notebooks, etc.
      I’ve been trying music (nothing with words), which I have found helps distract me from displacement activity – checking emails, etc.
      Personally, I can write notes and jot ideas anywhere, but not edit very well – perhaps I associate it with discipline. I think more hot-desking and sitting in a different place each time could be a challenge to concentration when we go back on campus – until we get used to it.

      Best wishes for completion of your book – very exciting!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I can write anywhere I’m in at the house, in a crowded room, in the kitchen while cooking (those ideas that have to be written else forgotten), in a quiet bedroom, outside on the balcony. I haven’t tried writing anywhere else though. I don’t need a specific place or time, but I do need to be left alone 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am the same – distractions are the issue. Not easy with children, I know 🙂

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  11. It has to be really quiet, and I seem to flow better when it’s on my laptop.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The ‘weapon of choice’ is an interesting matter. I wonder if there’s more of an intimacy with a laptop.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think so. I can close it when people walk in the room. It takes more effort to see what’s on my screen. I’d never thought about it, but yes, it’s more intimate.

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  12. Isolation and peace… But so difficult with husband working from home 😅🤣

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I sympathise – in lockdown, so many homes became offices. Returning to the office has its challenges, but going there a couple of times a week has been surprisingly welcome.

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  13. I like the new York public library. Very much. It was my office of sorts late’79, when I was looking for a job in New York.
    Where do I write? In my head. I write almost in my head first. Opening. Conclusion. Main line of story. Dialogues. Only for a novel do I write a plan. List of chapters. No more. I don’t take notes. And once it’s finished my head I sit down to write. Anywhere, but mostly in my library.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. NYPL sounds wonderful, and what an extraordinary building. Though I have been to NYC a couple of times, I have to confess we didn’t fir it into the itinerary.
      The point about ‘writing in your head’ is a great one – I find the notebook essential though, before an idea is lost (though having said that, I the ideas often look less good when written down 🙂 )

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The building is grand. And the phone booths downstairs were great. Isolated, good seats, a place to write telephones and appointments. Then I could go to the main library, grab a book, read a little… A great office.
        It all depends on how one’s memory works. I remember a few students who would sit at the back and never take a note and remember everything. Cheeky bastards.
        I used to take a lot notes. At school, or in business. Curiously I found I didn’t have to look back at my notes. The mere fact of writing had stored it in my memory… weird…

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