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?
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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/
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?
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