I saw The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz mentioned by literary agent Wendy Lawton at the Books and Such blog. I was able to find a used copy at Amazon for around $6. I’ve enjoyed leafing through it the past few days.
The book is made up of large black and white photos of over 50 writers at their desks. Alongside each photo is a paragraph or two from the writer about his or her workspace, style, routine, etc.
It’s interesting to see the wide variety of styles, routines, and even dress. Some of the men came to their desks with sports jackets and ties. James Michener preferred very loose tee shirts and shorts so he was unimpeded as he worked.
The work space for some was clean and sparse. Many had very cluttered desks and offices.
Some had a routine; others were more free form in style.
Some needed absolute quiet and solitude; some were able to concentrate in the midst of everyday family life.
Some wrote longhand, some used a typewriter, others a computer. The book was published in 1996, and some of the pictures are much older. I don’t know how many chose pencils or typewriters instead of computers or just because that’s what was available in their day.
I loved many of the insights:
John Updike writes “by hand, when the fragility of the project—a poem, the start of a novel—demands that I sneak up on it with that humblest and quietest of weapons, a pencil” (p. xi).
Archibald MacLeish: “I am sure—I mean I am not sure at all but I believe—the master poets must come at their poems as a hawk on a pigeon in one dive. I can’t. I chip away like a stonemason who has got it into his head that there is a pigeon in that block of marble. But there’s a delight in the chipping” (p. 77).
Joseph Heller said many of his ideas come when he’s doing things like walking the dog or brushing his teeth. “I don’t get my best ideas while actually writing” (p. 85).
Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Some writers say that they can only write if they go to a far island. They would go to the moon to write not to be disturbed. I think that being disturbed is a part of human life and sometimes it’s useful to be disturbed because you interrupt your writing and while you rest, while you are busy with something else, your perspective changes or the horizon widens. All I can say about myself is that I have never really written in peace” (p. 91). That’s encouragement for people like me who are easily disturbed.
Saul Bellow: “I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction” (p. 99).
Jill Krementz is the wife of Kurt Vonnegut and the author of several other books. She says in her acknowledgements that many of these excerpts came from George Plimpton’s “Writers at Work” series in his magazine.
Of the 56 authors mentioned here, I had only heard of nineteen and read about six of them. So I took a little bit of time to look up the desks of other favorite authors. I had looked up Louisa May Alcott’s desk after reading the novel The Orchard House, taken from the name of the house Louisa lived in while writing Little Women. It’s hard for me to imagine writing much on such a small area, but it was unusual for a woman to have a desk in those days. Her father made the semicircle desk especially for her. I also enjoyed this view of C. S. Lewis at his desk with his cup of tea nearby and Lucy Maude Montgomery at hers. I stopped there, as this rabbit trail could take hours. But maybe someday I’ll explore some more.
I enjoyed this glimpse of writers’ spaces and styles.