The Writer’s Desk
November 4, 2019 § 25 Comments
By Felicia Schneiderhan
In my junior year of college, I took refuge in a basement indie bookstore in Evanston, Illinois. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life when I found The Writer’s Desk, a slim book of photos by Jill Krementz. There was E.B. White at a typewriter in a barn overlooking water, there was Rita Dove at a podium, pen in hand. The writers briefly described how they worked; Eudora Welty wanted a full day with no interruptions, Phillip Roth didn’t want to discuss stopping for lunch. I spent hours studying it (rather than writing), and made my decision: I would write!
I needed a writer’s tools and bought a desk for $30. It seems exorbitant to me now, to buy an old cruddy desk for $30 in 1996. The drawers are heavy, the leg opening narrow and too low to fit my legs comfortably. I covered the top in green contact paper. It remains there to this day.
Two years later when I enrolled in an MFA program, I set up the desk in my Chicago courtyard apartment, overlooking a nest filled with baby squirrels and teenagers running drugs on the street below. I set a bookshelf beside the desk, a philodendron cascading over it. I photographed the desk and taped the developed photo into the back of The Writers’ Desk. It was official; I was a writer.
The desk became a repository of paper.
Instead, I wrote in workshop circles, on el trains, at bars beside glasses of wine or whiskey. I wrote in bed or at the kitchen counter. I sat at the desk only when I needed to enter my notes into the desktop computer. And when I got a laptop, I didn’t need to go to the desk at all.
I visited another writer in her studio. Her desk was a white piece of plywood stretched over cinder blocks, before a window, surrounded by neatly arranged shelves of books, the clean straight lines of everything, the stool she sat atop to write, where she actually did write, and I thought I should be more like her, I should get my own studio, I should get a boyfriend who would build me a desk.
Instead, I married a man who lived on a boat and moved on board with him. I gave away all my furniture, putting it piece by piece into the alley, each item taken before I returned with the next one. But the desk – the one item I never used – I put into storage. I couldn’t give it away; it might mean I was no longer a writer.
For three years I wrote on the fly bridge, the aft cabin deck, the forward cabin V-berth, the galley table. I wrote in cafes or libraries, because at that time being around people when I wrote did not bother me.
We moved to land in northern Minnesota, our U-Haul terrifically small; the desk was our only furniture.
Ten years and three kids later, the desk still stands in my house. I still do not write at it. I have added to my writing spot repertoire:
- The floors of my children’s rooms
- My minivan, parked at the lake, the forest, parking lots, street corners, while I sit among lost Legos, discarded wrappers, fruit snacks and M&Ms which would be eaten should they be found.
- The garage, the backyard shed, the basement.
- The bathroom floor.
- Our closet.
I wonder sometimes if I would be better served by getting the perfect desk. But after two decades working as a writer, I no longer believe I need the perfect environment to evoke the deities of creativity. The spigot is always open, though the quality of the inspiration is debatable. I write everywhere – and why wouldn’t I? Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in the cockpit. Maybe instead of the perfect desk, I’m ready to give up its heavy weight altogether, now that I know the life of the writer is more about flying.
Felicia Schneiderhan’s memoir Newlyweds Afloat (Breakaway Books, 2015) details the three years she lived aboard a boat in downtown Chicago. Her essays and short stories appear in magazines and journals including Real Simple, Parents, the Great Lakes Review, Sport Literate, Hypertext, and Literary Mama. She is currently working on a novel, supported in part by a Minnesota State Arts Board fellowship.