The writing room door

Ernest Hemingway’s Writing Room. Cropped from a Photo by Mirsasha.

Of all the tools and methods that writers use, having a door on your writing space — and closing it — may be the most powerful.

A fellow writer about to undertake the months-long process of creating a book recently asked for advice about the need for concentration — and how to balance that with the needs of her family. She got lots of advice about communicating with her family about what she is doing and how she is doing it.

Most of us writers work from home now. Most of us have families. And with the new ways of working that the pandemic has created, our homes are now busy places where children, spouses, and writers are all attempting to work at the same time.

That may be good for a better understanding of our shared needs. But it’s bad for boundaries. And fuzzy boundaries are bad for creative work.

Writing space

When I set out to write my first book, in 2007, the first thing I did was reclaim a basement office my wife had been using off and on. After clearing her art stuff out, I set myself with a desk, a computer, and a monitor.

That space was my space. When I was in it, I was working on the book — researching and writing. No one bothered me when the door was closed.

It worked, too. When Charlene Li and I got the contract to write Groundswell, we completed the manuscript in 11 weeks. Much of that work fell to me, including both research and writing. There is no way we could have completed it without that writing space. The book went on to sell 150,000 copies. It was good, in part, because of the writing room door.

I know writers who work best on airplanes. I had a coauthor who could only write in coffee shops. But for most work that requires concentration, you need a writing space.

What the writing space does for your family

You should discuss with your family what happens in your writing space. Since that is where you concentrate, they need to know that you’re at work, even if you’re at home. They should be aware that you can’t be interrupted in there, because concentration is essential to your work.

In exchange for that space, you need to negotiate with them. You need to carve our writing time — for example, that you’ll be in there between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m on weekdays, or you’ll be there from 8 to 4 on weekends. You may even choose to work ten or twelve hours a day for three weeks at the end, but that’s not sustainable for months on end.

Part of that deal is also that when you’re not in the writing space, you’re present for your family, both physically and mentally.

And you need to let your family know what you did. At dinner, you can tell them about your day. “I interviewed three people for case studies,” or “I wrote the first half of Chapter 2, and it’s coming out great” or “I did a title brainstorm with my coauthor.” One writer I know actually puts a progress chart on the outside of the door, so their family can see what progress they’re making. This turns intangible progress into a tangible measure.

What the writing space does for you

The writing room door is actually mostly for you, not for your family.

When you close that door, you need to prioritize spending time on the book.

That doesn’t necessarily mean writing. Writing without a plan is unwise — and often leads to writer’s block.

It means that, when that door is closed, you are:

  • Brainstorming ideas.
  • Working with collaborators and editors.
  • Planning structure and chapters.
  • Sourcing case studies.
  • Setting up interviews.
  • Conducting interviews.
  • Conducting web research.
  • Drafting.
  • Polishing.
  • Self-editing.
  • Responding to edits.
  • Writing footnotes.
  • Preparing promotional plans.
  • And anything else associated with the creation, development, and completion of the book.

Responding to general corporate emails doesn’t count. Neither does checking Facebook or Instagram. Watching porn or Netflix, definitely not. Dusting your desk off and shuffling papers doesn’t count, either.

The writing room is a sacred space. Do not defame it by spending time on trivia in there. If the door is closed, you’re working on the book.

You should go into that space with a plan: today I am going to do this. Sometimes that plan will go awry, but you need to start the day with a plan.

When your family sees the outside of the door, they will know you are working. When you can see the inside of the door, that should tell your brain that this is book time, and you should be working on it.

Your objective is to achieve flow, the feeling that you are working productively. That’s hard to do if you’re being interrupted — or if you’re undermining your own concentration.

If you don’t have a door . . .

I know not all of you can have a dedicated space. But you need time and space to work in any case. If you can put a door between you and interruptions you’re better off.

Maybe you and your partner agree that you’ll be able to use a desk in the bedroom for a few hours uninterrupted. Maybe your door is just a curtain on an alcove.

The space doesn’t have to be elaborate. Stephen King wrote Carrie in his laundry room. But he did have a door.

Writers need a sacred space.

Promise yourself and your family, once you get one, that you’ll use it wisely.

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One Comment

  1. I wrote my first book starting when our second daughter was 6 weeks old. My husband entertained the kids on the main floor and I wrote while sitting on our bed (our grad school futon). When I finished the book, there was a dent in the futon and we bought a new bed. We finished the basement before I dared write my second book. My husband entertained the kids in the basement while I wrote on the couch in the living room. We needed a new couch at then end of that. We built an office nook before I dared write my third book. The kids were big enough to entertain themselves and I wrote at my office in the kitchen. Perhaps before I dare write a fourth book, I will get a door.