Where did the great authors of the past write?
My mother was a 1940s reporter for a western Massachusetts newspaper when newsrooms were raucous and chaotic, filled with the machine gun clatter of hulking upright mechanical typewriters, punctuated by shouts of editors and cries of writers for copy boys, and the background thunder of the massive press nearby. Always pressured by deadlines, and with only dial phones, cultivated contacts, libraries, and the newspaper’s own morgue for research resources, they somehow managed to put out a packed edition every day and sometimes even extra editions if breaking news demanded.
Years after quitting that job Mom wrote articles and short stories for magazines at a small desk set up in a corner of my parents’ bedroom. She could bang out over a hundred words a minute, composing on her heavy upright Smith monster, and I remember hearing her rip pages out of the carriage and crumple them to start over or to rewrite a page. Only when she was surrounded by those crumpled sheets and random notes and opened books and magazines spread on the floor—a mini-chaos resembling her old reporting days—did she seem able to begin composing solid copy. I know she always longed for a better place to write, but it wasn’t to be.
Not that long ago, a writer's only tool was a quill pen, and paper was scarce and costly. Can you imagine? And just a generation or so ago there were only typewriters with carbon paper and mimeographs for copies. No Internet. No computers. Again, can you imagine how much more work writing demanded then?
But one thing has not changed all that much. Each writer has always had their own favored surroundings in which to work. It’s interesting to know where some of the most successful authors of decades past composed their enduring works. Their special writing spaces.
Some, like my mother, apparently craved chaos. Ray Bradbury wrote amid an incredible profusion of art, photos, books, strewn stacks of papers. His space resembled a college dorm room. William F. Buckley’s space was even worse, like the home of a hoarder. Einstein’s office was also cluttered. One thing I liked about his space, though, was a large chalkboard on the wall behind him, which still seems like a great organizational idea for any writer; I’d have one if space permitted. Winston Churchill’s office was busy but ordered, as you might expect.
Many wrote in their libraries, of course, often at roll top desks. Andrew Carnegie’s library was surprisingly modest but comfortable, with wood-paneled walls and a small fireplace. Frederick Douglas’s was large, ornate, high-ceilinged, with many loaded shelves and baroque furniture.
Some preferred Spartan spaces. Ernest Hemingway’s room was full of light with a plain uncluttered table, a tiled floor, and a few simple bookshelves—as spare as his prose. Virginia Woolf’s was also austere, with a plain table and straight chair and unadorned walls. Frail Anne Frank needed only a tiny desk and wrote longhand in journals, a pencil held between her right index and middle finger, with her thumb affording a strong three-point grip, which is quite comfortable really. Raymond Carver also liked plain surroundings. Jackie Kennedy worked in simple elegant surroundings, often at a modest antique desk with a vase of flowers on it.
E. B. White worked with a mechanical portable typewriter in an utterly barren rustic space, sitting on a hard pew-like bench at a table by a large swing-in window overlooking a body of water. Anne Morrow Lindbergh also had a plain rustic cabin with a simple desk near swing-out windows. George Bernard Shaw took this preference to an extreme with a detached rustic windowed shed only about ten feet square.
Some spaces were strange. Roald Dahl worked in an overstuffed wing chair with a laptop desk, writing longhand in a journal. Dalton Trombo liked to sit naked in a warm bathtub with a side table nearby, writing longhand in a journal on a swing-in desktop. J. D. Salinger was known to write naked in nature, seated on an upended suitcase and typing on a mechanical portable on the tailgate of his station wagon, a pipe wreathing his head in aromatic smoke.
A majority liked to write near windows or swing-out patio doors, both for a view and the light, and that’s the environment I’ve chosen. I sit at my computer beneath a skylight by sliding glass doors that lead out into my multi-windowed sunroom, with a wide view beyond of cypress and tupelo and pecan trees and the broad Neuse River. It’s always changing with the seasons and the time of day and the weather. I often use an angled music stand beside me to temporarily hold reference materials, notes, or a printed and marked-up novel draft I’m polishing.
I can’t imagine writing anywhere else.
(Source: “100 Famous Authors and Their writing Spaces,” by Jared A. Brock.)
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