(image courtesy of Arek Socha via pixabay.com)
I like to think I can write anywhere, and I often have: backstage between cues with a flashlight, on trains (I love writing on trains), planes, in cars, in parks, at the beach, in libraries, in restaurants, in hotel rooms, in museums.
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But I also like to have a dedicated creative space/home office in which to create.
When I lived in New York City, I often wrote in coffee shops or in libraries. Part of that was most NYC apartments are fairly small and claustrophobic, even if one lives alone. I felt overwhelmed by chores at home, so I left in order to work.
Now that I have more control over my life and schedule, that’s not as much of an issue. I can create a space that works for me on both creative and practical levels.
What do you need to work?
As a writer, all I really need is a pen and paper. A computer is a convenience that turns into a necessity to make a living at this, but I still write a good deal in longhand, so if I don’t have access to a computer, I’m fine with just pen and paper.
That’s the baseline. From there, I can build.
Both on Cape Cod and here in the Berkshires, I set up my home office/writing room in what was the dining room of the space. I have a desk positioned so I can look out of the window as I work. I like lots of natural light.
On the Cape, this was an issue. My office was on the ground floor, at the front of the house. Door-to-door salesmen and religious missionaries were a common aspect of life, even though I had a strongly worded “No Solicitation” sign up on the door that included religion. But they continued to stop by whenever they wanted, even during the start of the pandemic (and always unmasked white men) and pound on the door.
I ignored them.
They kept pounding.
I kept ignoring.
Then, they would walk across the flower beds to the window of my office and pound on the window, making faces and threatening gestures to me. Like that would make it more likely for me to allow them access.
I would tell them to go away.
They’d refuse, and keep pounding on the window (I’m surprised the windows never shattered).
I’d call the cops.
The cops would come and talk to them. They’d argue. The cops would point out the sign. The intruders would argue some more. The cops would chase them away.
By then, I’d lost my writing day.
This was a regular occurrence, not an unusual one.
Where I live now, I’m on the second floor back to front with my office window on the side of the building. Door-to-door isn’t much of a thing here (except sometimes for religious missionaries). They go away when I don’t answer, because the neighbors’ dogs let them know Strangers Are Not Welcome.
I get much more work done.
Anyway, within the space, I have my desk so I can look out of the window. I know there are writers, such as Annie Dillard, who say they prefer a blank wall, but I like a window. I have an excellent task lamp, in case I’m working at night or on dreary days. I have a wall calendar where I can just look up and see it. I have my printers to my right, in easy reach. The big laser printer sits on a set of file cabinets that have completed project files in the top drawers and business files in the bottom. I have multiple bookcases in the room (not as many as in the Cape office, but I’m working on it). I have a reading corner near the window with a rocking chair, a small table, and a footstool. In the middle of the room, I have a 6 foot padded table that used to house the microfilm and microfiche machines on Cape (they are in storage at the moment). I use the table to spread out projects. I have plants, I have crystals, I have a wide variety of decorations that mean something to me. I have a bookcase filled with printer paper, specialty papers, blank notebooks, file folders, etc. I have a rolling cart with sketchbooks, pens, a 3 hole punch, staplers, envelopes, and all those other bits and pieces.
I do a lot of my reading in my reading corner or on the couch in the living room or, in good weather, out on the front porch or back balcony. I’ll also read up at the lake or at one of the parks, again, weather permitting, either using a camp chair or lounging on a blanket.
I tend to be a “nester” so any place that I spend a good deal of time: my desk, the rocking chair in my reading corner, various reading chairs around the house – tend of have stacks of books next to them, relevant to what I gravitate toward when I’m in the space. I have to give myself reminders every few weeks to sort through and put away what’s been used, so I’m not living in a series of book forts.
The big thing I have in my space are the Project Bins.
If you’ve ever read Twyla Tharp’s THE CREATIVE HABIT, you will be familiar with Project Bins. She uses hers as part of her archive (which will someday be part of a larger arts archive with access) as well as her creative process.
I use pretty boxes or milk crates for my bins. The bins contain my research folders and any books I pull from my home library. I usually keep library books stacked separately, so they don’t get mixed in and miss getting back to the library on time.
Let’s say I’m researching a piece set in the Gilded Age of New York City. The project bin will hold the files that have the printed copies of my notes and Writer’s Rough outline, and any research printouts, a couple of notebooks or yellow pads, and the file with the bibliographic notes in it. I’ll go through my bookshelves and pull out any relevant books of photos, history, social history, clothing, manners, diaries, or letters. If I buy other books in the course of the research, they go in there, too. As my folders expand, those go in there: sketches, photographs, maps. If music is relevant to the piece, I’ll add CDs that have music. If my characters work in or attend theatre, I’ll track down volumes of the plays that were running at the time, and read those.
All of that goes into the bin. Sometimes, it might take more than one bin.
The great thing about having everything together is that, when I need to look something up, it’s probably in the bin. And, if I decide to write somewhere else – say at a residency, or just rent a motel room or a cabin for a bit to write elsewhere – all of the material is together. I just load the bin into the car, take the bin out of the car when I get there, and I have my research information.
This gets more complicated if I travel to a residency, etc. and don’t go by car. Then, I have to rely on my kindle and scanned documents, and the minimum of what I can easily carry.
When I’m finished with a project (as in, it’s almost release day), I unpack the bin and put everything away. Files go into the appropriate file box or file drawer. Books go back into their slots on the shelves. Books acquired during the process need to find a spot on the shelves.
That way, the next time I need the material for a project, it’s there. It might be the next book in the series. It might be a different project to which the previous research was relevant.
But I can get to it when I need it.
Because libraries weed so often and archives can be destroyed or go unfunded, I tend to keep historical material in my own library. I get frustrated when I’ve used a book from a library, need again, and discover it’s been weeded.
In other words, any space I live/work in has a lot of books. I have A LOT of books (several thousand) in storage right now. Someday, I will live in a place where I can unpack all my books.
I used to bring as little as possible with me to residencies and use the energy of being somewhere different, but too often, I couldn’t settle in to the new space until it was nearly time to leave.
When I was on the road with shows, sometimes we’d have a sit down in a hotel for a month or so; other times it might just be a single night or a few nights. In either case, it was hard to settle. I wrote even when I was out on tour, although it wasn’t as much or as focused as when I wasn’t on the road. I found the steadiness of showing up at the page helped center me in the other work.
In order to settle, I’ve started to take some familiar things that let me relax into it being creative space. It’s usually as simple as a few batiks rolled up in the suitcase that I can drape over a chair or a table, some crystals, a couple of comfort books, a tarot deck, my journal, and my travel yoga mat. If I have workspace separate from sleeping space, I’ll usually bring a few things to warm up a studio space, or, if it’s a theatre space, I have my kit, usually some festive fabric, and a candy jar with wrapped chocolates to share. A friend of mine always travels with her own pillows, both for the bed, and throw pillows for a couch or chair. Another friend travels with a cashmere throw.
When I arrive in a new place, I spend a few minutes getting the feel of it before I start unpacking. The first day or so, I move things until they feel right. It’s an organic feng shui. How can I arrange the space best to support what I’m going to do here?
It’s all small, simple, removable changes. If possible, I often add a vase of fresh flowers, and I’ll pick up a few simple items that are specific to the area, and that I will take with me as tokens of remembrance.
This makes the space MINE while still being a fresh inspiration, and then I can settle and create in it. I want to celebrate what’s different about it and use it to support my creativity, but if it’s too stark and sleek, it flattens my inspiration. I try to find a balance that works for that particular situation, and every space is a little different. Which is part of what makes each residency or tour stop a unique experience. Setting each space up in the exact same way would mean I didn’t need to leave the home space in the first place.
Part of the fun of working in a different environment is using what’s different in order to spur creativity. Even by bringing in things to make it easier to claim the space, I don’t try to recreate my home space OR any previous space. I want the space to be unique to the project and these moments in time.
How do you arrange your space? How far is your actual space from your ideal space? What small steps can you take to bring the two closer together?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
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