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The Disappointment Artist

Tools of the trade...

2517185521_eabca7314b In a previous post, I promised to write about two books that caught my imagination recently -- so here's the first: The Writer's Desk by photographer Jill Krementz (Random House, 1996).

Eb-White Krementz's book contains duotone photographs of 56 writers at work: E.B. White, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Katherine Ann Porter, P.G. Wodehouse, Pablo Neruda, Toni Morrison, Rita Dove, Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut (Krementz's husband), and many others. It seems that I'm not the only voyeuristic soul fascinated by writers' work spaces: by the rituals of our work, and the ways in which we work, and the settings in which the work happens.

KurtVonnegut Jane Yolen once said: "I have always been jealous of artists. The smell of the studio, the names of the various tools, the look of a half-finished canvas all shout of creation. What do writers have in comparison? Only the flat paper, the clacketing of the typewriter or the scrape of a pen across a yellow page. And then, when the finished piece is presented, there is a small wonder on one hand, a manuscript smudged with erasures or crossed out lines on the other. The impact of the painting is immediate, the manuscript must unfold slowly through time."

Like Jane, I love artists' studios -- the paints, the tools, the dashed-off working sketches, the pungent smells of turps and clay. And yet the haunts of writers, although generally less flamboyant, have a potent kind of magic too, with their precarious stacks of books and papers, the notes and clippings pinned to the walls, the notebooks full of barely-readable scribbles, the smells of ink, old books and half-drunk cups of tea. The fact that much of a writer's work is invisible to the eye makes these work spaces more interesting to me, not less; they are alchemical laboratories in which the lead of daily life is transmuted into the gold of words upon the page. JohnUpdike As John Updike once said, the creative artist "brings something into the world that didn't exist before, and that he does it without destroying something else. A kind of refutation of the conservation of matter. That still seems to me its central magic, its core of joy."

By photographing writers at their desks, Krementz manages to capture some vital essence of each author: Jean Piaget hunched within a flood of papers, Toni Morrison with her simple binder and pen, E.B. White in a sea-side room as calm and spare as a Shaker meeting hall, Vonnegut disheavelled and barefoot, Eudora Welty elegant, correct, and distant. 

Each photograph is paired with text in which the writer muses on his or her creative process. I particularly like these words from Saul Bellow, which speak to the...noisiness...of my life right now: "I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."

Stephenking Among the many writers I've known and worked with over the years, work spaces have run the gamut -- from the spare and monastic to the crowded and museum-like, from sumptuous libraries to crumbling backyard shacks, from attic aeries to kitchen counters to tables at the local Starbucks. In my own life, I've tended to separate my Susan Sontagwriting/editing work from visual art by having separate rooms for each -- preferably a writing office in the house and a shared art studio somewhere outside it. In Tucson for many years, for example, I shared a home office with fellow-writer Ellen Steiber (author of the utterly magical novel A Rumour of Gems) and an art studio in the Tooleshed Building near Hotel Congress with Beckie Kravetz (creator of gorgeous sculptures and masks).  

These days in Devon, however, both my writing office and studio are out of the house, in a Victorian office building in the village square -- and, for the first time in almost 20 years, my Writer/Editor Self and my Artist Self are obliged to share a single room. I'm not yet sure how that's going to work out. It's a good room, big and light-filled, with a fine view over the rooftops of the village shops, and decent American-style coffee available at the bookstore/cafe across the street. But my Artist Self, messy and sprawling, complains that she's feeling a bit constrained by the organized tidiness of the quieter Writer/Editor. These two are not yet good roommates, I fear. I may have to draw a line down the middle of the room to stop their bickering....


The photo above shows my desk and drawing board in my current office/studio. In the photo below, my workspace is the dining room table at Ellen Kushner & Delia Sherman's old flat in Paris. I particularly like the Paris picture because, to me, it captures an aspect of life that will be familiar to most travel-loving writers: you must learn to settle down and get to work whenever a quiet moment presents itself and wherever laptop space can be found.

ParisSpeaking of Ellen Kushner, I happened to notice that there's a lovely photo of her at her desk posted currently on her LJ page. (We were roommates too, many years ago in New York -- but alas, I haven't got any photos of my desk from those days. I had the "maid's room" of the apartment, so it was necessarily very small.)  Have you got a picture of your own writing desk or art studio on the web? Please leave a link in the Comments section.

And if, like me, your idea of a fun weekend is poking around other people's studios, and you happen to live in south-west England, the Chagford Arts Festival is sponsoring an Open Studio Trail on July 11th and 12th. Our building will be on the trail (open on Saturday only). I'll be here, showing and selling work -- as will my neighbors Rex van Ryn, painter and comic artist, and David Wyatt, illustrator of Peter Pan in Scarlet and other magical books. Maps for the art trail will be available from the Chagford Arts Festival box-office that weekend.

Post script: I finally found a link to a great series on writers' rooms that ran in the UK's Guardian newspaper a while back, ranging from historical authors (Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Charles Darwin) to contemporary ones (Marina Warner, Sarah Waters, Penelope Lively, etc.).  It's available online here.

Update, 2010: Here's a link to a new post on the subject of work spaces: A Room of Ones Own -- a post occasioned by my move to a lovely new studio space closer to home.


The first five photographs above are by Jill Krementz, picturing: E.B. White, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, Stephen King, Susan Sontag. The color photograph, of me at work in Paris, was snapped by Ellen Kushner. The last picture is of my current studio & desk, taken on the same day as the writing of this post. There's also a little photo album of my Studios Past and Present, if anyone happens to be interested.