The importance of writing spaces and Rasputin the five-legged sheep.

I have a new desk! It’s a beautiful monster, with enough room for a dozen coffee cups and several open books in addition to my laptop, and it has drawers! I don’t even know what to put it them, it’s been so long since I’ve had a desk with drawers. Office supplies, I suppose. And maybe some secret candies.


Yes, I have a rug on top of carpet. Don’t judge. I hate wall to wall carpet and I love that rug, so this is the result.

Here is the old “desk,” which is really a small, old, rickety wooden table and not so much a desk at all:

Note the general clutter and cramped nature of the space, and the precarious coffee cup placement. Danger.

The old desk is currently being stored in the tub in the second bathroom we never use, because we amazingly have too much junk for our rather large two-bedroom apartment, and sometimes you have to get creative.

That’s how small the table is.

But anyways.

This new desk acquisition has me thinking about writing spaces and how important they are. I’ve also been thinking about it because of this Tumblr where writers write about their writing spaces (sorry, there’s just no synonym for “write”) and the Where I Write series at The Rumpus, which is about writing spaces but also tends to be about so much more, as is the case in this one.

I’ve never had a real, designated writing space before. I’ve had that tiny table for years, and I love it because my great-grandfather made it with his own hands, but I didn’t stick to writing at it because it was always overflowing with books and mail and papers, and besides, the wood was unfinished and occasionally left splinters in my wrists and the heels of my hands. (Oh, how we suffer for art.) Instead, I wrote in bed, at the kitchen table, on the couch, wherever. I’m a person who can write almost anywhere, thanks to growing up with two very loud brothers, both of whom play the drums, and I find some of my best work happens in public places like parks or coffee shops, places where there’s noise and people and things going on. I know the writer in a coffee shop thing is done to death, but I find the presence of other people and unlimited coffee quite helpful. One, because I enjoy people-watching; two, because a change of scenery can really help un-stick your mind when you’ve hit a wall; and three, because of the coffee (obviously). But secretly, the reason coffee shops helps me is mostly because being surrounded by strangers holds me accountable. It makes me feel like I need to be working, or at least appear that I am working, even if that means staring at the blinking cursor for twenty minutes until something comes. I can’t just hit a rough patch and start stalking Facebook or watching embarrassing TV shows on Hulu, lest I be judged by my fellow coffee-shoppers. Shame can be a great motivator.

But one can’t go to coffee shops all the time. Coffee is expensive, and when you need to go to the bathroom, you either have to pack up your laptop and take it with you or ask a neighbor to watch it for you, which is awkward and kind of risky because you can’t trust people based on their appearance, even if they’re wearing sandals and hemp clothing and drinking Kombucha. Also, I tend to slam my laptop bag into every door frame and piece of furniture possible when I take it anywhere, so it’s safer for my hard drive to keep it at home. But in order to write more often and more productively at home, I had to create a space for myself. It is similar to not working or watching TV in bed, because that’s your sleeping space and can screw with your sleep. Writing where you sleep or watch TV can make it too easy to fall into those activities. It can screw with your writing.

When I was racing to finish my MFA thesis, I made myself a writing space, which I referred to as my “thesis bunker.” I made it in my bedroom, where I couldn’t be distracted by my roommate. I stocked it with bottles of water and boxes of Gobstoppers (my thinking food, if you can call it food) and bags of Parmesan Goldfish because they’re not greasy like potato chips and are therefore more conducive to eating while typing. In the kitchen, I had a dozen or more of those Campbell’s Soup at Hands–the soup with the lid and little mouth hole so you can drink it on the go–because I could not be slowed down with having to manipulate eating utensils at my desk. I also had lots and lots of PBR, and I tried to not let myself crack those open until at least 4 p.m. (It’s 5 Eastern was my logic). And the thesis bunker worked. It made it easier, somehow, to get in the writing headspace and stay there. Another contributing factor was probably the deadline and having to face my thesis committee afterwards, but whatever. It worked. I made a space that was comfortable, stocked it with things I needed, mentally chained myself to it, and I finished my thesis.

The reason it worked, I think, is because creating a designated writing space can help ward off all the other things of daily life that can irrevocably distract you. It’s far too easy to get off-track when I’m at home, because my willpower is weak and it’s just too easy to find other things that need to be done, which can then lead into a spiral of doing the dishes or running errands or calling my mother that culminates in me writing absolutely nothing all day. (I have written about that particular problem before.) In order to be a writer, you have to intentionally ignore many of the things you “should” be doing, because what you really should be doing is writing. This may mean that the dishes sit in the sink for an extra day or you end up with only granny panties to wear or you avoid a call from a friend you’ve been playing phone tag with for a week, because sometimes the other things in life have to chill out for a few hours so you can finally nail down that ending or write just one more paragraph in that story that’s been stubbornly defying you. This can be a hard concept for non-writers to understand. I’ve had people say things like, “Come on, you can do that anytime!” Or, “It’s not like you’re getting paid, so why don’t you come out and have some fun!” (Dear People Who Say That: It’s kind of insulting.) You have to get rid of that mindset and convince yourself that no, this is what I am doing now, or for the next two hours: I am writing. I am a writer. This is what I do.

And so, I guess that’s all by way of saying that I’m a super psyched about my new desk. It is a place I can go in my house and mean business. No more sitting on the couch and flipping the TV on when I get stuck. No more mid-morning “accidental” naps in bed with my laptop open beside me. No, I will retreat into my writing sanctum every morning and write write write, only emerging for bathroom breaks and more coffee, for (hopefully) at least three hours. I will not let myself leave, even when it seems like I just can’t think of anything. I’ve never been a schedule person, preferring to just do whatever whenever, but I’ve been holding myself to this schedule for the last three weeks (though I was previously at the coffee table before I brought home my beautiful new desk), and let me tell you, it’s working. Some days are better than others. Some days, I’ve written through lunch, until three in the afternoon, producing pages and pages and pages of draft. Other days, I’ve stared forlorn into the screen for hours, the cursor winking at me like a mocking eye. But overall, I’ve been much more productive than when I just wait around for inspiration to strike. You can’t depend on that sort of lightning-strike inspiration. Sometimes, you have to sit down and make it come to you. And if it’s just not happening, you can at least read through some drafts and edit out adverbs and over-use of the verb “to be.”

But what is required for a writing space? Different strokes for different folks, of course. But for me, the requirements are:

-window for staring vacantly out of (even if it’s at a parking lot),

-cork board of miscellaneous memorabilia and inspiration and things I just like to look at,

-ever-rotating collection of favorite books for reading during rough patches (I find that can get the gears moving again),

-Jaws, my pet Venus Fly Trap,

-pens and things,

-this finger painting I did at my poet-friend Kendra’s house, which ever-so-subtly captures my feelings at any given moment,

-good lighting (lamp),

-and last but not least, my five-legged sheep, Rasputin (named for an off-colored joke involving Rasputin having a third leg, if you know what I mean).

Rasputin the five-legged sheep was given to me by my best friend Sara, who found it mysteriously in the clearance bin at the WWII Museum gift shop where she works, leading us to wonder: why does the sheep have five legs instead of the customary four? Why is it on sale at the WWII Museum? Is there something we don’t know about WWII?

Rasputin has since become my constant desk companion, reminding me of the mystery and weirdness in the everyday, which is a theme that tends to appear in my writing a lot. I’ve begun talking to him occasionally, saying things like, “Does that line of dialogue sound stilted?” or “Is it believable that this character would take a flame thrower to a chicken coop?” or “Are you hooked by this beginning, Rasputin?” This is possibly because insanity runs in my family, but also because thinking out loud is often helpful. I know I’m not insane because Rasputin hasn’t responded yet.

Some other things:

As all of you probably know by now, since I’ve been shouting it from the rooftops, my story “Last Dog” from Hunger Mountain was listed as notable in both Best American Short Stories 2012 and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. This is exciting for so, so many reasons. This also really puts on the pressure to create some more good writing. I hope I haven’t already peaked. I’m still too young.

I made some curried fried rice one night and sweet potato and spinach quesadillas another night, the recipes for which I’ll be posting soon.

I went to my first-ever yoga class, which was amazing even though I’m about as flexible as a two by four. Seriously. I can’t touch my toes by several inches. I bought a yoga mat and yoga pants, the latter of which Todd was very excited about, and a pass for 10 more classes. I was SO SORE the day after. Muscles I never knew I had were screaming in pain whenever I moved. It was wonderful. I went again last night, and today I’m not nearly as sore, which I take to mean I’m getting stronger. Let me tell you: yoga is hard! I never knew that sitting and standing in various positions could be so exhausting.

I’m going to a reading on Friday at Chatham–BK Loren, Sheryl St. Germain, and Heather McNaugher–and I’m inordinately excited about it because I haven’t been to a writerly event since we moved to Pittsburgh and I’m desperate for some writing community. I’m going to wear my favorite dress. I’m going to wash my hair. I’m going to take notes. I’m going to make Todd have pretend writer-conversations with me beforehand so I can practice talking to writer-humans again and not embarrass myself. I can’t wait.

The day after learning about the two Best American notables, another story I have out for submission (about ghosts!) was rejected by Cincinnati Review. But I was pretty happy about that, actually, because when too many good things happen in a short period of time, I become convinced that something horrible is imminent. Like I’m going to get in a horrendous car accident or someone I love is going to die, because the universe has to find its balance. I know. I’m ridiculous. It probably says something really sad about me that I don’t believe good things can happen to me without repercussions. But that’s just my paranoid reality. It was a good rejection, though. Not a personal rejection, but one of the form ones that at least says to submit again soon, and that’s nice. And the story is still out at some other places, so there is still hope. I’m looking at you, McSweeney’s.

And now I’m going to spend some quality time with Rasputin and my new desk.


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