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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.


Have you seen this:

Oh, I love that. Thank you!

Terri, this is such a beautiful post. I love what you say about your art and your writing being uneasy roommates!

I deeply loved staying in your office all the same, though; there was so much to catch and hold the eye, and it felt beautifully harmonious to my gaze. It made me think of the way that words and images hold hands so tenderly in your art.

I don't have a designated writing desk or space right now, and feel like I haven't for over a year; in Penryn, so much of my research needed to be done online, but the only places I could get catch an internet signal were in the stairwell or in the kitchen, where I'd perch my laptop on the small fridge and type away. Ever so Romantic, no? So I'd write in the wine bar downstairs, or in the kitchen-cafe a few minutes away. But much as I may gripe about the lack of dedicated space... I also really enjoy feeling nomadic, like I'm traipsing from space to space to find stories and catch them. Less convenient for thesis-purposes, mind!

Still, here's where I spent last year (hoping it shows!)

Amal, try posting that link again -- it hasn't shown up!

I know several writers who prefer cafes to desks. Delia Sherman, for one, has written many marvellous short stories and novels in cafes.

Boo, I can't seem to just make it appear as a pic. Here's the link, though:

Oh, I wonder if Delia wrote The Porcelain Dove in a cafe? That's still my favourite piece of hers ever.

Whoops -- I added this as a reply to the entirely wrong post just now. Terribly sorry. =(

I'm not certain, but I strongly suspect this recent flurry of contemplation of writing spaces comes about as a result of this project finally making it out in to the blogosphere's collective consciousness.

"This project" being

What a fun post Terri -- the Saul Bellow quote just kills me! My own study usually reflects whatever stage of writing I am in. If I am deep in the novel -- it's clean and spare -- if I am doing a bunch of essays or posts -- it's messy as can be. Mike: I love the pictures of the SF writers' work-places -- though they make me think I clearly need a pet to round out my workspace! I do actually miss Buju, my daughter's dog, who used sleep under the desk and let me rub his tummy with my feet when I was thinking....

Amal: thanks for that link! And for the sweet comments about my studio. (As you can see from the pictures, I've changed it around a bit from when you were here.)

Mike: I hadn't known about the SF "Where I Write" project until Lizzie Bell posted about it above. (I've been somewhat disconnected from the blogosphere due to moving and illness this winter/spring.) Well, dang -- I thought my post was fresh and semi-original and now it looks like I'm just jumping on their coat-tails! Ah well, as they say, "great minds think alike." :-)

I was asked by email where the Jane Yolen quote comes from. If I'm remembering correctly (Jane, help me out here!), it was posted on the wall of an art/illustration exhibition curated (many years ago) by friends of Jane's, near her home in western Massachusetts. I loved it so much that I scribbled it down and have quoted it often in the years since. It must have been at least 20 years ago now...hence the reference to typewriters and not computers.

Midori: photo please!

Thanks for sharing this. The chaos in my writing space seems to increase in direct proportion to how far along my project is. Right now, I'm lucky to find a pen. But I always know where the touchstones are that connect me to my friends and my inspiration. Also, the Saul Bellow quote was exactly what I needed to see right now.

This is so awesome, Terri. Just Fabulous! I love and am obsessed with the artistic process as much as I am about the art. Both as inspiration concerning interiors, (i.e. trying to make ours more comfortable, functional, decorative, etc.) and as the nexus of the event, the center of the maelstrom, etc.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Charles Vess' studio. When I sat down in the chair at his drawing table, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Perhaps that was only in context to being a fan and familiar with Charles' work...or perhaps not. Art is primarily the domain of Hermes, and he is responsible for "inspiration" in the literal sense. Like a lightening bolt or bulb going off over your head.

I especially liked the link in your comments to Kyle Cassidy's project, which I had some inkling of from Neil. Getting to see those space, some of whom are writers I have met, read, and gotten to know a little, was awesome.

You asked for links to pictures of our spaces, and here is where the masks of Mythical Designs are created, and my writing is done. A gallery of some of our creation process, which I had been meaning to set up for some time. Thank you for the "Inspiration"!

Kathleen: That happens to me when I'm getting ready for an exhibition. The studio will go from tidiness to the complete you've-just-been-burgled look in record time! (Midori can vouch for this.)

Shane: Thank you for the link. What a gorgeous studio! And I know what you mean about studios in which Hermes is a palpable presence. I get that raised-hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck feeling whenever I'm in Alan Lee's. I've been in and out of that studio for over 20 years now (he's a friend and neighbor), but I never step across the threshold without feeling just a little bit of awe.

Brian Froud (another neighbor), on the other hand, rarely lets people into his studio, including his wife and son. I think I've only been in three or four times in all the years I've known him, even when working on books with him. For Brian, the studio and the creative process are both intensely sacred and private.

My favorite studio over the years, though, was the one Tom Canty had on Newbury Street in Boston back in the 1980s. Tom has an amazing eye for space. That was the room where I realized I wanted to learn to paint myself. (Thank you, Tom.)

My writing and art share a room, too, Terri. And they're connected to the TV room, because I've got to monitor my son's media intake at this phase in his life.

It's very gloppy and doesn't always work well. I'll have to take pictures.

You are obviously way braver than I am Terri to share your studio with an enormous green snake! I love Weaver's Cottage. That is really my fantasy studio.All your offices/studios are beautiful. And the motorcycle shot is wicked! Thank you for the peep into your creative process. xx

Hi Terri:
I just love seeing creative work spaces. Thank you for this interesting post! I am particularly struck by the contrasts between sparseness and clutter--truly reflecting the variety of ways fellow creatives work. As a self proclaimed "studio hermit", my work cycle follows a pattern of initial order, accumulating piles and eventual all-out creative chaos. By the time I finish a project, my studio overfloweth with stimulating debris. A finished assignment is followed by a ritualistic cleansing including: filing away sketches, putting away books and cleaning off the watercolor palette. All facets of my work environment reflect who I am--never stagnant and ever evolving. And I wouldn't change a thing.

Here is a glimpse of my drawing table:

and more orderly surroundings on my facebook pages:

Thank you, Terri. I must add that by my computer hangs a print of "Brother and Sister" that I purchased from you years ago. So I look at it everyday.

Hi Terri,
I've been a fan of the Endicott Journal for quite a while, I'm glad to discover you're still out there and involved in all things mythic and creative...I've just re-read "The Woodwife" for the 3rd time, it's one of my favourite books, and an inspirational one. This post is fascinating, I too love the chance to see how others work, see what kind of creative spaces they create to invite the muse in! Here is a (rather small, sorry) picture of my studio. I've only set it up in the last 2 years and it's the first time I've ever actually had a space all to myself to create, and I'm loving it. It makes a huge difference to have that 'room of one's own', especially as the mother of small children!

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