The gulf between what one needs on a desk, and what one has on a desk, can be cavernous. The essentials? Probably something to write with, something to write on, maybe a power lead or two, a glass of water. And yet few of these are listed in the favourite things authors list as surrounding where they write.
Among these are the motivational, inspirational and just useful quotes. I’ve written before about why I keep Virginia Woolf’s “No need to hurry, no need to sparkle, no need to be anybody but oneself” on a corner of my desk, but I’m not alone.
On a recent episode of The Penguin Podcast, Ali Smith explained that she’s “got a piece of paper on my desk, and it says, 'Write me a fresh book'.” Smith wouldn’t say who the command came from, only that it was “one [her] favourite writers” and that it inspired her. She continued: “For me it means that note of spring or cut grass. Something that sensually feels alive."
Edwidge Danticat, author of Breath, Eyes, Memory, has several photographs on her desk, but the one that has been moved around every writing space since she first lived alone in her mid-20s is of Jean-Michel Basquiat. “A friend who knew how much I love Basquiat gave me that picture, and fearing that writer-type notoriety might go to my head, wrote on the card that accompanied it, ‘Don’t ever believe your own hype’, she told The New York Times. “I’ve had that picture on all my desks, at eye level, ever since.”
Many writers keep their mantras in their heads. Children's author Adèle Geras has borrowed hers from Isak Dinesen: “Write a little every day, without hope and without despair,” and admits that while she agrees completely with the latter half of it, the first isn’t always followed. Maggie Shipstead, author Great Circle, tells herself to “pretend to be the person who can write this” when she’s feeling out of her depth. “It's a funny psychological trick," she says, "because it's somehow lowers pressure and is more effective than insisting to myself that you can do this. Instead, I'm borrowing self-belief from an imaginary person who also happens to be… me.”
But others keep their quotes close. Author and business innovator Timothy Ferriss knows a thing about efficiency – The 4-Hour Work Week is among his five New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers – so his quote is framed. It’s also not from another author, but from a chef, Bobby Flay: “Take risks and you’ll get the payoffs. Learn from your mistakes until you succeed. It’s that simple.”
Writing can be, as those who do it often note, a lonely business: all that time tucked away with one’s thoughts. So it’s no surprise, really, that some authors choose to keep reminders of their loved ones near where they work. Emma Cline, author of The Girls, has a photograph of her mother as a girl and a self-portrait by one of her sisters, as well as her great-grandmother’s calling card, to better furnish what she calls the “meagre landscape” of the Word document.
“Writer need their totems, their altars” Kevin Young told The New York Times. The American poet keeps some things that used to belong to his late father along with old blue bottles on the windowsills, ascribing to the Southern belief that they keep out bad spirits. Adam Thirlwell, author of Lurid and Cute, is similarly drawn to “mini totems and talismans, to somehow make me believe what I’m doing has a history, and therefore a rationale”. His include a postcard of Proust’s bedroom, posters by Braque and Saul Steinberg and a miniature photograph of Argentine novelist Roberto Arlt.
What can we take from this when trying to create our own havens of concentration and inspiration? That anything that means something to you matters. Writing advice from the great varies wildly, from taking your time and being kind, to sticking to discipline and hitting a word count. In the end, it seems, different things work for different people. And, if you’d rather be like Yann Martell and work in a completely blank cabin, then there will be less mess to procrastinate over.
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Image: Mica Murphy / Penguin