The Happy Booker would not be happy to reveal the contents of her writing desk right now, if she could find her writing desk under the piles of books, rough (and rougher) first drafts, shopping lists, and the random strange assortment of imperative notes with capitalized urgency—Field Trip PERMISSION SLIP!—currently residing amid the staggeringly high stacks of paper and other school supply-ish detritus (paperclip bracelets, chewed pencils and bookishly themed paperweights) around here. Yeah, it’s a mess. But it’s an organized mess, as we like to tell visitors who look shocked and appalled when they get a gander at the space.
If you came looking for more aesthetically pleasing writing desks, try these arresting images by Eder Chiodetto, who has photographed an amazing collection of well-known Brazilian authors and their desks here. Click on the main image to get started. (via Carrie, at TingleAlley).
If you came here looking for some good writing about writing spaces, you’ve come to the right place. It’s Roxana Robinson day at THB, and since Randy Cohen and his legal team have not stepped forward to stop us, and since we’ve had a blizzard of emails about this essay, we’re going to run with it. (If we end up spending time in the pen, please start perfecting your cake-baking-with-file-filling skills now.)
Roxana Robinson is the author of three novels , three short story collections, and a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. Her writing has been compared to John Cheever’s, by The New York Times, and to Edith Wharton’s, by Time Magazine. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and The Atlantic. Her stories have appeared often in Best American Short Stories, and have been broadcast on National Public Radio. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review and Travel Section.
Her latest book, A Perfect Stranger: And Other Stories , has earned raves from Alice Munro (..."you'll come out of it feeling grateful, deeply stirred, seriously happy") and Joyce Carol Oates ("heartrending and illuminating"). And today she’s appearing on The Happy Booker. Yeah, I know, don’t say it. And for the record, this wonderful essay makes me want to be a better housekeeper.
Writing Spaces, By Roxana Robinson
When I began to write full-time, I set myself up in the narrow guest room on the third floor. I sat at the small desk my husband had used as a child, and, leaning over my typewriter – it was that long ago – I had to be careful not to bump my head against the eaves, which came down quite sharply. There was no phone in that room, and, since it was a guest room, a bed and bureau took up most of the space.
When I began writing the biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, my husband gave me, as a birthday present, a renovation of the top of the garage, as my study, and a copy of “A Room of One’s Own.”
My new study was a long airy room – though still with sloping eaves. It had a big dormer window, where my desk was, and low bookshelves on three walls, interrupted by file cabinets. I had, it seemed, an infinite amount of space. My books and manuscripts and articles fit into the shelves, my stories and articles and novel drafts and correspondence were in the files. I had a big soft club chair, dark red plush, to drop into when I needed to read. I had a CD player, and a stack of elegant tapes. Against one wall was a small sturdy wooden chair, painted green, like the bookshelves.
My dog Lacey slept on the rug while I wrote, and when I was concentrating she was utterly silent. At first, in my elegant new study, I used to play classical music as I wrote. I soon stopped, though, because I learned that as soon as I began to write the music faded from my consciousness. Later, I only knew that it had been on at all when I noticed the red point of light on the CD player, and I’d realize that the whole of Tosca had been pouring out its passionate soul and carrying itself out to its heartbreaking conclusion while I’d been living inside chapter six.
But during the times when I was restless and distracted, and could not write, then I left the desk, and put on an Emmylou Harris tape. I laid the wooden chair down on the floor, on its side, and pushed the book boxes into a course, and I made Lacey gallop round it, jumping over the obstacles. Lacey was a great and gallant jumper, and a very good-natured dog, but she hated jumping my courses. She thought the whole thing was insane, though to please me she hurtled wildly over the jumps, her eyes rolling, her mouth open, deliberately jumping sloppily and off-centered, as Emmylou crooned “Blue Kentucky Girl.” It made her a little crazy, and at the end she’d whirl and bounce, wagging and manic. I thought the whole thing was wonderful. It was stupid, but it was exciting, and it was a good way to get through the times I couldn’t write.
The desk in my new study came from the barn. When my husband’s parents died, a lot of their furniture had come to us. Much of it had been stored in the hayloft, which was huge, and full of shadows and the soft murmur of bats. When I took over my study, I went out to the barn and chose, from the huddled mass of furniture, a big partner’s desk. I had it brought over during the renovation, and it was so big that it just barely went up the staircase. Once in, though, it fit perfectly in the long dormer window which overlooked the willow trees, and the driveway. The desk was oak, with a long flat top, and drawers on either side. I set up my computer on it, put my paper clips in the drawers, and felt like a real writer.
When I proudly showed the new study to a friend, pointing out the spiffy painted bookshelves, the built-in file cabinets and the handsome carpeting, she looked at the desk and said, “You know that’s ours.”
Stunned, I said, “It is?”
“Yes. You know, we’re storing some of our furniture in your barn. That desk belonged to my uncle.”
It was too late to do anything. By then the desk couldn’t be removed without either destroying it or the staircase. So for years I’ve sat at the uncle’s desk, leaning my elbow on his sliding shelf, spreading my papers across his surface, feeling slightly guilty whenever I think of my theft.
The desk has become more of an issue now, because I’m leaving it.
The house has been sold, and now the study, and the tall willows outside my window, with their soft, graceful, pale chartreuse tresses, all belong to someone else. The study will probably become an exercise room – the new owners aren’t writers. I don’t know what they’ll do about the desk, and I don’t want to learn. I hope they don’t cut it up with a chain saw.
My dog Lacey died in February. She’ll never race around the stupid course to Emmylou Harris again, wild, wagging, silly. I won’t hear the familiar opening movements of Tosca - the only ones I know - as I open up chapter eight, in that room, at that desk.
I’ll have another study, somewhere else. I’ll start other books there. It will be serene and airy, I hope. I won’t mind if there are sloping eaves. I’ll buy a desk. And wherever it is, when I’m in it I’ll sink down into that place – silent, interior, private – which is the real, the only place you need to be to write.