A clean, well-lighted place

HuntingtonofficeFriends, I’ve never truly appreciated the wisdom of Ernest Hemingway until this week, after having moved into my own clean, well-lighted office at the Huntington Library.  My office at Baa Ram U. serves mostly as a place to meet students and colleagues, and to shovel out my email in-box–I don’t write there.  Ever.  I did most of the writing and revisions on my first book while reclining on the couch in my office, and wondered if I’d be able to work sitting up at a desk like a fully-functional adult.

But from day 1 here, I’ve been writing!  My book!  And contemplating revisions on an article, too!  I’ve learned that I’ve overlooked too long this marvelous technology one calls a “desk.”  My desk at home is too frequently covered in stuff I’ve been meaning to file or put away, and the cat likes to nap on the desk chair when she’s not sitting on the desk looking out the window at the squirrels and bunnies frolicking under the horse chestnut tree, so I use it as a combination unfile-cabinet and cat bed/lookout perch.  I know:  what a waste of a nice old desk.

I’m sure that part of my productivity is due to the tidiness of an empty office, too.  Perhaps part of it is just that it’s a new space, one in which I’m not burdened by psychic or material reminders of all of the other stuff in my life I to which I really should attend.  In any case, my empty and so far super-productive office here at the Huntington is making me more determined than ever to do a major repainting, reorganizing, and reconfiguration of my home office space.

After all, book #3 isn’t going to write itself without a little spark of inspiration.  What have you done in the past to make your work environment more productive, and/or what do you want to do to your current space?

13 thoughts on “A clean, well-lighted place

  1. Looking good, Historiann!

    I don’t have a desk at home. Well, there’s a desk in the basement where my printer and router reside, along with a medley of office supplies but I can’t sit there or work there so, no. My home office is my end table.

    I’d love to dedicate one shelf of the bookshelves that flank that corner to my teaching paraphenalia: folders of marking, books from which I’m teaching. I think you’ve inspired me!


  2. My work spaces *always* get stratified with bureaucratica and academica and the (very) occasional ritz crackers package that I forget to toss. But clean and new is always great, and I’m sure it correlates with a burst of energy and productivity. I found a good– condition discarded bookshelf on the street near my house last week that miraculously solved a “storage” problem that was on the verge of getting land-slidey.
    Or “Collyer Mansion” level 3, to use a time-specific cultural reference my father used to invoke that I had to wait for the Internet to know what it even referred to! Don’t let it get that bad at your new shack!


  3. In my experience, it’s the simple fact that you are not under either your own roof or the roof of your home institution that energizes the productive writing. I spend three or four days per month at another institution as a visiting scholar, and when I am there, I write like a motherfucker. I think it’s because at your own home, there’s all kinds of things that are yours to distract you, and at your home institution, your mindset is primed to revert to teaching duties, administrative narishkeit, etc. Even when I’m at home, if I really need to write, I go down to our building lobby and sit at a nice table we have down there.


  4. Janice & Indyanna–Jill Lepore says that she carries one great big L.L. Bean canvas tote around her house from room to room, depending on pets & her need for caffeine. That might be a solution to the tidiness and organization issue.

    CPP hits on why both the home and campus offices can be very distracting, and why a mostly empty space is conducive to concentrating the mind. Here, I don’t have laundry, children, dirty dishes, carping colleagues, needy students, etc. I always threaten to check into a hotel when I need to write something–maybe I really should do it sometime. (In fact, I just ran into a friend who says she gets some of her best writing done while in hotels.)

    Brian, you could look at the motion detector in your office as feature and not a bug. You know what they say now–“sitting is the new smoking!”–so if your writing and thinking are sufficiently sedate so as to make your sensor think there’s no one at your desk, the lights going out will be a reminder to stand up, take a break, get a drink of water, walk around a little, visit the library, do a yoga pose, etc.

    (If sitting really is “the new smoking,” then I feel cheated. Since when does sitting in a chair seem as fun or as cool as a cigarette? We truly live in a diminished age if having a seat is construed as some kind of indulgence.)


  5. As a visiting / resident and over-all academic smart-person, do you get to wander round the gardens and galleries whenever you want? Because that sounds like it would be fun.


  6. Maya Angelou checked into a hotel on a daily basis to write. Here is a link to her interview with the Paris Review: http://goo.gl/dscYeY

    When I go dry, I say goodbye to husband and dog and spend a few days at our little hunting cabin that is located so way the hell out and gone in the middle of nowhere that if I mention the location, even North Carolinians born and bred say “huh?” When we bought this place, we decided to insist on basic. No fancy shit. Most of the kitchen stuff is from Dollar General. It is perfect. I am here now.


  7. Space makes so much of a difference! Last year I had a desk of my own while on a library fellowship and my experience was similar. I banged out a really rough draft of my dissertation in eight months. (My writing process is quantity first, quality second, so revising and polishing is taking almost as long. But it was still a good start.)

    I have no idea how I’m going to keep that up this year, since I can’t work at home effectively and can’t leave a lot of useful materials at a library carrel, so everyone’s tips will be helpful. Having a desk like that is beautiful while it lasts!


  8. That looks like a great writing spot, Historiann, and the Huntington is a perfect place for it.

    I work best in a library carrel or away-from-home study, but since I don’t have that any more, I’m getting more done at home.

    Right now my favorite item is a red pencil. I’m revising chapters now and usually print out a version to mark up with a pen. The problem was that I’d get interrupted and forget which pages I had done. Now when I’ve finished putting in a page of revisions, I slash across the page with the red pencil to show that it’s done. It has really helped me to see that I’m making progress.


  9. @ Brian: I once moved into a new office much like Historiann’s (save for a less-cool chair) in an East Coast humanities think tank in a brand new building. The Famous Architect ™ had installed motion detector lights keyed to the cognitive functions of high-frequency stock traders; like your mouse-hand is programmed to sense hourly rain gauge levels in Brazil. A twenty minute cycle of lights on/off would have seemed like a fellowship unto itself. People developed all sorts of quirky, twitchy joint kinetics sitting at their desks to trick the lights into thinking you were buying and selling coffee (in shipload-sized lots!!), but it never worked. One (pregnant) fellow even tumbled over backwards trying to mime the onset of a stunning idea. At that point the mothership institution (probably advised by its general counsel) said, roughly, “all right, screw it, we’ll rip out the state of the art sensors and put in legacy lighting…” They might have even lost out on LEED certification to allow the non-nano ideas to trickle onto the page.


  10. And Saurs: yes, I am free to wander the grounds and museums at will when I’m at a loss for inspiration (or when I need a solar recharge to recover from the hyper-air-conditioning in the library. I’m the only person at the cafe who sits in the sun for lunch because I’m so cold!)

    Yesterday, I decided to visit a museum instead of having lunch, and was able to get through only one floor of one museum in 45 minutes. This place is starting to seriously blow my mind.

    Anonymous Grad: more & better desks are in your future if you can write like that. I’ve become partial to the “$hitty first drafts” theory of writing myself. The more you write, the more you write, I always say.

    Dorothy’s cabin apparently has the internets, something that many writers find actually saps their attention and stamina! I’ll have to rent it out sometime. . .


  11. Pingback: The WAWH is coming to Denver! | Historiann

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