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20 June: The Writer’s Desk

Published onJul 09, 2019
20 June: The Writer’s Desk

In the summer of 2005 Italian sculptor Giancarlo Neri installed his huge 30-foot sculpture ‘The Writer’ on Parliament Hill, part of Hampstead Heath in north London. Neri’s tribute to the lonely heroism of writing took the form of a monumental vacant wooden table and chair. The giant sculpture, made of six tons of steel and 1,000 pounds of wood, was an uncanny presence set against the sunburnt grass and trees of London’s historic park where Karl Marx liked to walk on Sundays. It was an apt location for the work given the many literary Gullivers who lived and wrote in this part of north London, including Keats, Coleridge, Freud and C.L.R. James.

‘As one moves around the elongated table legs and looks up from under the table’, wrote critics Nirmal Puwar and Sanjay Sharma, ‘the weight of the world as it is carried by the labour of writers, overwhelms, tires and leaves one wondering.’ The striking sculpture, so out of place, brings to the foreground the ‘where’ of writing.

For many great writers like Marx it had to be one specific place, in his case desk 07 in the British Library’s Reading Room. Freud, a refugee from Nazi Germany, would recreate his writing desk wherever he ended up. His cluttered desk at the Freud Museum in nearby Finchley is packed with ancient sculptures in wood and bronze of idols, gods and deities from Egypt, China, Greece and Rome which looked back at him from the edges of the table. He saw collecting them as one of his main addictions alongside his famous penchant for smoking cigars. He needed to surround himself with carved friends and ghoulish idols in order to put pen to paper.

Georges Perec wrote that he liked his desk to be ‘cluttered, almost to excess’. Tidying up marked for him the beginning and the end of a writing project. ‘At such times I dream of an immaculate, unsullied desktop, with everything in the right place and nothing unnecessary on it’, he wrote. ‘Nothing protruding from it, with all my pencils sharpened (but why do I have more than one pencil? I can see six of them, at a glance!), with all my papers in piles, or even better, with no papers on it at all, just a notebook open at a fresh page.’ Like him, I think and write surrounded by mess punctuated by brief binges of tidiness. Brief periods of order mark the end of one thing and the beginning of something else.

I often need my books around me in order to write, the names on their spines peering back like Freud’s sculptures. I don’t order the books on the shelves: somehow the anarchic contiguity – Harper Lee rubbing covers with Clifford Geertz – is intellectually productive and pleasing. I simply can’t work in the same place all the time and recently I have developed an allergic reaction to my desk.

I think part of this aversion is linked to the restlessness and frustration inherent in the act of writing. The time spent reading and priming one’s mind is always as long, if not longer, than the period spent hammering out the words on the keyboard. Walking away from the desk or finding a new place to write is part of that process of writing preparation. This is not an individual problem or foible.

Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has a house close to Hampstead Heath in which he uses three studies and seven writing desks including a white children’s one that he bought for his daughter to do her homework on. Jill Krementz’s wonderful book of photographs The Writer’s Desk captures the workplaces of an inspiring range of authors from Eudora Welty to Ralph Ellison.

John Updike’s introduction comments that he looks at these photographs with ‘a prurient interest, the way that I might look at the beds of notorious courtesans’. Updike confesses to having three desks, each supporting a different activity: an oak desk where he answers letters and talks on the telephone; an olive, drab, steel military desk where he does delicate writing (poems or the beginning of a novel) by hand with a pencil; and lastly, a white Formica-veneered table dedicated to the practical industry of word processing and typing up. ‘Being able to move from desk to desk, like being able to turn over in bed, solves some cramps and fidgets and stratifies the authorial persona’, Updike concludes.

Many authors like Katherine Anne Porter need a cup of strong black coffee to start the day, but what is striking about Krementz’s book is the incredible diversity in the writers’ preferred surroundings. Jean Piaget and Dorothy West need mess and organized chaos while Edmund White and E.B. White compose their sentences in rooms that are virtually paper free. Saul Bellow and Rita Dove put pen to paper on their feet at standing desks while Walker Percy and Cathleen Schine write their books in bed. For other writers it’s a matter of physically getting away from all that is familiar and finding a writing desk in a remote village or a grand metropolis in which they can be anonymous. We each need to find our own way of furnishing a productive literary environment.

The other thing that is striking about Neri’s magnificent desk monument is the way it suggests the proliferation of places where authors can write. In the age of the laptop computer writers are no longer hostage to the immobile typewriter and a desk can be found almost anywhere as long as the battery is charged or if there is a compatible mains socket close at hand. This points to another dimension of the desk allergy syndrome that stems from the nature of life in the twenty-first century.

The alchemy of wi-fi hot spots and the global reach of email make it almost impossible to escape academic responsibilities for longer than the duration of a plane flight and that too will soon be a thing of the past. Connectivity offers a staggering capacity for writers to access information. The price we pay for this resource that has so quickly been taken for granted is the exasperation of seemingly endless queries about meetings, essays and deadlines. The academic life has become open access. In order to think and write I find myself seeking out places to disconnect and get off the information superhighway.

Today I am in my current favourite spot, Pistachios in the Park Café on Hilly Fields, one of south London’s most beautiful – and lesser known – parks. I find it an ideal location to get my laptop out and write. It is located almost exactly halfway between where I live and where I work. It literalizes aptly the place of writing in my own life: a vocation that is between what I get paid to do and the rest of my life.

Now I am surrounded by the sounds of toddlers crying, young Mums laughing over the absurdities of parenting and dogs barking loudly. ‘Don’t you find it distracting’ asks Fred, the owner. Truth is I don’t. On odd occasions explosions of mirth from sixth-formers gathered around laptops watching comic YouTube virals disrupt my concentration, but those are exceptional lapses. The visitors to the café are busy getting on with more important things and are not asking for an immediate reply to email inquiry.

Freud’s desk seems less strange now as I settle down to work. The people here are not mute carved figures. They are busy getting on with their own lives and are not asking for an immediate reply to email inquiry. The person tapping away at a laptop in these public places nonetheless draws comfort and inspiration from them. It helps counteract inhibitions of authorial self-consciousness, which can be so stifling. It gets me started and helps me keep moving with the work. The noise of the children playing is also a reminder that writing is a profoundly social activity; it connects my thoughts to yours. In short, it lets them travel.

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