Writing Desks: I’ll Show You Mine, You Show Us Yours (Plus, a Holiday Giveaway)

As writers, we tend to disappear.

Our friends and family know it well—they’ve grown accustomed (or, with hope, at least mildly tolerant) to us slinking down the stairs at 1 a.m., quietly withdrawing from weekend parties, leaving behind a trail of Post-It notes with odd little bits of errant stories scrawled on them.

You often hear that writers live much of their lives in their heads, which is true—but we also live much of it at that curiously intimate place: Our desks.

Any time I travel anywhere, I’m powerless to the nerd temptation to visit this writer’s house, that writer’s studio. While there, I stare at the trinkets scattered about their desks—gavels, statues of cats, sepia-toned photos, tiny lost moments galore—and I ponder what each item meant to that writer. Why it was so important that it sat there during her life, the years following her death, and then some.

Last summer, I interviewed novelist Eyre Price (Blues Highway Blues) for WD magazine. In doing background research on his website, I found that rather than posting a simple bio page, Eyre had instead brilliantly taken a photo of his desk, and explained what each item meant to him. As he wrote on his site, “Everyone lies about themselves on the Internet. Writers spin lies for a living. Writers writing about themselves on the Internet … forget about it. But a writer’s desk always tells the truth about the person who works there.” (Check out his awesome explanations of the contents of his desk here.)

So we’re curious: What’s on your desk? In the Comments below, share what makes up that private world you disappear into again and again, or send a photo of your writing space to wdsubmissions [at] fwmedia [dot] com, and I’ll post it here. In a week-and-a-half or so, I’ll pick five random commenters to win a copy of the new February 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine (or something else if you’re already a subscriber). And, hey, don’t worry if you don’t write at home—your desk could be a table at Starbucks.

Personally, I need absolute silence to write. I’m too easily distracted, so I put my desk in a basement that feels a bit like a bomb shelter (but in a good way).

Here are a few of the things on my writing desk:

The Desk Itself: It’s an old door that I refinished and mounted on sawhorses. Someone once told me that every idea is a doorway (something I’ve never been able to forget—and something that perhaps I took too literally).

Tea: Yeah, yeah, I know—the caffeine/writer cliché. But honestly, I can’t write without a cup of something hot. It’s a ritual. I buy cheap black tea by the pound, and sometimes don’t even sip it when I’m writing. It just needs to be there.

Baboon With a Camera Around its Neck: In my early years as a newspaper reporter, I found myself in a dollar store and thought this was too bizarre to pass up. Then, one day after covering a particularly sensational and violent story, I stared at the figurine and realized it stood for everything a journalist should fear becoming: a beast with wild eyes and a camera. It’s been on my personal desk ever since.

See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil Figurines: Just write it all, instead.

Pythagorean Cup (the one with the Parthenon on it): If filled to a certain point, you can drink from a Pythagorean cup as you would anything else. If filled too much, it spills out the bottom. Moderation and balance, and all.

Maps: They coat my walls. I’ve had a fixation with them ever since working at National Geographic (and especially after seeing how much work goes into each one, from the image placement to every careful word of text).

Miniature of Shakespeare’s House: A reminder of the often subjective nature of the truth. Did Shakespeare write his plays? None of them? Some of them? (I like to think he did. I love the idea that a commoner with average schooling wrote some of the best works in the English language, and everyone refuses to believe it.)


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12 thoughts on “Writing Desks: I’ll Show You Mine, You Show Us Yours (Plus, a Holiday Giveaway)

  1. Jennifer Brown

    I’ve tried writing at a desk, but it never seemed to work out for me. My writing place of choice is instead stretched out on our couch with my lapdesk, hot beverage, tablet, phone and TARDIS blanket. And of course, with blanket and hot beverage comes my muse, Casey (gray-smoke tabby), who has helped me through many a tough chapter! A photo has been sent via email.

  2. vrundell

    I consider myself a guerilla writer–seizing the opportunity to write whenever and wherever I can.

    For years my “desk” was a laptop used while riding my commuter train into Chicago. Great place to eavesdrop, BTW. [Where else would you hear an electrician tell a carpenter all about the pole he installed in the dining room so his stripper wife could dance for him at home, right? There’s GOT to be a story there!]

    Now, my “desk” is still my lap, but mostly my lap exists on the loveseat in my front room where I simultaneously observe my slumbering newborn in the portable crib five feet away and my three-year-old who bounces from Nick Jr. to Mo Willems to LeapPad, between extended periods of chasing the dog around the house.

    When I manage to clear a space at the dining table, it is precisely 15 inches wide and 12 inches deep (only large enough to accomodate the laptop) and surrounded by the dirty dishes and unopened bills I have decided to ignore until I finish just one more chapter…

    Still, I get a fair amount of writing done, particularly in the wee hours of the morning. Good writing can happen at any time, in any place, and a committment to craft can’t be measured by the space in which it is crafted.

    More important than the chair is the “getting” of a butt into it.

  3. FredaCameron

    I have the luxury of a spacious home library/office, my writer’s lair, since I designed my house. I have a nice desk, office chair, bookcases filled with favorite novels and literature. I use an antique English pub table for my worktable and have a daybed for lounging to read by a big window. Fiction is my new passion, and I have a full ms out with one agency and writing next…but I blog for fun and I’m a published travel and tourism writer, so my computer is an 11″ MacBook Air that I take on trips and use anywhere in the house. When I need concentrated hours in my office, I connect it to a large external monitor on my desk. I recently tweeted photos when I rearranged my office. https://twitter.com/FredaCameron/status/284762982112710656/photo/1

    I just received my online copy of WD, February 2013. Great resource!


  4. Cemile

    One of my New Years resolutions was to create myself an official writing space in my room, so this post was perfectly timed! Until recently, I’ve done most of my writing on bed, laptop on my lap. But I’ve decided I’ll do better at focusing during my designated writing time if I have an “office” to go to – even if it’s only two feet from said bed.

    My freshly transformed desk (which had, up until yesterday, been mostly one more surface on which to pile my piles) is a wooden table with a bookshelf attached to the top. I’ve fashioned a dry-erase board out of a large glass picture frame and scrapbook paper underneath to separate it into sections for writing down the names of projects I’m working on and blog posts I want to write, as well as freelance pieces I plan to submit. I’ve also written there the quote by W. Somerset Maugham – “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” Beside that is a weekly schedule (clipped up with funky clips, to be changed every Sunday) on which to record my daily goals for which pieces I’ll work on and word count goals.

    There are two little cork board squares stuck to the back wall of the bookshelf on which I’ve pinned pictures representing pieces I am working on – currently, a postcard from the eastern Turkish city of Mardin and a photo of a rainbow of French macarons. My pens (all fine point blue) and scissors sit in a chopped off Starbucks-Anniversary-Blend-bag-turned-pencil-holder. Beside that, I’ve got a colourful array of Sharpies and dry-erase markers in a mug bearing the signature of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic, where I live. (Inspiration towards greatness, I suppose.) Next to that is a framed card from my best friend featuring a pair of legs in roller skates and striped knee-socks with the Oscar Wilde quote, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

    I’ve got a stack of notebooks in the corner of my desk – my ideas notebook, the little one I take with me to jot down notes as I travel, and the larger journal in which most rough drafts are born. My laptop – when it’s not on my lap on my bed – also lives on this desk. (And when I’m actually writing, beside it sits a cup of coffee.) The upper bookshelf portion of the desk are filled with notebooks and journals, past and present, as well as travel paraphernalia I’ve collected from around the globe – a little wooden Kyrgyz yurt, a porcelain soup spoon from China, a cezve (Turkish coffee pot), a tiny Albanian bunker, and various other knick knacks that inspire me as I endeavour to grow as a travel writer.

  5. Lisa

    My desk is mobile. I started a novel this past summer in a large paisley overstuffed chair that sat next to a large window overlooking the sea. This would always be my choice workspace if we could stay on Sanibel Island. I finished the book and started a new one at the dining room table.

    Next to my laptop sits a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea with a touch of honey, never sipped from as I am too caught up in the story. On the other side is a notepad with scribblings that only make sense to me. A stack of my favorite books clutter the area around me for moral support, and a timer is set so I won’t forget my children at school. Eight hours whizzes by when you are writing!

  6. IgneaSomniator

    Organized chaos. That definitely describes my writing areas.

    I do have a desk in my second bedroom/office area. It’s from IKEA, because they have cheap furniture and I’m broke (and no good at refurb), but it works for me. My *pink* laptop sits on top of a raised cooling platform that has a fan to keep my computer nice and cool – don’t want it overheating and losing my manuscript! Eek!

    Just above my desk, in my direct eye line, are three framed, colorful papers with a slew of my favorite writing and inspirational quotes. When I’m lacking drive or hit a road block, I just look up, and wham-o! It’s literally staring me in the face.

    To my immediate left is a blue blow-up, weighted cow (not kidding) with its arms crossed and a sign that says “tip me” on its back. If I’m feeling frustrated, I give it a good smack. Sometimes it stays down, but mostly, it pops right back up. Definitely a good stress reliever.

    To the far left is my “inbox” tray of random papers, old wedding invitations, journals I’ve scribbled in, plays that have inspired me, etc. And a host of fun colored pens and pencils! Nothing like a little color to spice up my journal writing!

    I have three, yes, THREE, calendars. Two of them are Page-A-Day, and one is a wall calendar. The first Page-A-Day is from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art really inspires me so I always have a visual writing prompt nearby. The next is a Dot-to-Dot Page-A-Day. Another stress reliever when I need a break. The third is a wall calendar called “Paris Glitz.” I mean, come on! Who doesn’t love a little Parisian bling, right?

    Of course, all over the wall above my desk are sticky notes of ideas and reminders.

    Behind me is a humongous six foot by six foot bookcase jam-packed with books in almost every genre, as well as reference titles.

    My ever-present Tervis mug (love those!) sits to my right, keeping my water nice and cold. I don’t drink coffee or tea. I know, I know. Sacrilege. But it’s true.

    And last, but not least, a picture of my dream home, Neuschwanstein Castle in southwest Bavaria, Germany, is propped up against one of my additional speakers. Sigh. A girl can dream, right? 🙂

    There you have it. A long, but accurate, portrayal of the character of my desk. It’s riddled with clutter, but clutter inspires. I also enjoy curling up on my chocolate brown couch with a damask patterned writing desk and instrumental music by Franz Schubert playing in the background. Bliss. Absolute bliss.

  7. sararauch

    I have two desks – one is an old door cut in half and drilled onto legs, the other is an roll-top my dad picked up on the side of the road. Both contain various papers, books, pens, and writing tokens. But the place where I do most of my writing? In bed!

  8. harikleia

    My desk is a kitchen table that stands against the wall and next to the window. I used the four chairs in my kitchen and I kept the table as a temporary desk until I can buy my office furniture. I covered the table with an embroidered tablecloth to protect it from scratches. On it, there’s my computer, my computer screen, a desk organizer for pens and papers, a dictionary to my right, and my papers or books on the project I work on to my left. I always like to have a cup of coffee when I write, spread out my books, and no music. I have to be by myself in my office to concentrate. I also use my custom-made sewing table as a desk. I love blue ink pens, and pencils. Next to my desk, there’s one tall bookcase. I have a comfortable chair with rollers and a small filing cabinet.

  9. janflora

    My desk was “custom-made” by my hubby who fitted two reclaimed desks together to make one big one for me. It’s rather messy, with notebooks and bills and my Very Important Knickknacks cluttering every surface. The brain stress ball is one of those VIKs, good for tired typing fingers, or moments when I need to sit back and think hard about a scene. Inspirational quotations and fortune cookie slips are taped all over, waiting to catch my eye. I also have kid art, postcards and pictures decorating the walls and computer tower.
    It may be seen as a disaster by a more organized mind, but it works for me, until the dream office gets built in our future renovation. Unfortunately, the chair is currently broken and I cannot sit at it comfortably, so I am on the laptop in bed now 🙂

  10. penney

    So I have to admit that mine is one of a positively unconventional writers desk. I am divided among three spaces purely by convenience and availability. I enjoy sitting in my bedroom under several layers of blankets feigning warmth as a constant breeze chills me. This little room has such character that it continues to inspire. To most it is a glorified walk-in closet. My king bed is squished between small side tables and wardrobes housing clothes and a microscopic TV. I am proud of my attempt at decorating. However it is the old cracks in the paint and the narrow wooden door with and old black, squeaky knob that sets me into deep trances.

    When I write it is on my laptop placed on a spare piece of wood across my lap. I trade between this and my journals. Either way, this is how I write. My side table not even two feet square houses my antique tin tray and a small lamp with an old pull cord. Before I start, I collect several pens and pencils, the house phone, my cell, and my IPOD touch. I usually squeeze my giant cup of hot coffee, the remotes, a bottle of water and a very important spiral pad that contains lists, messages from my phone, and errands to run(it is all quite organized). I carry the pad where ever I go. It is the source of several bits of ephemera. They are my necessities.

    When my husband can bare the glare of the lamp any longer, I transfer to the sofa using the sofa table and a small storage box that houses old magazines. Option three, leaning over the counter in the kitchen frantically writing an image that pounced on me during dish-washing. My unfinished hundred year old wood railing walls with cracks and little bits of dust threatening to drop in someone’s soup. This and the small windows looking out to my pathetic patch of grass, and the medical building about to take away my swatch of sky are parts of my writing space that I value so much.

  11. nkaur

    I don’t have a desk yet; so I use my bed or my work cubicle for writing quite often. I have books wedged into available drawers and unused closet space. Thank goodness my laptop keeps my writing together.


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