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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The writer's desk

The process of finding the proper desk calendar is always excruciating. It mustn't be too big, but it must have enough space to write in appointments and deadlines. It has to be weekly for I must be able to see my entire week in order to function with any sense of purpose and organization.

This year I spent two hours at Barnes and Noble before I found the right calendar. Actually, I purchased two — one that looks good and lies flat on my desk, the other a tan leather one that travels with me. Mind you I also possess a Palm Pilot, but I find it increasingly frustrating to poke in the information when I'm out and about and prefer to view my week and month on paper. Of course I still carry the Palm because of all the data it contains ... phone numbers, e-mail addresses, the all-important cell number of someone you're supposed to meet in two minutes.

As I was waiting for a few things to print early this morning I was thumbing through the pages on my desk calendar. It's called, "The Writer's Desk," and it has black-and-white photos by Jill Krementz of famous novelists and poets at their desks. There's also an extended caption with a quote from each writer about his or her creative space.

Anyway, as I'm thumbing through I notice that these writers' surroundings are either opulent or austere, messy or pristine, high-tech or very low tech. Fascinating really. Toni Morrison sits on her sofa with a legal pad. It's hard to tell where Edward Gorey ends and his cat perched on his shoulder begins. Eudora Welty more closely resembles a school marm than a churner of the written word.

Saul Bellow stood at a drafting table, again pen and pad in hand. Veronica Chambers is perched barefoot atop her kitchen counter with laptop in lap. George Plimpton works on a typewriter on what looks like a wooden TV tray (his twin baby girls are lying on a fur rug drinking from bottles and grabbing at their toes behind him). Arthur Miller sits at picnic table in his kitchen with pen and paper. Joyce Carol Oates types at an electric typewriter like the Smith-Corona I had in college with a dumbbell on the desk and a kitty in her lap. Mind you this photo is dated 1997.

One writes on a legal pad in the subway, another at a makeshift table in his bedroom surrounded by packs of Marlboros and overflowing ashtrays. Amy Tan sits at her dining room table with her laptop. Is Tom Wolfe in a smoking jacket??!!! In 1999 he, too, works on a typewriter? And what's with the matching set of lamps with fedora shades?

Sonia Sanchez sits in bed ala Edith Wharton. Card tables, dining room tables, makeshift desks, stacks and stacks of papers and books, pens and pencils, pets curled in lap or at feet. And light. These are the tools and the environs in which stories are spun and magic created.

I admit to being a voyeur when it comes to other writers, wondering about their environments or what rituals and items they surround themselves with in order to open the floodgates of creativity.

My favorite of this collection, and I'm also sorry I jumped ahead in the year to find it, is that of E.B. White. Taken in 1976 in Maine, it features White sitting in a wooden shack, a boat house perhaps, at a small wooden table with his typewriter, pencils and a stack of paper. Next to his desk is a pickle barrel one assumes is for trash. And to his right is an open window gazing out on a lake. So simple and so pure. Much like his writing.

UPDATE: John Ettorre has the photo of White that I mentioned posted on Feb. 2.

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