Three By Three: Creating A Writing Space

Whatever it looks like and however it fits with the rest of your life, it's important to have a space where you feel good and where you can write. This is especially so if you have another demanding career or profession. If you don't have a physical space set aside in your life for writing, it will be hard to make space in a figurative sense.

Two years ago I got rid of the pull-out sofa in my second bedroom and created a home office. Before that, I had a nice antique desk in that room, but it was too high for comfortable keyboarding, and the overall space was cramped. That desk is still there with a monitor on it, and my law firm laptop sits on a tray below it. (You can see it on the left side of the photo.) I have a standing writing area for my fiction writing. I also have a third desk that I moved home from my law office. That is where I sit when I'm hand-revising printed manuscripts or am grading my law students' papers.

This is the first time in my life I have had such a large area devoted to my writing. But there were pluses to my other writing spaces over the years, however small. I have had anything from one corner of the dining table, to a drafting table, to a spare room at my parents’ house.

Below are some things to think about when choosing your writing space. There are basically three choices for location: somewhere in your home, somewhere in your “other” workspace, or somewhere in public. And there are three major factors that affect how well those spaces work for you: what else you do there, who else is there, and your fiction writing work style.

What else do you do there?

If you are someone who feels the need to do laundry if it's in front of you, load the dishwasher as soon as you finished eating, or sweep the floor after every meal, first, come to my house. I will write while you do those things. Second, working at home might pose challenges for you. It's all too easy to decide to throw in a load of laundry before you start writing. It seems like it won’t take much time. But in about half an hour, you’ll need to switch it to the dryer. In another hour, you’ll need to take it out and fold it. Now if you were lucky enough to set aside two hours to write, you’ve spent about twenty minutes of it on laundry. With a little practice, you can get past this, but if you find that chores at home interrupt your writing every time, you should probably find a writing space somewhere else.

This is where writing in public is particularly helpful. The barista at Starbucks is not going to ask you to clean the cappuccino machine, and the librarian will not expect you to reshelve books. Put your phone on silent, leave books and ear buds at home, and don't connect to the Internet. There will be nothing for you to do but write.

If you have an office for your other career or profession, you may want to try writing there. (More on that below.) A few recommendations if you try it:

  • Set aside some small space in that office where you put your notes on your writing project and anything else that relates to writing. That way you won’t waste time digging it out or organizing it.
  • Unless it's impossible to do for your profession, turn off email notifications, forward your phone to voicemail, and block off the time on your calendar. (If the only way you can find time to write is to be available for emails or telephone calls, try ignoring them for 15 or 20 minutes at a time, then checking in. Odds are, you can be away for that amount of time, and if there’s no emergency, proceed for another 15 or 20 minutes.)
  • Even if you’re paid for results or tasks, not by the hour, it's probably best not to tell people at work that you are writing while you're there. They will view you as “not working” and feel free to interrupt you to chat. They also may start to imagine you’re not as attentive as you should be even if you are.
Who else is there?

If you live with other people or pets, give some thought to how that affects your writing. The obvious answer might be that you should have complete isolation and quiet. But I found that now that I have that, at least once a week or so I take my laptop or a notebook and go to a local Starbucks to write. I like the energy and noise around me. Sometimes, it actually helps me focus. There also are times when I want to write in my living room with the television on or my parakeet chirping away in his cage. (I rarely let him out while I write, as he usually jumps on the keys or bites the tip of the pen.)

Joss gives me a rare moment of peace.

Despite what I said above, if you have children, a significant other, or pets whom you’ll feel as if you are wrong to ignore no matter how much you want to write, it's better to make arrangements to be away so you can write somewhere else. Asking others to carve out writing space and time for you almost never works. It has to be a priority for you first, equal with your other work, or it will never be one for anyone else. This is why I simply don’t answer email or phone calls when I’m writing unless I have a break scheduled already.

What if your spouse also is a writer or also has work to do at home? Some couples I know both work from home. This arrangement seems most successful when the workspaces are in two separate rooms. This makes sense to me. If you like each other and enjoy each other's company, there will be a lot of temptation to pause what you're doing and chat. If you're not getting along, the negative energy will likely make it difficult to concentrate.

You may also choose to write in the workspace for your other career or profession if that’s an option. If you have an office and can shut your door when you choose and be undisturbed, and it's compatible with your work schedule, you might write for a set time, say 30 minutes a day twice a week, during your usual workday. What probably will work better, though, is to come in early or leave late. Then even if you don’t have an office, if no one else is around, you may be able to write at your desk, in an open conference room, or in the work kitchen. These types of spaces can be wonderful if they are deserted.

Public spaces can also be a great option if, as I sometimes do, you like the bustle of people around you, but you don’t want to interact. Depending upon where you live, the following can be good places:

  • a coffee shop
  • a library
  • a restaurant in off hours
  • open seating areas in a college or university
  • a park in good weather
  • the back room of a friend who owns a business
When and how do you do your best writing?

I am most productive, and feel the best, when I can set aside large chunks of time to work on a single fiction project in peace and quiet. I take periodic breaks, but I love to immerse myself in the fictional world and focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. Sometimes I do that with a lot of noise around me, and that's fine, but what I don't want are interruptions. Other people like to shift from task to task and feel antsy or frustrated when they spend hours on one project.

Temperature, sleep, and food also matter. I need to be physically warm. If I am shivering, I find it too hard to think. I also work best when I have had a lot of rest and have eaten. Some people get an edge from pushing themselves beyond fatigue and from working through meals. I just get edgy. And angry, and irritable. (So you probably don't want to come hang out with me if I have just put in a 12-hour work day.)

All of these types of factors affect where your best writing space is. If you prefer not to be interrupted, choose the place where that is least likely. As I mentioned, that may be at a public place, or it could be at your workplace before anyone else comes in or after they leave. If noise bothers you, you might need to write when you're alone, or buy a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

It also matters whether it helps you or makes it harder for you to need to go to a different place to write. It’s a lot like exercise. If you are someone who exercises more if you must go to a specific place to do so, a health club membership is a great deal. For me, a 10-minute walk to the gym means I never get there, but I roll out my yoga mat every morning at home. Likewise, I write the most when I have a nice writing space at home, despite occasionally liking to write elsewhere.

Don't worry

Whatever space you choose to write in, every once in a while, try something different. For one thing, you may not know for sure yet where you do your best work or where you feel happiest writing. It may take some experimenting. Also, as your life changes, where you prefer to write will change as well. So if you can't find the ideal place right now, don't worry about it. Pick the best place out of your options, and keep in mind that change always happens.

If you'd like to email me a photo of your writing space, send it to [email protected] and let me know if it's okay to share it.

Best wishes for a productive, not-too-stressful week.

Best,

L. M. Lilly

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