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February 29, 2012

A Room of My Own. To Share. Sometimes.

Posted by tbrmaureen

Casey Scieszka, co-author of TO TIMBUKTU, shares the methods to her madness, and why finding the right place to write makes all the difference in the world.

“I wrote in bed in hotels in the desert,” said the author Paul Bowles of how and where he crafted his most famous book, THE SHELTERING SKY.

How romantic is that? It makes me want to chuck my laptop, trade it for a typewriter and head off to the Sahara to rent a simple room with billowing curtains and a quiet, whirring fan.

The only problem is, I’ve done that before. Not with the typewriter, but all the rest of it. I wrote in bed in hotels in the desert and you know what? It sucked. The heat was excruciating, the flies incessant, the food awful, and the loneliness completely debilitating. And I’m not a picky traveler.

But I am, it turns out, a picky writer.

I used to think that Virginia Woolf had the final word on where to write: in a room of one’s own. So for my first three years out of college, having a private place to write was a priority for me, even when I was living in far flung places like Beijing and Bamako. (For those of you wondering, I was also teaching English and doing research, not magically living off of writing fulltime fresh out of undergrad…)

So in China I wrote in this strange extra room that housed the fridge and a wardrobe, in Mali I wrote in an empty office at a radio station situated above a loud bus station in one hundred degree heat, and in San Francisco I wrote in an excruciatingly expensive and freezing glorified cubicle… Hey, as long as the place was mine and mine alone, it had to be great for writing!

The truth, it turned out, was a bit trickier: yes I got some good writing done, but somehow, having my own room was never the magical answer I had hoped it would be.

In all of these cities, I was living with my boyfriend, Steven. So that was definitely part of my drive to have this separate workspace. I simply could not get creative work done with him and all his distractions there, right?


In San Francisco, I would walk twenty minutes from our studio apartment to my itty-bitty writing room in a space I shared with two tech guys. Compared to all the other places I had been working for the past two years abroad, this was supposed to be a dream. A locking door! A window! A real desk and chair! A working bathroom just steps away!

Steven worked in a group artists’ studio in a converted warehouse a couple blocks away. We’d always get lunch together, and after a few weeks, I started making excuses to drop by earlier to pick him up or to hang out after. And sometimes I’d have my computer and just happen to write something up when I was there. Or in the evening, when I was done, I’d come by his place with a six-pack and then next thing we knew it was midnight and we were still working.

When his studio mate told him he was leaving, we hesitantly asked ourselves, should I just move in? Was that crazy? To spend all this time together? To give up the room of my own? In my head Virginia Woolf was angrily puffing her hand rolled cigarettes and moaning, “Noooooo! Dahling, don’t do it!” But the empirical evidence was stacked against her. For the past two months, I’d been getting all my best work done in a room entirely not my own—despite the music, despite the other people dropping in, despite sharing a desk, despite the odd hours.

We wound up working there for a year, writing and illustrating our first book together, creating fine art, and beginning our graphic design business we still run today. Not everything we produced during that time was a collaboration, but it’s safe to say that just about everything we made benefited from having someone else around for critiques, procrastination, inspiration, and shenanigans. (Did I mention our favorite late-night studio break was biking indoors through the warehouse hallways once everyone else had gone home?)

When we moved to Brooklyn two years ago, we decided we wanted to continue our shared studio situation --- which is exactly where I’m writing from now, at a big desk, one of us on either side. And for the vast majority of the time, it’s wonderful.

Then there are those other times.

Like when I’m having a hard time finishing something and I need to be alone in the above ground equivalent of an individual submarine where no one can ask me what we’re having for lunch, what our plans for Saturday are, if I’ve seen that Maurice Sendak/Stephen Colbert clip yet, if I’d look over this illustration, or if I want to go out and get some coffee.

And that’s fine! (Especially because the feeling is mutual.) It doesn’t mean our shared studio is failing, it doesn’t mean I need a room of my own --- it means that I just have to be aware of what works for each project, each day. If I’m to hope that my writing keeps evolving, it should only seem natural that how I write may change along the way too. And I might say now that I never want to write in bed in hotels in the desert again, but a writer should know --- never ever say never.