Writing: Make your desk a sacred space

betty ming liu Relationships, Writing how-to's 8 Comments

Greetings from Michigan! I’ve been here for a week, helping my boyfriend relocate to a new job in Ann Arbor. Hey, did I just hear alarms go off in your head? Well, they’re clanging inside of my brain, too.

The dreaded commuter romance is the last thing I ever wanted. But we hope to this change — especially with long-distance relationships becoming more common. (A number of friends have gone through this and say it can work.)

So with no classes to teach this summer, I plan to spend a good chunk of it in the Midwest. Everyone here is very nice, which helps. We’re also committed to flying back and forth on alternating weekends. Most importantly, I’ve set up a desk in the new apartment — a strong sign of my commitment.

My desk serves as both a refuge and an alter. It’s a creative space for communing with others and myself. A clean surface and cozy clutter are essential. My goal is a work space that feels safe, serene and special. How lucky that Ann Arbor’s fabulous thrift shops delivered exactly what I need.

desk setup

Some of you might be looking at my photos here and thinking, what a lot of crap. :)

But I love blogging from my own special corner of Michigan.

With a white formica top and big wheels, my quirky sacred space looks like vintage Ikea. It cost $10. A square, white parsons table ($3) and a straight-back wooden chair ($6) complete the setup. Total price: $19.

Since I take my personal experiences into the classroom, students often get a talk from me about creating decent work spaces. I can tell when they’re rushing through their assignments by the scrambled phrasing and hurried organization. And when I ask about the conditions that produced this work, their answers usually reflect a need for quiet writing space.

The best writing comes from a heart nurtured by the hearth. In other words, you gotta write from a spot that feels home-y.

3 ways to create a more sacred writing space

What do you need to make your desk work? In conversations with fellow writers and during the course of my own tinkering, certain themes come up for everyone.

1) Forget about fancy

A sacred space doesn’t even have to be a desk. The author J.K. Rowling started out as a financially-struggling single mom. Her “desk” was a back table in the Elephant House, an Edinburgh cafe. This is where she gave birth to her Harry Potter character.

For an idea of what that was like, watch her writing long-hand on a legal pad in an early video interview from the Scottish eatery’s website. It cracked me up to see her wonder out loud if her books might make good movies someday.

Today, she’s one of the richest writers on the planet, with an eight-book, multi-billion dollar franchise. And it all started with her sacred writing space. Her refuge. Her alter to her imagination.

2) Rituals matter

Certain objects put me in a writing mood. This past week, I enjoyed picking through thrift store shelves for 50-cent glasses of various heights and heft. I needed them to hold my pencils, pens, markers and brushes. An artist-friend describes this as a form of fetishizing my writing process.

A few stuffed animals recreate a sense of home, where an annoying cat or dog is usually shedding fur all over my paperwork.

pens and pets

Another favorite object is a little inspirational workbook that the bf gave me for Christmas: “Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You.”  It reminds me to try new adventures.

Black book

Having a routine matters. For that, I free write for 10 minutes every morning. I also go through a list of personal mantras related to specific goals (which is a little embarrassing because the link shows you what I wished for at a certain stage of my earlier life). Which reminds me of the next point…

3) Set priorities but be flexible

In the end, all I really need to write is my laptop. Beyond that, goals change because I keep changing. Work spaces change when I travel. So do desks.

But being lucky enough to have options means I’m responsible to make choices. It always goes back to self-care.

So my new desk nurtured my love of garage sales and old junk. Finding it gives me yet another story to share. And with the expense of commuter relationship that will have me throwing money at airfare, the desk came in under budget too.

Sitting here blogging, I feel like I’ve staked out a little corner of the Midwest. It’s a good place to start a new chapter.

And, to read more…

–> Check out this fascinating 2014 Wall Street Journal interview with best-selling author Amy Tan. A bout of Lyme Disease left her with epilepsy that makes walking painful. She recently custom-built a spectacular, new house with Asian-y decor (bamboo motif, Japanese cabinets) that’s totally accessible (walk-in bathtubs, roll-in showers). Her office has oversized, sliding wood doors made in Shanghai.

–> For a look at more writers’ work spaces, The New York Times runs an occasional feature called The Writer’s Room. Worth a peek.

What’s your desk look like? Any thoughts on long-distance relationships too? Looking forward to reading your thoughts!   :)

Comments 8

  1. Hi Betty,
    I’ve been following your blog posts for a while now. Are you able to help me with mine. Which blogging source do you use? I will be using Word Press. Please let me know. Thanks.

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      Of course, Brenda! Happy to share what I use. There’s tons of free WP themes. But I wanted more customization and bought the X Theme. Found it on ThemeForest.com, which offers tons of paid templates to choose from. From there, I found designers on both the front (the visual appearance) and back end (tech support) to tweak the template further. I wanted specific elements and feel very grateful to have them. Good luck and let me know if you have more questions about my blog.

  2. I agree that people need a quiet organized space in which to write/work. I write at my kitchen counter. I don’t know if it qualifies as a “sacred space,” but it is quiet and distraction free!


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      Charlotte, if you’re happy in your kitchen, then it’s sacred to you! That’s what counts. Personal experience and validation. A place that feels special and safe. You go this one. :)

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  3. a great poke for me, thank you, betty! my desk is not looking very sacred these days & getting through the piles & scraps of notes & ideas gone rancid to organize & de-dust-bunny (oh, yeah, i know what lurks betwixt some of those piles) keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the to-do list. i have been duly inspired by you to resanctify my writing space (i’m writing outside under an elm tree right now), but not to worry, there will always be some cozy clutter. i had an editor at the times who never even had so much as a scrap of paper on his desk, which i found very creepy & scary. i read a quote about clutter being connected to creativity, so i find comfort there. … anyhoo, i hear ann arbor is a great town & that absence makes the heart grow fonder. of course constant commuting can get old, so i hear. maybe you need to start teaching alternate semesters in ann arbor?! … sorry i missed you in denver! … sending love & gratitude. … xj

  4. Pingback: Sixty is the new serenity | betty ming liu

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