Friday, May 10, 2013

How To Create A Better Writing Space (And Other Thoughts on Writing)

How To Create A Better Writing Space (And Other Thoughts On Writing) | Click through to get some unique tips to build a functional and inspiring writing space!

I think writing is one of the stranger hobbies in the world. It's easily one of the most valuable ways that I spend my time, and I love doing it, but rare is the time that I actually want to do it. The moment I sit down to write, I go into a kind of temporary insanity wherein I can think of nothing more important than organizing closets and checking my Facebook.

Sometimes my cat, Frasier, will sit down on my lap while I'm writing and I'll think, well, maybe I'll just pet this little guy for a bit...and then three hours will pass, and I will not have written a thing.

Frasier with Wheat Thins
The comfort I have is that a lot of writers deal with this, probably all. If you are a writer and you have not adapted this strange set of problems, but you would like to, here is a short list of things to do instead of writing:
  1. Blankly stare at nothing
  2. Shop online
  3. Nap with your mouth open
  4. Dance in front of a full-length mirror
  5. Make a really detailed sandwich
  6. Find the most echoey spot in your apartment and sing Beyonce's Irreplaceable (my neighbor's favorite option)
  7. Watch hair videos on YouTube 
  8. Read Harry Potter
  9. Make faces in the mirror
  10. Get lost in a Wikipedia trance starting with Pearl Harbor and ending with Bladder (about 50 degrees of separation, by the way.)
You get the point. It is easy to do anything other than write. But now that I am taking writing more seriously as a career path for myself, I have decided that this crap has got to stop.

It probably won't ever stop, but I have slowly been creating systems in my life to help make me a more focused writer. One of the most effective things I have done so far is set up a proper writing space in my home. Here is the proof:

I've since made a few more changes that I will be sharing with you today, but basically, welcome to my zone. It seems simple because it really is, but there are elements to it that have made it perfect for me and my apartment.

On top of that, I'd like to give you some tips that will hopefully help you create your new writing space, and I might even throw in a few of my favorite general writing tips as well. If you're here just for the writing tips, skip down to #7.

Step 1: Pick an area that you actually want to be in your home.

In my life, I make a distinction between a workspace and a creative space. When working, you want to eliminate all distractions so you can focus on your Quickbooks or whatever. We have a desk that we use as a workspace, but I hardly ever write there.

It's nice enough. It's a really solid desk and it's got some things about it that are really great, so why don't I use it?

Answer: It's haunted.

That's a lie. Sorry. Actually, the answer is that it's just not a place I like to hang out in our apartment. It's right by the kitchen so if Daniel is in there, I am acutely aware of every clink of every dish. It's also by Frasier's litter box, so sometimes I'll be moving right along in my writing when suddenly a stench of death will overtake the entire area. Most importantly, there is no natural lighting in that area. You can't really tell from the picture, but it's a very dark place...practically haunted...

...which leads me to step 2...

Step 2: If you can, write by a window. 

My writing space is indeed by a window, but the bummer comes when I have to look out of it.

Are you depressed yet?

Wah wah. I love almost everything about Brooklyn, except for this one specific view. The reason I like to sit by windows usually is because of all of the creativity that flows from watching people doing their people things and plants doing their plant things and animals doing their animal things. That's one of the big differences between a workspace and a creative space. While you don't want distractions, you do want inspiration. A quick break to look up at a couple sitting on their porch together or a tree swaying in the breeze could be the turning point in your writing.

Unfortunately, that's just not a realistic option for me right now, but this window gets the job done in so much as a good deal of natural light makes its way through it. Natural light reminds us that there is an outside which reminds us that there is nature which reminds us that we have a God who loves us enough to give us nature. I thoroughly believe that taking in sunlight is a surefire way to boost your creativity, and there is science that backs me up in that.

Step 3: Use a great surface/buy the same table I have.

Let me tell you about this table, guys. This is no ordinary table.

We got this bad boy at IKEA, knowing full well that it would change our lives, and sweet goodness, it has not disappointed. At first glance, it's just a run-of-the-mill table, small even. But the truth is, this table is basically Optimus Prime. 

Meet NORDEN. Here are his three forms:

When it's not being a table, it's just a shelf!

Also drawers!

Today I've opted to fill my drawer with tortilla chips, but feel free to fill yours with something sane like pens. 
I cannot say enough about this table. I basically wrote this entire post so that I could brag about it. We bought it as a kitchen table because, like most New York City apartments, our space can get kind of cramped. Having a table that can basically collapse into a small shelf is a step away from magic in this town. While a lot of people would steer you away from using a utilitarian space for writing, I actually like that my writing space doubles as a kitchen table. It forces me to always keep it clean. 

Regardless, make sure you have a designated space wide enough for your pointy elbows, but not wide enough for you to even think about resting your head on it. This seems obvious, but think about that tiny desk you had in your dorm room and how many pencil cups you threw across the room in frustration with it. Think about that.

Step 4: Remove all unnecessary distractions (just keep it clean).

I think that there is a temptation to leave your work in a cluttered mess because Einstein said it made you a genius or whatever. It doesn't. It actually just makes you sad (again, science).

This chick knows what I'm talking about.
Keep your stuff clean, simple as that. This goes for the entire home because, again, the greatest urge you will fight as a writer is to do the dishes instead. You never wanted to do a dish in your life, but now the desire is so overwhelmingly strong that you can hardly contain yourself. If the dishes are done, this temptation will be drastically decreased. 

If you are just not a clean person, just get out of there. Stop reading this and go to a coffee shop (I opt to do this as seldom as possible because going to coffee shops usually means spending money...which is not something I have a lot of).

Step 5: Keep your favorite materials handy.

Keep your area stocked with only the essentials (your laptop, a legal pad, notecards, sticky notes, pens, and a water bottle). If you're someone who uses pencils, I guess have pencils. Each of these essentials should be your favorite version. For instance, inches from my fingertips, I have the best pens in all of human history. They are called Le Pen by Marvy. They are made in Japan, and when I use one, I simply feel like an artist. 

Buy them. You will feel like an artist too. 

I think it's important to have favorite tools as a writer because it leads to a greater sense of ownership. Don't be afraid to be a little snobby about it. Maybe you're writing is sucking it up that day, but look how pretty the ink is when it comes out of this glorious pen! 

Put your Le Pens in your favorite mug, set them aside, and feel very affirmed in all of your creative choices. 

Thanks to my wonderful friend, Emily, for the gift of this PERFECT mug!
Do you have a favorite pen/writing tool? Tell me more! Unless it's those Pilot pens that smear everywhere (my husband's favorite).

Step 6: Make it cozy...but not too cozy.

Let's examine my chair for a moment. 

This thing was $9 at IKEA and was bought out of absolute apathy. It turns out nice chairs are expensive, and I'd rather spend my money on better things like Cat Print button-downs and Hulu Plus. 

It's not the comfiest chair I've ever sat in, but it gets the job done. And it turns out that I am even grateful for the pain in the ass that creeps up in the second hour of sitting in it. It reminds me to keep going, and it keeps me focused. I'm not saying go buy yourself an uncomfortable chair on purpose, but don't deck your creative space out like you are going to live in it for the rest of your life. If you do, distractions are bound to creep up, and you will probably end up taking a totally underserved nap. 

Just keep it simple.

Put some flowers in a vase and let things exist in your space without turning it into a collage of your life's trials and tribulations. 

Which seamlessly leads me to my final and most fun point...

Step 7: Make it inspirational. 

I love that my space is seated right beneath a book shelf because it just reminds me of all of the people in this world who just decided to do it. He could have just taken lengthy naps instead, but no, Michael Crichton wrote. Emily Bronte wrote. Betty Friedan wrote. David Sedaris wrote. C.S. Lewis wrote.

Whether you use actual works of literature, Scripture, quotes, a picture of your son/daughter, make your writing space a place that inspires you to write

I recently made some printouts with pretty fonts and colors in order to remind me of some of the truths I've learned about the writing process.

Also, make your space smell good with a delicious candle!

If you can't read these, they say Write It Down, Shitty First Drafts, and Short Assignments. These might mean nothing to you right now, but I'll explain, and maybe you'll want to print them too!

This is something my good friend Patrick says to me whenever I say something funny in a conversation. It always makes me feel like a million bucks. Basically, what I've learned from this statement is that a lot of the things worth writing down are things that live outside of the traditional writing process. They come in conversations or in your sleep or when someone smiles at you at just the right time in your day. You never know when inspiration will strike, and that is why, if you're a writer, you should never leave any hint of your brilliance unwritten. I make notes all day because of Patrick's encouraging words. 90% are nonsense. 7% are bad ideas in hindsight. But that last 3% are like the sperm that makes it ahead of all of his loser sperm friends. Gross. Forget I said that. 

This one, I learned from a book by Anne Lamott titled Bird by Bird. By the way, I would recommend this book to any writer at any stage. It's filled with incredibly practical advice and colored with the sardonic wit of a woman who, like all writers, soars and sinks between her own glory and despair. It. Is. Wonderful.

Apart from using one of my favorite swear words, these words really resonate with me. Shitty First Drafts is one of the chapter titles in her book, and its a principle she teaches her students in her writing class. Here's Anne:
The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you just let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional, territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational grown-up means. 
I write a lot of shitty first drafts. I pretty much only write shitty first drafts, and having this little print on my desk reminds me that it's okay. I mean, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?!

Short Assignments also comes from Bird by Bird. It's a chapter of the same title. 
Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of --oh, say -- say women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier. It's hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.
This anxiety that Lamott describes is a lot of why I think to do my most odious chores whenever I sit down to write. The self-doubt, the gravity of it all -- it is consuming.

But what she suggests in this chapter is that we don't have to have it all figured out when we sit down at our NORDEN table.
E.L. Doctorow once said that "writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.
God, I hope that's true because there is so much about my future that is beyond the glimpse of my headlights.

Anyway, guys, I know this whole thing has been about creating an optimal writing environment, but you could write on the hood of your car, and you'd still be a writer. You could write while skydiving or in the mouth of a volcano, and I say go for it (also, I say, try not to die).

As long you are writing somewhere, you are doing something really special. 

I'll end with one more quote from Bird by Bird and then you will have to promise me that you'll go out and buy it:

What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.
Sit down at your awesome space by a window with minimal distractions and lots of inspiration, and write a world. 

I hope this was helpful to some of you! I would love to hear some of your suggestions on writing spaces and writing in general. Also, as always, if the spirit moves you, feel free to Pin this so that others can learn about the joys of a good place to write!

And P.S. If you want to start feeling like Hemingway today, below are some of the tools we talked about that you can buy right NOW:


P.P.S. Did you like this post? Want to read more of my ramblings on the writing process?'s the thing: I actually don't blog on this website anymore. Bummer, I know. HOWEVER, you can instead find me over on my new site, (that's my name dot com). I'm there on the reg talking about creativity & confidence (and writing, of course). 

I also share a ton of writing tips & bits of life wisdom via my email list. If you want in on that goodness, you can sign up below and you'll also receive a FREE copy of my ebook "Your Dreams Aren't Dumb."

>>Sign up here to grab your FREE e-book<<


  1. Love this, love you, blam-o.

    I believe so much in you!!

    And if you had Norden when I was there (or if I had noticed him?) you better believe I would have packed him on my carry-on and taken him back to Texas. I'm assuming he can fold into carry-on size, too.

    1. I didn't have it then, so you didn't miss anything! Love you too! How lucky I am to you have, Miss Kaley! You are one of the most wonderful encouragements of my life.

  2. This article was so awesome. I spent the entire day facing the question of how to create a writing space in my cramped, New York BASEMENT apartment (talk about a lack of natural light!) But thanks to Google & you, I'm inspired to build my own space. Thank you!

  3. That is a cool desk. I want that desk. My room doesn't really have the space for it, but maybe I could rig something some art work. I did get this little statue of a bird perched on top of a couple of books. It's a start. I do have this ridiculously comfortable overstuff chair that barely fit through the door of my room though.

    But writing...oh, writing. Sometimes, I sit down and think I'm gonna write the best thing ever. And I write stuff. Then later, I look at it and just go, what is this crap? Why does it exist? And then I abandon it. Then I write something else that has nothing to do with what I'd previously been working on. Mostly I write fanfiction, but I want to write a real book someday, but I lose interest in so many of my projects, it's ridiculous.

    Writing is crazy, but I love it anyway, even when it frustrates me to no end. I just keep doing it. So I guess that's the thing. Just keep doing it. Eventually, you'll have something coherent, then work on making it decent, then destroy it and re-write and one day you've made something that you're actually really proud of and doesn't make you cringe to re-read.

    Sometimes I really like run-on sentences. They make me feel like a rebel.

  4. I'm in the process of refining my writing space (moved in Sept 9th) and this post came along at a great time. It also gives me incentive to take before and after photos. Thanks for the IKEA tip, too!

  5. I love your wit and voice.
    I see good things out beyond those headlights.
    Thanks for the smile and the inspiration/kick in the butt at the end of a long day of avoiding my work.

  6. This is wonderful! I used to bemoan my lack of a writing desk, but just recently I decided to stop whining and use whatever I do have. Now, I'll admit, I still don't write as much as I should, but I feel much more effective having a "writing space". And I'll second what Susan R. said, you have a wonderful voice.

  7. Sharpie liquid highlighters are the best highlighters in the history of the world. My writing life (and life in general) leads me down many wandering roads of research, and these highlighters the best companion ever.

  8. Is it weird of me to comment on a post that's nearly eight months old? Maybe. Just wanted to say that I saw this post a couple of months ago and totally fangirled over the Le Pen pens (I have a thing for awesome writing utensils). I ended up buying myself some for Christmas and I LOVE THEM! Now I just have to find a cute jar or mug to display them in. :)

  9. That I should discover this mere hours after avoiding writing by playing Solitaire Tri-Peaks for hours, all while Big Bang Theory played is fantastic! Thank you SO much! Perfect timing! Now I have to make my writing space somewhere other than my recliner that is in front of my TV...

  10. Wow that is a great space saving desk!

  11. I googled and Google provided. Thank you for writing this article! It was very informative (and funny). My desire to write has overwhelmed me to the point where I can no longer ignore it and creating my writing space will be just what I need. Thanks again!

  12. Smashing little article. I have a space but I don't feel comfortable there. I should feel lucky for having the space, but I just can't settle and be productive there. I thought it was just something affecting me, but clearly it's not. Where you settle to write is important.

  13. Have you read Annie Dillard's the Writing Life? (if you haven't, do--it'll change your writing life!) Your window view reminded me of her perfectly. She actually tried to have an ugly view because otherwise she would get distracted, and it helped her discipline herself. So see? It has an advantage. haha. thanks for this post. It was great and all so true.

  14. Great post and great ideas! One thing I'd add only -- to those of us who write and have children -- It's good to be able to write on the fly, at the kitchen table or whatever, because, otherwise, pen will never hit paper for some of us. But, true nirvana is said wonderful desk and wonderful pens in a room with a door -- and a spouse who holds down the fort for you while you hide behind that door and write.

  15. I loved this post and out of all the articles I have read about creative workspace, this is easily the best. I have my spare room as my office which I never ever write in. The room is cold, sterile and far from inspirational.

    I have decided to do something about it, not knowing quite where to begin or how to start, I have been checking out websites for ideas.

    Something colourful, childish as I have a childish imagination and easily 'lose' myself in stuff and I have the Toy Story Woody doll to prove it.

    Having my own room to write in is a pure luxury and I know I should utilize it so I will be off to the charity shops to see what bargains I can pick up.

    Also may I say that I love your 'excuses for not writing' - I have used most of them myself.

    Thanks again for this, it's brilliant.


  16. You know what I liked the most? Your voice. I could hear your voice as I read this. I really connected with this post; and from looks of the comments above, so did a lot of others. Well done, you.

  17. I used to be on board with you about chairs, but then I heard this 99% invisible podcast: Now I have a bunch of different kinds of chairs (all free for the most part) and am thinking about picking up some stools. Just a thought. Great post overall! I just started freelancing full-time, so I've been dreaming about fixing up my workspace.

  18. Great post! I found your blog from this pin on Pinterest. I don't know why, but I figured you like to know where your readers come from.
    Anywho, I'm also a writer/blogger and I love everything you share here! New follower! :)

  19. Yes! Especially love your point about the window! So true. I write from my loft office. We live in a log cabin in the woods, so I just look out the window and feel like I'm in a bird's nest. Quite helpful for a writer. :)

  20. This is exactly what I needed to hear right now. As I'm putting off my own writing, I find this (well-writ and witty) article on ways to fix that. Crazy! I'm so glad I'm not the only one who has a love/hate relationship with writing. Also, that NORDEN... <3 Great article!

  21. GIRL! MY writer's OCD kicked in when I saw your pens face up, keep them with caps facing down for ultimate longevity. Can't wait to read Bird by Bird thanks for the recommendation!

  22. 1) I'm a cheapskate and live in rural NW Oklahoma so WalMart is my go to...luckily I've found a great set of pens there that I always carry with my in a zippered pouch. They're called Zebra Z-grips and I LOVE their gel ink and colors. I usually write in the pink or purple...I grade in the green or orange.

    2) I live in an old church building so the choir loft is now my writer's loft. The natural light from the two windows falls across a family heirloom shelf covered in books and stuffed animals because, though I'm 30, my inner child needs someone to spill their story ideas to! (I have an old kitchen table that we've used my entire life and moved to my first home with me when I left my parents. Now my parents, my daughter, and I share the building but the table and the loft are ALL MINE!)

    3) I LOVE your little space! I would totally set mine up like that if I had a tiny space like yours. Of course, I'm cluttery so that might not work quite so well...but the tortilla chips would be the same.

    Good Luck! Great Article

  23. One thing that I have done to add inspiration to my writing space is to create a poster-sized print of one of my book covers and put it up on the wall. I see it every day next to my printed books. I'm self-published, so sales are not yet stellar, and every bit of inspiration around me reminds me that not only can I write, but I have written. I did it. I just need to keep moving forward.

  24. One thing that I have done for inspiration in my writing area is to create a poster-sized print of one of my book covers and hang it on the wall. This is next to my printed books. I am an indie author, so my sales are not yet stellar. Having the constant reminder that I have made it -- I have actually written several books -- keeps me moving forward. It is not some nebulous place in the future. I have accomplished the goal of writing. That provides inspiration to keep going.

  25. One thing that I have done for inspiration in my writing area is to create a poster-sized print of one of my book covers and hang it on the wall. This is next to my printed books. I am an indie author, so my sales are not yet stellar. Having the constant reminder that I have made it -- I have actually written several books -- keeps me moving forward. It is not some nebulous place in the future. I have accomplished the goal of writing. That provides inspiration to keep going.

  26. My two favorite pens are bic 4 color pens, one is pastel and the other is darker. Then I always have a black pen handy for everything that doesn't need to be color coded. I also have a handful of found pens I keep hand because I just love having pens in my space and will use different types of pens for different things. Like having two pens specifically to journal with. I love my pens.

  27. That was a cool article. Im a writer also but I don't really have a defined writing space I just have defined writing tools which are pretty pens as you mentioned a notebook and my laptop. My most defined writing space is my desk by the window though. I cover the wall in front of it with multicolored sticky notes with random ideas and quotes and story sequences.

  28. Found this via Pinterest and love what you said -- especially about windows! I do my best creative work when I can look outside and see how the world is carrying on without me.

  29. This post is just the right thing at the right time for me :) my apartment has been in a state of chaos for a few months now, and it's left me longing for a functional workspace where I can actually sit down and write or draw. My bed is cozy but it's not the best place to work! P.s. You have confirmed my feeling that the NORDEN table will be life changing in my tiny apartment!

  30. Great post! Um, yeah, I do all these things you mentioned...which is why I found your post while messing around on pinterest! :) Love the desk! I need that desk. Dh is a woodworker tho, so he will probably turn his nose up at it because it's not as solid as he could make it...but he is to busy to actually make me one..ugh. Anyways, I enjoyed the tips!

  31. I've seen that table at IKEA. I've admired it. Stroked it. Pulled open all it's little parts. I have yet to buy it. I'm a bad writer. Luckily, I think you've inspired me to go back and love that table again.

  32. I love this post and I really enjoyed the way you wrote it. Some excellent advice. Thanks.

  33. I have seen that desk at IKEA a million times and never looked twice! I love your voice in your writing! I am glad I "accidentally" stumbled upon your blog! come by and say hello, I'd love to pick your brain!

  34. This was such a great post (found on Pinterest)! I've started putting together my writing space, and this certainly contained some great advice (and even better, a book recommendation). Thanks for sharing, and I'll be sure to check out your new site!

  35. I live on 300 square feet/28 square meters. Loved your post. Ruight now, unless I throw out my guinea pigs cage and their playpen, I don't have room for a little area to study and write ;( . Still looking for a solution other than working on the couch. Maybe I will eventually find a desk like the one you describe that fits my budget.
    As for pens; I HATE ballpoint pens (the inkt never flows easily), but Faber Castell Poly Ball XB pens are amazing; smooth writing and fun colours. Worth the expense.


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