Write Place, Write Time

If you look at anything long enough, say just that wall in front of you -- it will come out of that wall.
- Anton Chekhov

Sarah McCoy

My writing office is a loft at the top of the stairs. It’s a small area that lets me see and hear everything that’s going on in the house—my perch in the tree. It’s a basic space. I didn’t spend years or even hours dreaming of what it would look like. I wrote my first novel in the living room of a small apartment over a bakery where I shared the couch with my husband and nightly ESPN marathons. Pre-Wi-Fi, I had all kinds of Ethernet cables choking me while I balanced my laptop on my knees and tried to ignore the roar of stadium crowds. So when we moved to El Paso, having any quiet area to call my own was a luxury. 

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I got the desk first. A real desk! Being able to sit up straight did wonders for my writer’s hunchback. I keep the shawl my Puerto Rican grandma crocheted for me on my chair. To my right is my reading stack. To my left is a photo of my husband and me in Garmisch, Germany.

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Behind me are bookcases. We’ve got other bookcases in our house, but this is where I keep the books I reach for most often. As you can see, it’s packed. I have Jenga piles forming around the base. 

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At my feet is Gilbert. He keeps me company with frequent furry foot massages. 

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In front of me is a view of the Franklin Mountains. The sky is nearly always blue and the only oak tree I have ever seen in El Paso is rooted right outside, big and leafy. It calls to mind the woods behind my family home in Virginia. The concrete path just beyond is the Rio Grande. This window is one of my favorite parts of my office. It reminds me how big the world is outside my little nest. 

Sarah McCoy is author of the novels THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER (Crown, 1/24/12) and THE TIME IT SNOWED IN PUERTO RICO. She has taught writing courses at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She currently lives with her husband and pup in El Paso where she is working on her next novel. For more information, email www.sarahmccoy.com or tweet her @SarahMMcCoy.

Manuel Munoz

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I tend to write mostly at night, but because it’s summer and very hot during the day in Tucson, I try to work during the morning so I can visit with friends in the evening. This is my desk, which is upstairs. The blue folder to the left is my tactic for the summer: write what I can, then print it out and place it in the folder for the next day. Reread it before even opening the file on the computer. Very tiny steps. 

Above the desk are my diplomas. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, so I’m very proud of them. In the middle is the nifty certificate I got for winning a PEN/O. Henry Award a few years ago. I look up at it when I feel like the writing isn’t going well (which is often). At the bottom left is one of two watercolor prints given to me by the late poet A. R. Ammons, which will someday be framed. 

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Another reason I’m more likely to write in the day is the quality of the light. I love the light in my place. It’s very different from the cramped, dark little bedroom I had when I lived in New York City.   

I try to keep my desk clear of books, but you can see where I’m starting to set aside a stash of books on the shelves downstairs. On deck: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Katherine Larson’s Radial Symmetry, Troy Jollimore’s At Lake Scugog, Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women, Annie Ernaux’sThings Seen, and C. D. Wright’s One with Others. (I’m a closet poetry reader.)

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Reading is writing—that’s what one of my mentors, Ken McClane, told me all the time.   

This little sofa goes by a couple of names—the Red Blood Cell, the Cuddle Couch—and is the coveted spot when friends come over. Mostly though, it’s where I read at night. Right now, I’m in the middle of Alan Heathcock’s Volt, which I’m reading at the same time as a writer friend of mine, so we can talk about it over the phone next time we chat.

Manuel Muñoz is the author of two short-story collections.  His first novel, What You See in the Dark, was published this spring.  He teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Lynne Griffin

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This room without a door—through which you have to pass to get to our screened-in porch—is where I spend more hours than I care to count writing my novels. It’s affectionately called Boston. When my children were little and interruptions unremitting, I sat them down one day and told them some parents drive to Boston to a job while others work from home, but both deserve the same respect. No more coming in to ask what’s for dinner or will you get bunny food the next time you go shopping. These things can wait till my work is done. My son was the one with the bright idea that I should tell them I was going to “Boston” before I started writing so they’d know not to bother me except for emergencies. Though what constitutes an urgent request when you’re in elementary school is a subject for another blog.

There’s a comfy couch for early morning reading. A number of bookcases line the walls housing my favorite novels, books on craft, and resources for my works-in-progress. Behind me is a shelf of keepsakes. A copy of Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life sweetly given to me by my husband when I began to dream of writing a novel and my childhood copy of Black Beauty, a book that taught me about the power of good storytelling. A miniature Eiffel Tower sits there as a reminder of another dream—someday Paris. Pictures of my children, from the time of the office’s naming, remind me that building a career is a journey not a race. Both my son and daughter are young adults now and for the most part living away from home. Funny how all these years later, I wouldn’t mind a few interruptions, a welcome pause from the hours I spend in conversation with only imaginary people.   

Lynne Griffin is the author of the novels Sea Escape, which is now available in paperback, and Life Without Summer. Her third novel will be published by Simon & Schuster spring 2012. You can find her online at here and on Twitter at @Lynne_Griffin.

Ann Napolitano

Since my children were born, I have become a writing nomad.  Essentially, I can and will write anywhere that my two young sons are not.  Usually this entails leaving my apartment.  Several frequently utilized locations are: a bedroom at my parents’ house in New Jersey, a library for the blind in Chelsea, the basement of a Starbucks in Brooklyn, and the second floor of two separate McDonalds (one in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn).  I have become flexible, or maybe desperate, depending on how you look at it. Desperately flexible. 

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However, my favorite place to write, hands down, is the couch in our apartment. The bulk of A Good Hard Look was written on this couch.  I like to work on a couch, because then I can tell myself that I’m not working.  People work at desks.  They have fun on couches.  Right?  Writing involves playing mind games with oneself.  For instance, I will write for thirty minutes and then I’m allowed to read the internet for five minutes.  Or, I will not let myself stand up until I write three pages.  Or, I am enjoying writing this novel, dammit, because I am sitting on a couch. 

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When I look up from the computer screen, there are two thin walls in my range of vision.  The first is occupied by two photographic portraits by Richard Avedon that a friend gave me almost twenty years ago.  The frames are plastic and probably cost ten dollars each.  Samuel Beckett, rail-thin and profoundly wrinkled, stands with his hands in his pockets against a white backdrop.  Beneath him, W.H. Auden is walking down a snowy New York City sidewalk.  They each look like they haven’t smiled in about a decade. When I’m feeling frustrated or despairing about my work, their dour faces tell me in no uncertain terms to just get on with it.  I find their grumpiness strangely comforting.   

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The second wall features a framed needlepoint of the cover of my first novel, Within Arm’s Reach,which my mother made for me.  The sight reminds me, firstly, how sweet my mother is, and secondly that I once successfully completed a novel, and can therefore probably do so again.  During the seven long years it took me to write my new book, A Good Hard Look, I appreciated that reminder. 

Ann Napolitano is the author of the novels A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach.  She received an MFA from New York University; she teaches fiction writing for New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and for Gotham Writers’ Workshop.  She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

Tayari Jones

Since I am in the middle of a 40-city reading tour to promote my new novel, Silver Sparrow, I find myself spending a lot of time writing on airplanes. In this photo you see my trusty Netbook, which has traveled with me so much that I should get it its own seat and passport. The beverage in the corner is a screwdriver to calm my flying nerves. iPod is plugged in for white noise and my flashdrive to record everything I have written. The blue book with the heart-shaped lock is my super-confidential journal where I record my dreams, which often end up in my prose. 

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Tayari Jones is probably soaring in the sky directly overhead as she crisscrosses the country on tour  –– is your town the next place she lands? Find out here

Laura Miller

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I write a lot and read a lot, which can be ergonomically dicey. For whatever reason, it’s easiest on my shoulders for me to write with my laptop on my lap, sitting in this chair in a corner of my apartment. JUST as important is the rolling Levo Book Standshown in this photo. This thing has changed my life! When you need to read for 4 or 5 hours a day, holding a hardcover up and open at eye level can be very hard on your arms, neck, shoulders. The holder is also great for transcribing. (The lion mask you can see part of on the wall above is a souvenir of Venice, a city I love, and that’s a footrest holding up my MacBookPro.)

Laura Miller is a journalist and critic living in New York. She is a co-founder of Salon.com, where she is currently a staff writer. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and other publications and for two years she wrote the Last Word column for the New York Times Book Review. She is the author of “The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia" (Little, Brown, 2008) and editor of the "The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors” (Penguin, 2000).

Quote, Unquote

                                 

           ”When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” 

                                                                      - Kurt Vonnegut

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Elise Blackwell

For most of my life, my writing space was hypenated: Elise’s study-dining room, Elise’s study-bedroom, Elise’s study-someone else’s study. Now I’m lucky enough to have a room of my own, cut out of what was once an attic, with a place to read as well as a place to write. (So never mind the old, dirty carpet.) I prefer to work in solitude, with the exception of my dog, Vi, who often sleeps behind my writing chair. I keep the room as uncluttered as possible given the number of books and papers I work with. The sad thing about this room is the missing tree in the window. Until a few weeks ago, when the city cut it down to access a neighbor’s broken water line, a huge old magnolia filled much of my view. I can still see a dogwood and other trees. The black-and-white photo over my desk was taken in southern Louisiana, not far from where I grew up. All the other art in the room (most unseen here) was made by friends.

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Elise Blackwell is the author of four novels: Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish,Grub, and An Unfinished Score. She is currently writing a novel set in New Orleans, tentatively titled The Lower Quarter.

Steve Himmer

About a year ago, my wife and I moved with our daughter from a larger house in a not so great neighborhood to a smaller house on a quiet street beside a saltmarsh. A great move in all ways except one: in the old house I had an office where I did my writing, reading, grading, and thinking. I could close a door and shut myself away. Now I have a corner under an eave in the bedroom, which I will confidently pit against all comers in a competition for “drabbest writing space ever.”I’ve got what I need, though: my laptop, some books, a tiny statue of a polar bear, and a Lucite frame displaying a set of four Canadian postage stamps showing a wide open landscape — mementos of pre-family, pre-marriage, freewheeling travel. 

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But the truth is that while this corner is my “official”workspace, more often than not I end up at the dining room table or, weather permitting, at the pub table outside on the porch. I have friends and colleagues who rely on retreats, writers’colonies, and the like to get their work done, but I’ve realized that for me the best writing comes when it’s woven into rather than separate from the other roles in my life: father, husband, teacher, mower of lawns, maker of lunch, etc. So while I look forward to some future day when we can bump out the back of the house to create more rooms, or finish the basement, or just get a coat of paint on the walls, the truth is there’s something comforting and powerful in not quite being able to sequester myself. It keeps me honest, so to speak, because that portrait of my daughter on the wall — though out of date now — is a constant reminder of why I still think telling stories is worth it, and so are her occasionally distracting songs about robots and pizza rising up through the floor, and even the Legos I will inevitably step on after I finish the day’s writing and return to the rest of the house. 

Steve Himmer is the author of the novel, The Bee-Loud Glade, and editor of the webjournal, Necessary Fiction. He lives in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Edan Lepucki

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Since my husband and I live in a one-bedroom apartment, my desk is tucked into a corner of my living room. Although I long for an office (something I’ve never had), I’m okay with this current set-up, as it’s spacious and comfortable at the same time.  I love the light in my place; these photos were taken on a cloudy day, but normally, the room is bright and sunny, and the light falls over the rocking chair in the corner, making me feel loved and lucky.  

On the wall above my desk hangs a framed Indie Bound poster (sans logo) exhorting me to SNACK NAP READ; these are basically my three favorite activities.  There are various post-its in my sight line: one reminds me to write some thank you cards, one to seek out the story collection The Vanishing by Deborah Willis, and one to “look up Bodhi, CA”—that’s research for my new novel.  The last post-it is a little cheerleading note from my husband, for when I’m feeling lazy and/or incapable.  I’ve taped the Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Morning Song” to the wall because I love the phrase “coffee-flavored mouth.”  I also have some photo booth shots of me and the aforementioned husband, as well as a sonogram photo of our unborn child.  He’s due in June, and his arrival is the best writing deadline I’ve ever had!

To my right there’s a delightful built-in bookcase to inspire me.  Books by Dan Chaon, Jennifer Egan, Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones and Tom Drury, among others, keep me company, and challenge me to do better.  There’s also the trio of biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson by Robert Caro—these belong to my husband, but since he’s always telling me that I remind him of LBJ in my unwavering ambition, they exert a special power over me. This is probably weird. 

When I write, I pull a kitchen chair over, and use my husband’s computer to listen to music on headphones because I don’t have iTunes on my own laptop.  When it’s colder out, I plug in a heating pad, and sling it over my office chair, for ultimate relaxation.  I try to ignore the random papers, tax documents and to-do lists that surround me, and—write!

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A staff writer for The Millions, Edan Lepucki had a story in a recent issue of McSweeney’s. She is the author of the novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me, and her recently-completed novel, The Book of Deeds, won the James D. Phelan award in 2009.

Quote, Unquote

                                       

                                “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”

                                                                    - James Michener

Heidi Durrow

This is my chair. This is where I sit first thing in the morning and write my morning pages: three pages written long-hand and then 10 sentences of affirmations. I started this daily routine about 15 years ago after reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way. Often times the writing is simple journal writing, but sometimes there’s a little magic—I’ll find the right phrase or an idea for a scene or character. The essentials for this routine: my Heidi blue blankie, coffee in my favorite mug with bendy straw, my beloved Moleskine and a pen. This ritual really centers me. It is my own form of morning mediation. And it’s pretty cozy too.             

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Heidi Durrow is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Algonquin Books), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Literature of Social Change.

Liberty Hardy

This is my General Mayhem Battle Station, housed in my friend Josh’s office. (That’s Josh.) I come here to write. (And look at pictures of kittens on the internet.)

       

It is the coolest loft space - we have yoga balls and a Street Fighter II arcade game and PBR. (I would live here if I could.)

     

Having a place to write outside of my house has been extremely beneficial. At home I would think, “Oh, I have to write that thing now,” and then pick up a book and curl up on my bed. Actually leaving my house to write makes me feel like a grown up, makes it feel official. I AM WRITING!

     

My desk chair is super-squishy, and I have found that spinning around in it really fast helps me think when I am stuck. And if I get bored, I have lots of cords to chew on. The photo on the wall is of Tom Waits, holding a can of Budweiser.

      

My laptop is the size of an airplane hanger - I’ve never seen another laptop as big as this. First thing I do when I get something is decorate it with things I love. That’s a picture of Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. I would take a bullet for Jeff Tweedy. (But I’d prefer not to.)

When Liberty was little, she wanted to change her name to something people wouldn’t remark on all the time. (Topping the list of alternative names was ‘Wolfgang’.) At one time or another, she has broken her arm, her nose (twice), knocked out a front tooth and fractured her pelvis. Liberty currently sits at the switchboard in the Write Place, Write Time secret volcano lair, prowls behind the counters at RiverRun Bookstore and The Music Hall, and is the creative consultant for a video game development company. Someday, she’s going to marry @bookavore.

Eugenia Kim

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In a room the width of two doorways, above my iMac. Bottom right In the silver picture frame is a photo of my dad as a houseboy in the 1930s. 

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To my right, a respite. Mini callas from our garden, a blackbird tea-light holder that Mr. Eugenia has banned to my office.

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Behind me, the clutter reality. Note the red circles: bottom left are bejeweled Chanel sandals I cut out because I can never afford them; middle top, my feet when I was three, and my siblings’ feet. 

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I couldn’t resist sharing that feet photo, which I recolorized. We are singing Korean songs at one of many meetings my parents held to raise money and clothing donations to send to war-torn South Korea. 

Eugenia Kim is the author of The Calligrapher’s Daughter. She lives in Washington DC and therefore, like 600,000 other U.S. citizens, has no vote in congress.