Writer Erinna Mettler sparked my interest this week with her post on ‘Desk Envy’. A desk is such a fundamental part of a writer’s equipment, yet so difficult to perfect, it is no wonder that there are thousands of pictures like the ones of famous writers’ workplaces in the post which can inspire the green-eyed-monster. Space in the home is at such a premium – certainly in the UK, even more so in Japan – that for most of us the dream of a quiet room with a huge desk covered with piles of essential writerly clutter and (crucially!) all of one’s own must remain unindulged.
Still, we can dream. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Lake District recently, with hints of spring breaking through the winter gloom all around. The hotel had this lovely number sitting in a corridor seemingly unused and unloved, except by the chambermaids for heaps of fresh linen mid-change.
Contemplating all that space for half-scrawled notes and pages torn out of newspapers could give me palpitations. Drawers overloaded with notebooks, both filled and still to be used, cartridges and half-full bottles of ink, because this desk would go so well with my favourite pens… until my thoughts crash into the likely shipping costs to get the thing to Tokyo and realise it isn’t to be.
The reality for most of us is that writing space has to exist wherever we find it. When I lived in London I would write sitting on the bed, a cushion behind me and one under the knees, laptop finely balanced, in a pose that would strike dread into the heart of any physiotherapist or yoga teacher. Although it did keep me paying the bills to have my poor spine straightened out again. Having to clear away the detritus which somehow accumulates around any working writer – take the picture of Einstein ‘s desk for evidence – before I could go to sleep was always such a disheartening thought that writing into the early hours became the norm.
It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that I came into possession of a dedicated writing desk. A low wooden table acquired from a neighbour who was moving on, it was the first piece of furniture that I owned after arriving and all the more loved for that. Writing in bed continued, of course, as well as curled up in a chair, but owning a desk was a step up and great things were sure to follow, I was convinced. This is my first Japanese desk, looking far too neat, which means it was probably tidied for the picture:
Of course, it wouldn’t turn out to be the perfect writing desk, otherwise this post would end here. The difficulty, entirely of my own creation, was that there was so much of Japan to explore beyond those walls that I barely spent any time within range of the desk. Writing again became something to do in cafés, on trains, at work, or in the park. Anywhere, it seemed, but at the dedicated space that had so fortuitously been granted.
For my next apartment, things would have to change. After coming into possession of another donated desk and chair, then finding a wonderful place to locate them – overlooking a neighbour’s well-stocked garden – combined with living closer to the distractions of the city, suddenly writing time was almost abundant. Who wouldn’t want to spend all of their free days here:
It is summer, hence the mosquito coil kept close to hand, but the air conditioning unit was right above the window and the fridge a short hop away. ten minutes hate became an unneglected website again, letters were penned and the following spring my book, The Teas That Bind, was written here. All punctuated with essential breaks for pots of tea and staring out of the window. The way the butterflies would dance through the sunshine as it dappled between the trees will stay with me forever.
But life moves on, time intrudes and I find myself between desks again. As ever, my reserve writing haunts are cafés and there is fun to be had attempting to track down a new favourite. Here is where Erinna Mettler surprises me a little, as she writes:
The words don’t really flow in public cafés. For a start off I usually bump into someone I know and then there’s the hovering waiting staff asking if I want a refill, or babies crying and if I drink too much coffee it costs a fortune and I keep needing the loo. The café has to be just right, it has to be big enough to hide in from friends and waiters, with tall ceilings and no piped music, and I prefer diverting decoration and real-fire cosiness.
Although it has been a long while since I was a resident of the same town, my memories of it being full of serviceable writing cafés would be shattered if they had all been conquered by the big chains. In the same way that we fetishise desks, most writers probably have a picture in their head of the perfect writing café experience, my own heavily influenced by a visit to the actual table in Paris once used by this lady:
It is doubtful if she would be as prolific today, however, if she were attempting to write in the 21st century version of her home-from-home café, surrounded by loudly obnoxious tourists and gawping fan-girls such as myself.
Perhaps this is the lesson to learn from all this desk adulation: that the space itself is irrelevant. Make it the best, comfiest, happiest place it can be but don’t get too caught up with perfection. While perfection on the page should always be the goal, sometimes the means and the location of production will have to fall far short of the ideal. Sitting at the dream desk racked with writer’s block and indecision would be a far worse fate than that of being jammed into a tiny table at a terrible café with a mug of bad coffee scrawling note after note on napkins because there is no more space in your notebook.
As Hemingway knew,
the great thing is to last and get your work done
because what is created when your backside is in the chair is far more important than the quality leather cushion or cracked plastic that it rests upon. So even if you are lucky enough to achieve perfection in your surroundings, be sure to recall this advice from Stephen King:
It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.