Def: Desk. A piece of furniture with a flat surface, often made of wood, at which a person can write or do other work.
Over the years of visiting literary homes, I’ve always been drawn to the rooms and desks where authors wrote. Though the kitchens provide insight into their daily lives and the doorways elicit images of people who visited, the desks and studies are the highlights of the tour. This is where the authors penned or typed their words. Where the impetus to create became incarnate. Where . . .
It would be easy to go on and on about high-minded ideals of the creative work that took place at these pieces of furniture and in these rooms. In reality, I’m drawn to them because I find it so difficult to stay at my desk. It’s the discipline of writing that attracts me. So in the spirit of desiring to sit at my desk in this new year, here’s a look at a few of the desks that have inspired me.
- The latest desk I stood near was the lap desk of Jane Austen in the British Library. From one perspective, it was just a simple box of wood with a lid. Inside were pens, ink, and paper. However, from another viewpoint, it was the place where Austen recorded her observations of society, shared her trenchant humor, and, unknowingly, created the sources of many well-loved films and mini-series. All this within carefully wrought stories that continue to draw people into her world.
- Though I’ve seen many desks, I always return to the first desk I remember, that of Louisa May Alcott. In her second story bedroom at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, there’s a built-in desk at the window that overlooks the Lexington Road. Here she penned Little Women and other novels, while she saw the daily traffic walking and riding before her. Sitting at her desk gave her one view onto the world that she eventually shared through her novels.
- At Monks House, the final home of Virginia Woolf, there is a wonderfully cozy sitting room and library. However, this is not where she did most of her writing. Instead, her work desk was in a re-purposed shed in the garden. In this small space, her desk looks out upon the gardens and the Sussex Downs. Here she had that “room of her own” in which to leave behind the stories in her daily life and focus on her task at hand – exploring new avenues to express the consciousness of her characters.
- In Jean Stratton-Porter’s offices at her two Indiana homes, she placed the desks in the middle of the room, interrupting traffic flow from one door to another. But her focus was not on movement, but on vision. She wanted to sit at her desk and see out of the house in all directions. The environment was vital to her work and in this place she brought together narrative and nature.
- Earlier this year, spending time at C. S. Lewis’s home, the Kilns, near Oxford, England, I didn’t get a chance to see his actual desk which is in a museum. Instead, a desk from that period was in the common room looking out the window to the rose garden. Even though I didn’t see the actual desk, I was struck by this one of many spaces where he wrote. This was a place of writing in the midst of life and community.
Each of these writers had different practices, different desks, different rooms. Still each desk and room represented the place where they put the ideas in their minds into physical form. In each of these homes I didn’t realize a mystical transfer of inspiration. Instead, I was encouraged that these authors, too, needed to be disciplined in their writing. Austen kept writing while people came in and out of the sitting room; Alcott worked tirelessly on her novels, writing in what she described as a vortex; and Lewis spent hours answering letters even though he did not enjoy it. They didn’t run from the blank page but were drawn to it, or at least stayed in front of it.
As I begin a new year and a new resolution to write, these and many more desks inspire me to sit down at my desk. Not recreating their space, but creating one of my own.