Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 13, 2020

A Place To Write

by Barbara Linn Probst

There’s a special writing area I’ve created for myself. A glass-topped desk with very little to clutter the surface: laptop, coffee mug, desk lamp, and my little “owl with tiara” mascot.

The desk faces a large window that looks out on trees and distant hills. No houses, cars, or people. A black ergonomic chair.

I like having this special, dedicated place. I do other things there—emails, PayPal, cropping my photos—but mostly it’s where I write. The time of day varies, from early morning to late at night; the place, less so. 

I wondered what other people did, what their writing spaces were like. So I asked.

I posted a photo of my desk on a few Facebook groups for writers and invited people to respond with their own photos or descriptions. A lively discussion ensued, with dozens of people taking part.

Here’s what I learned and what I think it means.

It seems there are three workspace camps.

The cave-dwellers.  In one camp were those, like me, who needed quiet and calm. 

  • I have a loft room called the tower where I look out over the trees to the river and the mountains. This is a place where I can hide from the world below.
  • A quiet room. Serene jewel toned walls, comfy chair and tea. I don’t even want music.
  • I prefer more of a cave situation—no-to-little outside stimulation, certainly no music or background talking to distract me.
  • I have a She-Shed. I need complete quiet.
  • I have to have complete silence so I can hear myself think.

Among the cave-dwellers, some found a beautiful view helpful:

  • I've got a beautiful view that keeps me peaceful.
  • I do best outside in sight of natural beauty.
  • Next to the window overlooking our local church and gorgeous old town. Very inspiring.

Others, in contrast, found views distracting.

  • A view would distract me from the images in my mind.
  • No views. I need to focus and am afraid if I looked out the window I’d start taking pictures instead of writing.

The white-noisers.  In another camp were the people who concentrated best in coffee shops and places filled with lots of background noise.

  • I like the anonymity within the usually jovial background.
  • I go to a very busy cafe where they let you linger and everyone has laptops. There’s something about the vibe. 
  • I like writing in Starbucks. I like that it forces a couple of hours of focus before I've overstayed my welcome and need to pack up and go home.
  • I think there is something about the shared work environment, the white noise, and the lack of domestic distractions that works really well.

The anywhere-and-everywhere writers.  A third group wrote wherever and whenever they could. For some, this was because it was the only realistic option. Others simply stopped and wrote when an idea struck them.

  • Literally anywhere. I’ve learned not to be picky.
  • I write when and where I can—in my office, yes, but also at the kitchen table, at the library, at the ballet school, between rounds of History Bee. I take what I get.
  • It doesn't matter if it's home, in a coffee shop, a hotel room, a park or if it's serene, chaotic, noisy, or a mess as long as I can sit with my laptop on my lap.
  • In my car, on the open. I scribble on a legal pad at stoplights and record dialogue on my phone. Anytime. Anyplace.
  • I can write anywhere I get an idea, thanks to dictation/notes on my phone and a lightweight laptop I carry everywhere.

Three different answers, right? Or maybe not.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that everyone was doing the same thing. In one way or another, they were creating a sealed-off environment where the world of the story could dominate, rather than the world of ordinary life.

They did this by entering a special place or a special time. Three hours every Monday night at Starbucks. A corner of the basement—“it’s cluttered, but it’s mine.” A special armchair or a space in an unused bedroom. During the hour-long train ride to work.

In order to enter the story world, they had to subdue or transform the sensory stimulation of the regular world.

Through silence, noise-cancelling headphones, music, or the ambient sounds of strangers, each person erected her own auditory shield—a protective ring, a barrier, that let them focus on the interior world of their imagination.

Visual stimulation seemed less problematic. Perhaps because it’s easier to stay focused on a laptop or notebook, resisting the urge to look elsewhere, than it is to block out the intrusive sounds that reach us without our choosing to attend to them.

In the old Star Trek movies, a deflector shield was raised to ward off incoming energy that was vibrating at a frequency other than that of the shield itself—in other words, to repel distractions as well as dangers.

When we’re trying to write, incoming impressions that aren’t relevant to the story world need to be repelled—so we create our personal shields.  One person summed it up well: “Above all, a place where I’m alone with my thoughts. I can be in a crowded place as long as I don’t know anyone else or get distracted.”

It’s the internal place that really matters. The external place is just the container. Without that dedicated internal place—that special state of immersion in the world of our characters—the most exquisite, well-appointed office won’t necessarily help. Sometimes the external place, with its accessories and associations, does help us shift into the internal one.

At other times, when we don’t have access to the time or place where we believe we write best, we find another way. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted inside her car when the weather was too hot in the New Mexico desert. At a workshop I attended, renowned author Alice Hoffman told us that she often writes on her iPhone. 

We write—when, where, and because we must.

What about you?

Where do you write best? What are the key elements of that environment? Is there a place that’s surprisingly conducive to writing for you—a place that might seem odd to others, but works for you?

What are the essential “writing shields” you need?

Are you getting what you need, or are there small changes you can make in your writing space that would help?

* * * * * *

About Barbara

Barbara Linn Probst is the author of Queen of the Owls, coming in April 2020 from the visionary, award-winning She Writes Press. Queen of the Owls has been chosen by Working Mother as one of the twenty most anticipated books for 2020 and will be the May 2020 selection of the Pulpwood Queens, a network of more than 780 book clubs throughout the U.S. To pre-order or learn more, please visithttp://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/

Queen of the Owls by Barbara Linn Probst

A chance meeting with a charismatic photographer will forever change Elizabeth’s life.

This novel asks the question: How much is Elizabeth willing to risk to be truly seen and known?

Click here to read more, or to pre-order the book.

28 comments on “A Place To Write”

  1. This resonated with me. Understanding my writing process hinged on writing location. A view of nature was key to finally completing a novel. Yup, I'm the "cave dweller" camp. So much so that I realized my original home would never give me the view of nature I needed. Fast-forward the 2.5 years to fix up the old place, sell, and buy a house on 1 acre with a creek running through the middle, with the forest on the other side. It's a lot to keep up, but it provides that peaceful view I crave. I own only a sliver of the forest, but the street on the other side is far enough way that I imagine I'm on the edge of a huge forest. When I sit inside and write from my living room, a small line of trees allows me to center myself on them, as well. Until a cat jumping into my lap breaks the spell of solitude.

    1. Love what you wrote! Sometimes it doesn't take a lot to center oneself ... but we need to find out what that crucial element is! For some it's music; for others, it's the sight of a bird feeder outside the window. And for still others, the warmth and presence of that very same cat is what provides that grounding 🙂

      1. Exactly! The key is figuring out what we need, and even understanding the target can move. When I do listen to music, it varies based on which novel I'm working on. I've named the playlist for my current novel and need more songs in it!

  2. I'm a "write where ever you can, whenever you can" writer. I steal hours and minutes to get the job done. Most of my current manuscript was written in bars, restaurants and doctor's office waiting rooms. A few chapters were written while sitting in the ER with my father-in-law. The last few years have been a challenge as my time has not been my own, but give me a laptop with a full battery and I'll get the story out.

    1. Eldred, you're a perfect example of someone who's absolutely determined to get that book written and will find snippets of time everywhere and anywhere! While some people really do need time to switch gears and settle in (like me), others (like you) are able to seize a moment at a time. I love how we all have such different styles!

  3. I dream of being a cave-dweller but I'm stuck in a corner of our dining room! My window does have a lovely view but I have to turn my head 90 degrees to look at it, so it's more of a "stare out the window" when I have my chair turned to think my way out of a plot issue. I don't like being in the middle of our house, which is very small and filled with four adults coming and going. Sometimes, when it's not -35C here in Winnipeg, I'll head out to the library for a change of scenery. But I do agree that we all have different needs to get that creativity going!

    1. You bring up a great point, Laurie—that one can take a short trip to the "cave" to work out a plot problem without having to spend all one's time there! And yes, a change of scene can really help if one's stuck. It can be a "big" and literal change, like going to the library, or a "small" change by turning one's chair to take in a different view. It sounds as if you've found system that allows you to make the most out of the possible!

    2. Laurie, this is me, too! Though I don't have so many comings and goings as you during the day, so I write in the dining room when no one's around. I love the view of the bird feeders and backyard garden out my window (off to my left shoulder), but I'm glad it's not right in front of me...I suspect that would be a bit too distracting. The only tricky part is when hubby is home sick or has a day off when I'm still working...I have to banish him to another part of the house, LOL! One of these days, when we're complete empty nesters and move, I'll have my own writing space.

      Barbara, thanks for this post - I've already pinned your office picture on one of my Pinterest boards for inspiration!

  4. My home office is my writing "cave." To start the new year off right, I removed the junk that had accumulated in there, and purchased a new cover for the futon couch that I often plunk myself onto when I need to think through a scene. It's so nice to walk into a bright, clean work space!

    1. It's so true that "cleaning the cave" or redecorating your space can de-clutter or refresh your mind too! Changing the colors, adding something of beauty, or taking away what's no longer needed in the outer world can have a similar effect on our inner world. A great point, thank you!

  5. While I would characterize myself as an anywhere and everywhere writer, as I've gotten older I have become more sensitive to noise. White noise in a bar or train station is fine. Conversations at the next table distract from my flow.

    Enter the noise cancelling headphones. I look silly wearing them in public, but they keep me in my zone, even when the tables around me chat. Love those headphones! I can even work in the living room with my feet up while my family watches TV.

    1. Jenny, those conversations at the next table are where I pick up some of my best character and dialogue inspirations!

        1. Jenny, I love how you and Eldred have illuminated the two sides of this particular coin! For sure, it depends on one's mood, purpose, and place in the writing process. The very stimulus that sparks a wonderful new insight one day can be a distraction the next day! You also make a good point that there are different kinds of noise. In my experience, so-called "white noise" doesn't attract my attention or set off a chain of association the way conversation does. On the other hand, some people find total silence too creepy! Such fun to read about our different ways of getting to the same place = immersion on our story 🙂

  6. My husband and I share an office, and we respect each other's space. I face a wall with a portrait of our dogs and a corner window that overlooks our garden. We have a home in suburbia, but our neighborhood is very quiet and serene. In order to write, I need a block of uninterrupted time where I can walk into my story and shut a door of fog behind me so that I'm in the scene with my characters. Through the fog door, I can hear 20th century life and can zip back in if required. However, I like to stay in my characters' world until my brain stops and I need a walk in the sunshine of today and now.

    1. Love your image of a "door of fog" that provides the barrier you need, yet can be pushed aside in a flash if you need to! Like you, I need a block of time to settle into the world of my characters. I find that the "zipping in and out" is partial. That is, I attend to what's needed in my "real" world, but haven't entirely left the world of my story. The part of my brain I need for attending to the real-world chore is separate from the part I need for writing and creating, so it's as if that part is put on "pause" while I shift internal gears for a few minutes ... it's there, waiting, when I'm able to return ...

  7. I'm retired. My office is the back corner of my living room, and I view the room. From here, I can see two gigantic 4k computer screens, and, nowadays, my large-screen TV, if I scoot way right, and right from where I'm sitting now, the couch where my wife will sit and read, or write, or watch TV while reading or writing. (Her office, set up by her, is in front of the front window in the kitchen. It predates me). So my environment changes, although the noise-cancelling headphones are there for when I need them. The TV produces news, movies (on blu ray and DVD), the occasional TV show, and Jeopardy.

    Anyhow, I write wherever I am, when out of my office, and inside it, my environment changes across my day. My writing is Front-and-Center in the right monitor. Email is in the vertical monitor on my left, and drafts are to the right of my writing space, and sometimes other material on to the left of my word processor screen as well. I can write using Textmaker for Android on my 10" kindle fire, my 8" fire if I have to, or on my WIndows 10 portable (which has Textmaker and WordPerfect).

    Things are usually quiet, during daylight, unless I've put on a movie. More often than not, it's a movie I've seen already so I don't miss anything if my writing gets involving.


    1. Fascinating how you organize and compartmentalize the different parts of your "electronic world" to accommodate the different tasks you're involved with! I'd venture to say that the movie on the other screen serves as a kind of "white noise" as you become immersed in your writing. Total silence probably wouldn't work for you!

      1. Yes, but at times silence does work just fine. It's those other times I put a familiar movie on for white noise: even though Princess Bride hardly counts as white noise until you can endlessly deliver the dialog before the characters do. -tc

  8. I usually write at the kitchen or dining room tables. I sometimes write in bed. When I was first writing, we only had a desktop upstairs, so I wrote there, but since I've had laptops, I've had the freedom to write where I can get comfortable and just get to it.


    1. You are so right about laptops! They give us the freedom to take our writing with us, wherever we go! I often write on the train ... that "white noise," freedom from the distractions of my home, and a sort of anonymity create a portable cave!

  9. Thank you Barbara, for your lovely article. I consider my good fortune is spreading out in my 'She-shed,' a spare room with a huge window and garden views, room for my art eastle and book shelves lining the walls. I could live in here.
    Except, I'd miss my DH, and my cat who loves us both and shares her time.
    I look forward to reading your book. Wendy

    1. Thank you, Wendy! Your "she-shed" sounds idyllic. You have light, space, and are surrounded by things you love. I could live there too 🙂

  10. Mine is evolving. Lots of clutter, ideas piled in stacks, book cases filled to the brim and a great chair I bought myself for Christmas. I have different moods - sone musical , some quiet. I have a fridge for drinks and a coffee maker on top!

  11. I'm more the cave-dweller type. My writing space is in a corner of our large master bedroom, with a view of peaceful desert yard and some trees outside. Like another respondent, I use it for all my bill paying and other communications. I bought my mission-style oak desk when we moved here. It matches our bedroom furniture and I love that desk. My puppy typically sleeps at my feet or plays with his toys behind me. I cannot bear clutter, which you would never believe if you saw my desk at this moment, and which is perhaps why, sometimes, I load up the laptop and head out to my local library, which has the white noise but a lot of people quietly going about their reading.

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