My parents recently surprised me with a wonderful gift: a beautiful leather office chair. Though I do all of my writing on my laptop (it’s easy to carry around so I can create a workspace nearly anywhere), I have found that I am much more productive when working in my room at my desk. Naturally, this new chair was the perfect addition to my little writing office.
Every writer needs a tranquil, comfortable place where he or she can retreat to, a private laboratory to experiment with new ideas and plan out new projects. The other day I was looking through the photos of the workplaces of a number of famous authors. They were all unique; some were large and sprawling while others were cramped and disorderly. But all of them shared five important characteristics that seemed essential when creating an inspiring workspace. Read on to discover these five important traits and how you too can create your own writing laboratory.
1. Your Workspace Should be Far from Distractions
In the summertime, Mark Twain and his family loved to travel to Elmira, New York to stay with his wife’s sister, Susan, at Quarry Farm. Susan built Twain a little study removed from the main house so Twain would have a quiet place to work. Designed in the shape of a Victorian gazebo, this little house saw the first drafts of several of Twain’s most famous creations, including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. In a letter to a friend, Twain wrote,
It is the loveliest study you ever saw…octagonal with a peaked roof, each face filled with a spacious window…perched in complete isolation on the top of an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills. It is a cozy nest and just room in it for a sofa, table, and three or four chairs, and when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lightning flashes behind the hills beyond and the rain beats upon the roof over my head—imagine the luxury of it.
To another friend, he rhapsodized, “On hot days I spread the study wide open, anchor my papers down with brickbats and write in the midst of the hurricanes, clothed in the same thin linen we make shirts of…The Study is 30 yards below the old arbor and 100 yards above the dwelling-house—it is remote from all noises.”
Twain wasn’t the only one who relished the solitude of a writing sanctuary. One Christmas, a friend of Charles Dickens gifted the famous writer with the pieces of a pre-fabricated Swiss chalet in fifty-eight boxes. Dickens wrote, “It will really be a very pretty thing, and in the summer (supposing it not to be blown away in the spring), the upper room will make a charming study. It is much higher than we supposed.” An architect helped Dickens assemble the chalet at his country home Gads Hill, and the top floor did indeed become his personal study. It was there that he worked on many of his novels, and where he died while working on his unfinished manuscript of Edwin Drood.
Not all of us have the luxury of owning acres of land where we can assemble a writing hut or a writing chalet (I certainly don’t), but the workspaces of Dickens and Twain emphasize the importance of a distraction free environment, the importance of converting a space in one’s house that can be used exclusively for writing.
2. Your workspace should have a desk and comfortable chair
Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck observed, “In a mood of faith and hope my work goes on. A ream of fresh paper lies on my desk waiting for the next book. I am a writer and I take up my pen to write.”
In every one of the photos of famous writers’ workplaces, a desk was a prominent feature. Some desks were small and others were quite large and solidly built. But regardless of the shape or size, it seems that a desk was an important part of the writing process. I personally have found that I become much more focused on my work when I am at my desk. Since I only sit at my desk when I am working on my writing projects, my brain knows that it should get to work as soon I am stationed there, and I am less tempted to procrastinate.
Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, who suffered from Lupus, noted, “I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”
The importance of a comfortable chair cannot be overstated. If you are writing at your desk for hours, having good posture is paramount. Back pain is certainly not very inspiring.
3. Your workspace should be filled with natural light
Another prominent feature of nearly every writer’s workspace was a large window (or several windows) bathing the room in sunlight. This fascinating article explains how artificial light causes drowsiness and can wreak havoc with our melatonin levels. Natural light, on the other hand, awakens a room, energizing us and stimulating creativity.
Some writers like to place their desk right in front of the window, but others can find this a tad bit distracting as they end up gazing out the window rather than focusing on their work. My desk faces one wall of my room with a window directly behind me on the opposite wall. I open the blinds, and the soft gray light of morning pours across my keyboard. As the writer Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea, mused, “I sit at my window and the words fly past me like birds — with God’s help I catch some.”
4. Your workspace should be surrounded by books
Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur, once wrote,
I know what I should love to do – to build a study; to write, and to think of nothing else. I want to bury myself in a den of books. I want to saturate myself with the elements of which they are made, and breathe their atmosphere until I am of it. Not a bookworm, being which is to give off no utterances; but a man in the world of writing – one with a pen that shall stop men to listen to it, whether they wish to or not.
Wallace was not the only writer who dreamed of a den of books. Many of the writers’ studies in the photos I browsed through had floor to ceiling bookcases or stacks of books on their desk or even piled on the floor. I wonder if this was simply a reflection of the time they lived in: an age before computers when research had to be done by hand, leafing through the pages of thick tomes.
However, there is a lot to be said for the inspirational quality that books bring to a room. If you are trying to write your first novel or even just an essay for school, those books on your bookshelf stand for what you can one day achieve: your own name on the cover of a book.
There are also times when words escape me as I stare into the overwhelming whiteness of a blank Word document. I get up from my desk and away from my computer, go to my bookcase and select a random title, and hope that a writer who lived hundreds of years ago will be able to inspire me.
5. Your workspace should reflect your personality
As I wrote at the beginning of this post, the writers’ studies in each of the photos were unique. Some were very neat and minimalistic while others were quite disorderly.
I tend to like a cluttered desk (all of the little knickknacks feed my creativity), but I know several people who find a tidier workspace less distracting. Ultimately, there is no hard and fast rule over how you should decorate and organize your workspace. Once you have chosen your writing sanctuary, placed your desk and chair near the window, and stocked the place with your favorite books, you are good to go. It’s up to you to then make that space uniquely your own: to fill it with the things that will inspire and encourage you.
In the end, no matter how perfect your writing space is, no matter if you buy yourself the most expensive chair or build yourself a Swiss chalet, it’s up to you to pick up the pen and start writing. In his memoir, Stephen King observes, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
What does your writing workspace look like? What are you planning to write today? If you enjoyed this post, leave a comment below and share with someone you would like to inspire.