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The main thing a writer needs, according to Stephen King, is “a door that closes.”
It’s an appealing idea—a door that would protect us from interruptions, whether generated by ourselves or by others, so we can truly connect with our projects. But unlike King, professors are not full-time writers. Much of our job is “open-door”: We are being paid to be available to students and colleagues. This makes it hard for us to protect the writing space our scholarly research needs.
So how can we create effective writing spaces—protected, organized, and inviting? Our faculty offices rarely fit the bill. We may try to come in early, or stay late, or put notes on our doors stating that we’re writing, so please don’t disturb. But our offices are permeable spaces for two reasons: They allow us to be interrupted, and they encourage us to interrupt ourselves.
Our offices are where we meet with students, plan our teaching, and do our departmental work. They are physically and psychically connected to all the related obligations that distract us from our scholarship. Even when we close the door, we’re still on call. I’m always aware of the stacks of papers that need grading, the email that needs answering, and the recommendation letters that are coming due. It is very hard to shift into scholarly writing mode and stay there.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are dream spaces. I have a history of creating writing spaces I never use. In graduate school I liberated a basement storage area in a house I shared: I ended up writing in it twice. For years I set aside space for writing that quickly became storage for projects I never got around to doing. I once bought a 1981 VW camper, thinking I would park it in the backyard and write there every day. Except it was always too hot or too cold or too damp or too sunny.
For years I envied colleagues who had whole rooms they turned into idyllic writing places—books neatly lining the shelves, a large desk, lamps, comfy chairs, and beautiful views. If only I had something like that! But I gradually realized that, just like me, these colleagues rarely used their writing spaces, no matter how beautifully decorated they were.
Our “door that closes” needs to protect a truly functioning space, not a pretty fantasy. We can waste a lot of time and energy yearning for, designing, creating and then not using idyllic writing spaces, or we can give ourselves simple, inexpensive basics, and use them.
The successful academic writers I know all understand that a functional writing space, used often, allows us to arrange words with minimum distraction and maximum ease. They protect that space in different ways: Some carve out spots in their own home, some have a library carrel, some rent office space. Some even swap writing space with colleagues, because someone else’s room is never as distracting as your own.
And some head to cafés. For me, cafés are like the dream study—they match the picture but don’t work. To my mind, coffee shops give the illusion that we’re writing when we’re mostly musing and sipping and hanging out. But if you can truly be productive in a café, go for it. Just make sure that you really “close the door” on interruptions, and that you have what you need to organize your project.
Keeping It Simple
Once you’ve secured a dedicated space, and can truly “close the door” to protect it, what else do you need?
I believe our writing space should contain only what we need right now, for the project at hand. Those who believe in feng shui will tell you that old projects have stalled energy, so we should store them elsewhere. Chi or no chi, I have to guard against my tendency to put half-finished research in the space where I’m now trying to write. Being surrounded by it is disheartening and distracting.
What I do want is for my space to be organized and feel inviting, and here’s what works for me:
I’m writing this in a 6’x10’ enclosed porch. In the half of it devoted to writing, I have a small table and chair, a desk lamp, a calendar, shelves, and a metal ironing board. My project box is on the ironing board. On the windowsill I have Post-It notes, pens and pencils, and a few favorite objects. This whole setup cost me less than $50. Behind me are a chair, lamp, and small file cabinets, which I use mostly for nonacademic work. Even though the room is small and has several uses, the table and project box mark my dedicated writing space.
My laptop doesn’t have a working wireless card, so I can’t distract myself with email or the Internet. The room does have a door that closes, and though I can still hear household noises, I have headphones if I get too distracted.
A key to keeping my space inviting is to keep it project-focused. I mostly guard against my tendency to store stuff in my writing space, although I just realized that my shelf has books on it that don’t need to be here. As I experiment with keeping my writing space “live,” I’m putting completed or stalled project materials outside my room in labeled cardboard boxes. It’s not pretty, but it really helps.
Some people put up whiteboards that they update regularly. This keeps their project and progress visible. The prolific Lewis Mumford nailed a series of industrial clipboards over his desk. This kept each section of his project in front of him at all times. I use my project box to keep track of overviews, outlines, and sections, as well as my writing hours. When working on big projects, we need some way to keep the forest in view as we work on the trees. And why not keep track of our accomplishments?
Watch out for the delusion that you need expensive products to help you stay organized. This, like the dream study, is one I keep falling for. If color coding, leathercraft, and elaborate systematizing lower your stress, increase your reward, and foster your writing, great—Levenger is there for you. But if these aspirational products just help you decorate space you never use, it’s time to get back to basics.
My turquoise metal ironing board (that's on the far left of the image above) has been with me since my dissertation. I bought it at a garage sale for $5. It is an adjustable surface that takes up very little room. I use it to stack and organize my project materials, and it also works well as a standup desk. It represents all the furniture I ever really needed to get writing done. I didn’t have to buy the VW or dream of renting a separate studio or envy someone else’s perfectly appointed space. All I needed was to set up the ironing board, close the door, open the project box, and start writing.
Our scholarly work deserves dedicated, inviting, and orderly writing space. If your campus office isn’t working out, explore options at home, in the library, or in your neighborhood. If you are constantly creating, but not using, writing spaces, let go of the delusion that all you need is the “right” space. Set up an ironing board, close the door, and connect with your project for 15 minutes a day. And see how organized and inviting your writing space can become.