I've written a lot of my best work at Starbucks and Barnes & Noble. I get inspired by rows of books and gallons of coffee. When I'm winding down and feeling the drag of pushing through for another thousand words or so, I can get up and wander and pick things up and get all jazzed, and then get back to work. Assuming my seat wasn't taken while I was gone.
I love it. But I have to confess — I think I love my home office more.
In March, Kara and I had the idea of converting our old dining room cum game room into my office. That's it in the photo up above. Not entirely finished (that chair will one day be a chair, and artwork will one day adorn those walls), but it's already functioning as the space I wanted it to be.
Scratch that — the space I needed it to be.
I've discovered something interesting about myself. Even though I can write anywhere, and have written anywhere, it's not actually the best place for me to write.
That shocked me, believe me. I have worked as a freelance copywriter for decades, and writing anywhere was one of the perks. And I do, oh do, love it so.
I have written at the literal foot of the Eiffel Tower. I have written on trains gliding through picturesque landscapes. I have written in Hemingway's house. I have written on all three coasts — four if you count the Great Lakes. Writing from anywhere rules.
That's why I was completely unprepared to discover that I could boost my productivity just by having a dedicated writing space. It has helped me focus tremendously, and I am able to churn out more and better work simply because I know that this space, this chair and desk, with this desk lamp and this fan and this laptop — this is where the work happens. I know that when I'm sitting here, there's nothing else I'm supposed to be doing. There's nothing else I'm allowed to do. This is the place.
In the spirit of this discovery, I thought I'd pull together a few helpful tips on setting up a writing space of your very own. These are the "rules" that work for me (though I stole some of them from writers like Stephen King). Your results may vary. But I bet they won't.
Keep it clean
I know there's a whole philosophy about clutter and creativity, but it's a lie. Seriously ... lie. Clutter doesn't free your mind to be creative. It creates myriad opportunities for distraction. Writing is an orderly business — I'm sorry, but it is. And if you're to make a go at it, then you have to have a space that's organized and orderly as well.
This doesn’t mean you have to have a completely blank and spartan space. My recommendation is to make it comfortable, make it look and feel cool for you. But keep your actual work space free and clear. Make your work the focus, not the stack of To-Dos or bills sitting in a pile on your desk, or empty soda cans or coffee cups, or even stacks of books that aren’t serving as reference material. Think of your desk like the “focus mode” in your writing software. When you’re sitting there, your attention is on the work.
Keep it alive
Stephen King, in his book On Writing, tells a story about how once he’d “made it” he got one of those huge oak desks that practically filled his study. And, oh yeah, he wrote in a study. And that study was separate from the rest of the home. No kids allowed. No home life allowed.
He hated it. Eventually he made the space into a common are, where his family could hang out, play games, have a life in the space. His desk was there, but so was the life of the house.
We authors tend to want to isolate ourselves, because we want to focus on the work (see above!). But the truth is, we need life to happen around us. We need to be a part of that life. It’s the key to making our prose have it’s own life. When we shut the door, we’re shutting off a vital part of ourselves.
Keep that door open. Write with life all around you. Close the door to edit.
Keep the beat
I have Pandora open on my laptop while I write. Half the time I’m wearing a set of studio-grade headphones that help me block out sound and keep me focused. That’s absolutely vital when you’re “letting life in.” You need to be able to zone out every now and then, and get into “the flow.”
Music is vital to writing. That’s an opinion, but it’s an informed one. I used to write in complete silence, when I was alone at home. I forced myself too, because I thought that to do otherwise meant I wasn’t paying enough attention to the work. But that’s not how humans focus. We get into “the flow” when we’re completely immersed in something. Music helps block out other household noises, but it also gives us a rhythm to work to. It helps us to immerse ourselves into the world we’re creating.
I recommend having a set of headphones (good ones) for those times when you need to block out “life noise.” And otherwise, keep some music going, even if it’s a bit light and in the background. It will make you feel less isolated, and well help you stay on a steady track of productivity.
Your home office will probably never be complete. That’s because you’re (presumably) a human. And humans have to change their environment from time to time, especially when they’re being creative. Creativity is change in motion.
As I write this, I am already contemplating a handful of changes to the space I literally just started using about a month ago. There’s artwork to acquire and hang, a chair to make into a chair, a light fixture that needs to be replaced with something more “writer’s office-y.” But beyond all that, I’m already contemplating adding a few odds and ends to the credenza on one wall, replacing my chair with a comfy office chair that also happens to look cool, and replacing my desk with something I saw at a resale shop that I think has more “character.”
A year from now this space will look very little like it does right now, if I have my way. And a month after that I’ll already be making more changes.
That’s part of the process. Evolve the office, so that it always fits your needs. Add things that help boost productivity. Add things that make your more comfortable (but not too comfortable). Add things that make it more fun to work in that space.
Fun is the key. Your home office is the place where all the magic of the universe is possible, and happens every day. Make your space into the kind of place where that magic is constantly happening and evolving and expanding.
Send me pictures
Got a space you’re proud of? Send me some photos! I’d love to feature them in the blog. Plus, I’m totally looking to steal ideas.