Writers at Work
by Ben McGrath May 23, 2005
A room of one’s own, in which to write: it’s an old and chronically romanticized idea—the solitary space, with an ashtray, an Olivetti, the morning light just so. Each writer has his own preferences and fetishes, of course. For Proust, it was walls insulated with cork, to keep sound out. For Bellow, a tilted drafting table, so that he could write standing up. Cheever looked out a window facing the woods; Hawthorne turned his back on one. Joseph Heller worked atop a shag carpet. The ideal persists, in a wireless age. Amy Tan surrounds herself with furniture from Imperial China.
In Queens, recently, an artists’ collective called Flux Factory commissioned architects to design three writers’ “habitats”—human terrariums, essentially, into which writers would move for a month’s time, as part of a “living installation” called “novel.” Three subjects relocated to the boxlike spaces about a week ago, and on June 4th they are expected to emerge with finished books. The Flux designers did not seek advice from other working writers about what makes a productive or inspirational space. Their guiding principle seems to have been: Just think what Solzhenitsyn could have written had his prison cell been properly feng-shui’d.
The week before the writers moved in, Flux’s president, Morgan Meis, gave a tour of the unfinished boxes. “This one is pretty much a hobbit hole,” he said of the first box, which was constructed mostly from found materials, bounty from a month’s worth of “dumpster diving” by its designer, Ian Montgomery. Meis sat down and made a serious face, impersonating a writer. “So you sit here and concentrate, and you look out,” he said, gesturing toward a dirt trough, where fast-growing grasses were to be planted, “to mark the passage of time.” He added, “The roof will grow, too. The space will be growing through the month, as you write.”
Nearby, an architect named Paul Davis was tinkering with the space his firm, Salazar Davis, designed for the writer Laurie Stone, a wood box with translucent walls and a ramp through the middle. He had read some of Stone’s work for inspiration. “A theme of her writing seems to be herself and her thought processes—how she evaluates herself in relation to external circumstances,” he explained. “She said that when she finds herself in scary circumstances, that incites her to make beautiful things. So we wanted to take a friendly little happy cube and unsettle her in a provoking way.” For a retreat, he built her an alcove for yoga.
The third habitat, for Ranbir Sidhu, is the only one that prominently features books as décor. “We’re working with units of storage to deal with writing as product,” Mitch McEwen, one of the designers, said. “It’s a literal writing factory.” The product on display included John O’Hara’s “Gibbsville, Pa.”; a travel guide to Budapest; the Grolier Encyclopedia, Volume IX (Red-Str); “Kant’s Life and Thought.”
One of the most time-honored elements of writing-room mythology is the preference for a particular writing instrument. As Jill Krementz demonstrated in “The Writer’s Desk,” William Styron requires No. 2 pencils and yellow legal pads, and John Ashbery likes a Depression-era Royal manual typewriter. Jonathan Franzen still uses MS-DOS software on an old I.B.M. clone he found in the classifieds for a hundred and fifty dollars. At Flux, each writer was issued a Mac laptop. The rules forbid the participants to watch television or leave their boxes for more than ninety minutes a day, but, perhaps unwisely, they encourage a more contemporary method of wasting time: blogging. By day three, yoga was evidently not enough to keep Laurie Stone from going stir-crazy. She wandered out of her box and began cataloguing the items in the Flux Factory kitchen for her blog: “A 15-roll sack of Bounty paper towels. A five-pound plastic jug of honey with sticky cap. A 32-ounce bottle of red hot sauce. A two-quart vat of Kikkoman soy sauce. A crate of oranges. . . .” A novel it was not.
A trip to Flux during visiting hours last week suggested that the writing process may be the same wherever you do it. Grant Bailie, who now occupies the hobbit hole, was sitting, Indian style, in front of the window, smoking. Ranbir Sidhu was sitting at his desk, sipping from a large coffee mug and staring at a mostly blank screen. Laurie Stone didn’t respond to a couple of knocks on her wall. She appeared to be napping.