It’s the favorite chair or the little nook in the den. It’s the small desk tucked in the corner. It’s the table in the back in your favorite coffee shop. Maybe it’s the comfy couch in your living room. These are the places we write. But what makes them right? What makes them perfect for creativity, imagination, or reflection?
Is it the space itself that gives our minds the freedom to create? Is it the energy it gives off? Is it privacy or is it the beauty of a noisy world? Whatever it is, it has to be totally and completely ours.
Maybe it’s just the way the space makes us feel. Or maybe it’s simply about convenience or logistics. But what it must be is the best space for us, and we must own it, savor it, and protect it.
The romantic side of me always wanted a writer’s shed, a Dylan Thomas-esque boathouse, some spare spot of fertile ground where wonderful ideas could germinate. But, I don’t have a boathouse, or a boat, or live near water. Truth is, I write in a lot of places: at the kitchen counter or slumped in my living room couch. I have a round pedestal desk in a downstairs office that is as cozy as it gets. There three images that hang on a wall near the desk. One is of Hemingway’s writing space at his home in Key West, another is a scene outside City Lights Bookstore by the famous photographer Zeny Cieslikowski, and the third is a watercolor painting of Thomas’ boathouse. It’s a cherished space. Recently I received the honor of being the Writer-in-Residence at the Ernest Hemingway birthplace in Oak Park, Illinois. I’ll have the opportunity to work in a fully-appointed attic writing space in the wonderful century-old home. I’m looking forward to that experience and grateful for it. But I’ll probably always return to the downstairs desk.
Many writers find it necessary to work in quiet places where they can concentrate in silence. Jonathan Franzen has been known to write in a room with no electronics, no Wifi, nothing but a chair and a table. On occasion, he’s even blindfolded himself and plugged up his ears. Maybe that’s your style—being cut off from the world. But don’t dismiss the possible advantages of writing in a noisy environment. Crafting prose in silence and serenity has its benefits, but so does wrapping yourself in racket.
Urban coffee shops are perfect for this. Espresso machines whirring, clinking and clanking of silverware and mugs, laughter, talking, chatter—the constant din of a caffeine club isn’t my usual writing environment. But I can find myself feeding off the noise. Dialogue can be hard to write with authenticity, but hanging out in a coffee café could help. There’s even research that suggests writers are better off in a moderately noisy place over a quiet one. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found noise at about 70 decibels—the equivalent of a busy coffee shop—distracts us just enough to help think more creatively. And good, strong coffee doesn’t hurt, either.
Whatever is your optimal writing space, cherish it and improve on it. Make it special; keep it special. Guard it and protect it. And by all means write in it.
David W. Berner is a journalist, broadcaster, teacher, and author of two award-winning books: Accidental Lessons, which earned the Royal Dragonfly Grand Prize for Literature, and Any Road Will Take You There, which was a Grand Prize Finalist for the 2015 Hoffer Award for Books. His latest book, There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard: A Life in Pets is available now. Berner’s stories have been published in a number of literary magazines and journals, and his broadcast reporting and audio documentaries have aired on the CBS Radio Network and dozens of public radio stations across America. He teaches at Columbia College Chicago.