Service of Work Rooms: Where Authors such as Peter Ackroyd, Jhumpa Lahiri or Richard Dawkins Write

September 16th, 2013

Categories: Office, Work, Writers


The Writer’s Room” in the Sunday New York Times Magazine a while ago got me to thinking of spaces in which people are comfortable doing their jobs and where, within them, they are most productive. I previously touched on the subject in “Service of Telecommuting.”

In the article author Julian Barnes noted that he handwrites first drafts and moves to a typewriter for second ones. He wrote that his office has been the same Chinese yellow for 30 years and that he types on his IBM 196c of the same vintage. However his desk has changed from the original placed at right angles to a table to “almost a horseshoe” shape since he had one built and added on to over the decades. He concluded: “The room is usually very untidy: like many writers, I aspire to be a clean-desk person, but admit the daily reality is very dirty. So I have to walk carefully as I enter my study; but am always happy to be here.”

The Lowland Jhumpa LahiriJhumpa Lahiri’s desk was previously owned by a pope’s cardiologist—a healthy pedigree. She doesn’t always work there, where she types. “Otherwise I sit on the sofa to write by hand or read.” She admits that when she first saw the apartment—in Rome—she knew which room she’d like to work in, the previous tenant’s dining room. She reads copy on the terrace on occasion but never writes there.

Richard Dawkins is driven to change where he works by the messes he makes, starting on a clean table moving to others, even if they are outdoors. Jonathan Lethem doesn’t say how long he’s written in the home and office in which Esther Wood once lived and wrote, but he still feels it’s hers, not his. Wood died at 97 in this house built by her grandfather.

Faces in paintings and photographs inspire Edwidge Danticat. She wrote: “I keep a pile of pictures, intriguing faces torn from newspaper or magazine pages, from which I might borrow distinctive features and gestures for my characters.” She continued, “Sometimes when I’m stuck and can’t write, I just sit there and stare at [a photograph of Jean-Michel] Basquiat. Or I sit under my desk and stare into space.”

Peter Ackroyd LondonJust this weekend The New York Times Style Magazine ran a piece about author Peter Ackroyd, “Man of Many Words,” by Jody Rosen. The introductory photo shows Ackroyd at his cluttered desk. Rosen wrote: “Ackroyd writes nearly all day, nearly every day. Each morning he takes a taxi from his London home, in tony Knightsbridge, to the office he maintains in Bloomsbury, where he typically divides his workday between three books. He begins by writing and doing research for a history book, turns to a biography sometime in the afternoon and finishes the day reclining on a bed in a room adjacent to his book-lined office, writing a novel, in longhand.”

Ackroyd’s, like some of the others, is an example of disorderly desk, clear mind–which I relate to.

I admire friends who work in the living rooms of their one bedroom apartments. I don’t even notice their computers and papers when invited for a visit. They are organized and neat and either single or their significant other works outside their home.

I remember the woodshop a retired family friend kept in the basement of his home in Forest Hills, Queens. He’d make a collage of photos of annual gatherings, paste it on wood and make memorable jigsaw puzzle gifts for us. He’d been a businessman but I’d wager that his shop was his favorite workspace.

You’d think a traveling salesperson’s car or a photographer’s studio would be best for them but not always.

Have you worked in a dream space or can you envision what it would be? Are you most effective in what some might call an unexpected place?



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6 Responses to “Service of Work Rooms: Where Authors such as Peter Ackroyd, Jhumpa Lahiri or Richard Dawkins Write”

  1. Hester Craddock Said:

    Great subject!

    I’ve worked in all sorts of places from airplanes to hotels, even, like Winston Churchill, in the bathtub, or Lyndon Johnson, on the toilet. However, if I am writing, the one thing I detest is somebody interrupting or distracting me.

    My desk can be cluttered; my office unnavigable because of the piles of yet-to-be filed documents and discarded reference books littering the floor, but if I am alone and nobody phones or knocks on the door, I can get something done. I could never have worked for a newspaper.

    Curiously, I am far more flexible when it comes to work not involving composition, although having to handle delicate or sensitive matters in public does bother me, as well it should.

    My dream space would be something like a large monk’s cell with a great view, ample light, technology that worked including good speakers, a comfortable chair and a lockable door.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You also couldn’t have worked in an open plan office space or in most of the offices in which I’ve functioned. I think you get used to noise. It’s only distracting to me if I’m stressed, if I don’t know what I want to write or if I don’t want to do the project.

    A young woman who works as I do on one of the desks in the library I visit on Saturdays munches potato chips and the noise drives me crazy! One of the librarians speaks at the top of her voice and I can tune her out but the munch, crunch…..argh!

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    Everyone is different, and so are the workrooms and/or spaces. I prefer to work alone, but when company is unavoidable, have no trouble tuning it out. I had had no trouble adapting to computers, spellchecks, and easy erasers. No more typewriters, white outs, erasers and carbon papers…..Good riddance to them all!

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The life of a person like me who keeps changing copy is made so much easier with a computer–there’s no doubt. I could never align copy once a page was pulled out of a typewriter. Time wasted in retyping–I hate to think.

    That said, I was surprised at how many of the writers say that they handwrite copy. When I was making the transition to using a computer I, too, would first handwrite but once I’d made the leap, just the opposite happens now. When I must handwrite a thank you or condolence note, I often type it out first on the computer: Funny how the brain adapts.

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    It never occurred to me to type a personal note first. Interesting, but time consuming concept.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    For me, it saves time. I type pretty quickly and write very slowly or nobody can read a line. Further, I think it’s a brain issue…maybe I have a learning disability! Now they tell me!

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