Where Do You Write?

where writers write coffee-desk-laptop-notebookMelissa Bowersock wrote a post a few weeks ago about writing drafts longhand, and whether anybody still does it. It sounds like a lot of people do. I used to, but I don’t anymore. The last time I can remember writing a first draft longhand was when I was in graduate school and was writing my novel on legal pads on the Metro on my way to work. I remember getting some odd looks from other passengers. It didn’t bother me back then, but I think it would now.

That memory brought me around to thinking about the whole process – not just how we put our thoughts on (virtual) paper, but where we do it. Not everybody has a tidy study with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a roaring fireplace…and a cup of tea, or maybe a tot of something stronger… Um, hang on. I’m fantasizing again.

In real life, we all have our preferences for workspaces. Lots of writers like flexibility; they want to be able to work on their WIPs whenever the mood strikes them, or whenever they have ten spare minutes. That’s the biggest advantage of using paper and pen for a first draft, I think. You can write anywhere – at the breakfast bar, under a tree outside, at the beach, at a coffee shop, on the Metro, even at an actual desk. Laptop computers are almost as flexible, especially if you’re willing to tote around an external battery for a quick recharge. Although I’d be leery of taking a laptop to the beach. I can’t imagine sand and salt spray would be good for its innards.

Some people really seem to like writing in public places. J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel at a coffee shop. Others like to commandeer a carrel at a library. I’ve seen people camp out in Panera’s and other restaurants for the free wi-fi, and I have to believe some writing is going on there. I suspect this setup appeals to less-introverted writers, or those who feel isolated in their day-to-day lives; they’re looking for a way to be out amongst other people while they’re cocooning themselves mentally in their private writing worlds. I think this is the impetus, too, behind the social events that NaNoWriMo schedules during the month of November. The organization sponsors at least a couple of in-person events every year: a write-in at the beginning of the month, and a “thank God November’s over” outing at the end of the month. The idea, I suspect, is to make NaNo seem more appealing to extroverts who balk at shutting themselves away from other people for all the hours it takes to write 50,000 words in a month.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the writers who look forward to shutting themselves away to write. These are the folks who believe they cannot write in public, because any sound or movement will pull them out of their writing hypnosis. They’re the ones who set up a home office – and when it’s time to write, they tell family members not to bother them unless someone’s bleeding. Others use music as white noise, or noise-canceling headphones, or both. Some go so far as to build a tiny dwelling – a cabin or shed – in the backyard and kit it out as a writing cave.

Some of us would kill for a writing cave.

But most of us, I suspect, have to make do. My current setup is not one hundred percent ideal. Typically, I write on my all-in-one desktop with the 24-inch monitor. My desk is in the living room of my one-bedroom apartment, which isn’t a problem unless someone is staying with me – which has been the case for most of the past three years. I can’t write with music, because no matter how ambient the sound is intended to be, it still distracts me. The good news is that my daughter is also a writer, and she doesn’t mind wearing headphones to listen to her music while she writes. So we make it work: I sit at my desktop behemoth, she sits at her laptop at the dining room table, and it’s fine until one of us needs a break and distracts the other one.

Where do you write?

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

45 thoughts on “Where Do You Write?”

  1. We have a spare bedroom where I keep my Mac set up on a homemade desk. I love the solitude and being alone in my writing room. I’m one of those people who enjoys an excuse to go somewhere in the car, alone, with our NPR classical music station playing softly. I’ve been accused of being anti-social, but I do enjoy having lunch or a break with friends and relatives at times. Just not when I’m getting some writing done!

    1. Funny you should mention classical music, Helen. When I was in college, there was one day when I tried to finish a reading assignment with a Haydn symphony as background noise. About ten minutes in, I realized I was humming along to the symphony instead of reading. That was the last time I ever tried using music as background noise. 😀

  2. I’m one of those that cannot write in public. While I don’t need total solitude I do have my little space set up just so, in my house, away from distractions. I also need silence.

  3. We have a spare bedroom that I have set up as my office, surrounded by books and my filing cabinets. I usually have news on the tv as a white noise background, sometimes with the sound muted unless I see a story I want to pay attention to. I have a small hotplate to keep my coffee hot and a window full of plants … a 25 year old rosemary bonsai illustrated to 2 of my books, basil, citrus and garlic chives. Great aromatherapy for a momentary break.

    1. I love the aromatherapy idea, Richard. But I could never write fiction with the news on in the background. It would be too much like being back in my old day job(s), listening with half an ear to TV news and police scanners for breaking stories I needed to be on top of. 😀

      1. I have a pretty little very lo-powered electric thingamabob specially designed for keeping aromatherapy oils at exactly the right temperature to keep going all day. I turn it on in my office first thing in the morning to keep me in the mood.
        I love experimenting with blending fragrances. Have you ever tried lime with manuka? Sublime!

  4. I’ve never written anything by longhand except in school. My father was a journalist, so I just naturally began with a typewriter and then switched over to computers.

    One room the the house has always been designated as the den. I write everything here, sitting at a desk that my father once used that’s been in the family since the 1940s.


  5. I have written pretty much everywhere I’ve been. All of the above-mentioned places, coffee shops, etc., park benches, hospital rooms, beach, forest, sailboat, lakeside. It isn’t really the “where” that matters, it’s the “when,” as in “whenever I can.” If I have a few minutes here or there, wherever I am, I tend to take out my pad or grab a napkin and jot away. Over the years, probably 70% of my best writing sessions and 90% of my most useful notes have happened away from a desk.

    These days, I’m lucky to have some writing space in an old barn. It’s full of broken tools and junk, with the aroma of oil and sawdust, but there’s room for a small desk, some books and maps, and a couple of chalkboards. That’s now my regular workplace, and where I commute to every day. A friend called it my “lair.” Although it is anything but fancy, it is like having a palace!

    My heart goes out to all of those writers who struggle to find a writing spot at a table or bench somewhere. I know their frustration and I appreciate their determination to “heed their calling.” All the years of not having a “lair” makes me all the more motivated to make the most of what I have. Now I don’t need to hold an umbrella while trying to write, I don’t have to pack up and leave when the coffee shop closes for the night. I don’t need such heavy gloves to ward off the biting winter wind while I clumsily hold a pen (now I can wear fingerless gloves; my “lair” is not heated but it is out of the wind).

  6. I fail the tidy study test, but otherwise your ‘floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a roaring fireplace’ is spot on. Enormous old desk salvaged from a skip, and every blank patch of wall covered in paintings. Apart from the Mac, my study could be out of a Dickens novel!
    Music? Occasionally – I find a solid beat can energise a first drafts, but generally the only sound is my parrot adding helpful comments in the background.
    Fascinating that we all have such different needs. I see the same with my friends who are artists – some love the buzz of communal studios, some go as far off-grid as they can. Creativity is a demanding master!

    1. Indeed it is, Alan. 🙂

      For some reason, my bookcases-and-roaring-fire fantasy always includes a little Queen Anne writing desk, an Aubusson rug, and a wingback chair with a good reading lamp, too. I may have read Jane Eyre one too many times. 😀

  7. Great post, Lynne.
    I’ve in the very fortunate position of having a dedicated office (upstairs in the attic) with a PV and internet access for my research (teehee), an accommodating wife (who doesn’t mind watching TV with the headphones on), and kids grown up and living in England (we live in France).
    Now if only I could learn to write a bestseller and earn a decent living.


  8. I work best with total silence, a comfy chair, and a door that closes. But I have had inspiration strike in other spots, so thanks to either a notebook in my purse, index cards in the glove compartment, or a handy electronic device, I’ve written in cafes, my car, on the swings at a local park, a variety of hotel rooms, airplanes, trains, hospital waiting rooms…

  9. I write wherever I am. The space matters less than the fact that I’m in the zone. I can write with a TV on, as I see that as ambient noise, but I can’t write with music. It drives me nuts. My mind likes music and tends to want to sing along or something, and I can’t concentrate on the work. But, other than that, I’m good as long as I’m in the mood to write.

    1. I can’t write with either music *or* TV. I watch the tube so rarely that I’m out of practice. Even at a restaurant, if I see a TV screen out of the corner of my eye, it immediately commands my attention and I end up watching it, slackjawed. I can knit and watch TV at the same time, but I can’t have it on when I’m writing.

  10. Before I started handwriting again, I wrote in my office, which is at one end of the house and as far from the TV as possible. Now that I’m handwriting, though, I actually write in the TV room most of the time, or at the dining room table, or outside on the patio. I love to have music on, even though I might only hear 5 or 6 songs all day long–I just tune it out when I’m writing. I do believe the handwriting keeps me engaged more than the keyboard, so I can pick up my tablet of blue line and get another paragraph in if that’s as much time as I have. Love it.

  11. What an interesting question, Lynne. I’ve written in cafes on scraps of paper with the white noise of people eating as my background, but most of the time I write at home. I sit in my own, [very] small office with assorted pets keeping me company and write in a zen state as music keeps the rest of the world at bay.
    So I need immersion but silence is a distraction.

      1. I’m a specialist: The old iBook for Appleworks documents, the MacBook Pro for car travel, The iMac for big-screen stuff, the iPad for international travel, and the iPhone for daily out-of-the-house stuff.
        That doesn’t include the old Blueberry Mac upstairs to access floppies. (My original Mac Classic still works, but I don’t use it.)

  12. I write best without distractions. I used to write in the basement, but that was a bit dreary. We winterized the sun room and I moved in there, until my wife moved our business in. Now I write in our family room with my legs propped up on an ottoman. I have a set of 30 dB ear protection headphones. Sometimes that’s not enough I add earplugs, too. When I do that I can hear my heartbeat and what I interpret as the pulse in my ear lobes.

    1. At another house, I had my computer desk in the basement, and I found the same thing you have, Armen — too dreary. I guess I need sunlight, if any sunlight is to be had.

  13. I have a home office that’s slowly become the junk room, because I actually write while sitting in my comfy recliner in the living room. I use a laptop that rests on a lap desk. A small laser printer is on the brick hearth just behind and to the right. A little three-tiered table is to my left for books that I need easy access to for one reason or another. Another small table sits on my right. The bottom shelf holds notepads and scene cards, plus a printout of my ms for easy reference (better than scrolling up and down on the screen, for me.) The top of the table holds my calendar, glasses, coaster, a wooden box of pens and pencils, and more books. The little drawer contains office supplies like paper clips, stapler, post-its, etc. I can’t listen to music or have the TV on when I write. However, I’m in a weekly writers’ group and we talk about our work for the first hour, and then we write, silently, on our laptops or paper notebooks for the next hour and a half. It’s nice.

  14. my computer desk is in a room between the living room and the kitchen. I guess at one time it was a den or something but no doors to shut out pets or people. just traffic going straight through, I make it work at night when all are in bed. That is my time. During the day it just doesn’t work. I can write out in public but I really have to concentrate to zone out and stay there. I would love a cave! awesomeness! I do have a spare room upstairs but the stairs are a ladder and I don’t have any wiring up there for internet. So I guess I stick with what I have and be happy I do have it. Love the article!

  15. Hola Lynne, I enjoyed reading where other writers write, thanks for this piece. My haven is a restored vintage Argosy Airstream trailerI I rebuilt from a wreck, Installed a wrap-around desk in what had been the bedroom. It’s where I write every day. Towed the rig to to a small fishing village in Baja California Sur, Mexico,16 years ago from Toronto, Canada. The trailer sits a short walk through our flourising garden to my casa. Paradise.

  16. Good suggestion Candacef, the very approach to writing, hurricanes or not. I scribble my thoughts, idealy under the shade of our ficus trees. Then return to, the “Tin Tent” and reference them, at some point.

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