Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Over the past five years I've done most of my writing in an 8-by-10-foot garden shed that I outfitted with bookshelves, a wood stove, and a hardwood floor. It stands in our back yard, and has stood mostly unused since September, when I started this teaching job--I have a nice big office at work now that is pleasant to write in.

But since we're putting our house up for sale, I had to clean out the shed, and I made a gruesome discovery--a mouse had taken up residence in my desk. (I think it's the same mouse I mentioned in the typewriter post, the one that lived briefly in one of our typewriters.) I spent the afternoon cleaning everything and burning all my old papers that stank of rodent, and at one point I encountered the poor little bugger, clinging in horror to the edge of a mesh paper basket. Sorry, dude.

There is something awfully violating about having my desk infested. It's a big old (1930's, I'd say) wooden thing with drawers that stick and various parts falling off; it used to belong to a childhood neighbor, Mr. Baxter, who would sit at it in his cellar, thumbing through his vast collection of gruesome crime scene photos. Before I got it, I used to write at a buffet table, an idea I got from Chris Offutt, whose dank basement writing lair in Missoula inspired me to aestheticize glumly utilitarian surroundings into a kind of workaday literary fetish.

My desk at work is huge and hideous and aluminum, with a formica top printed in a woodlike pattern. It's awesome. You could fit entire children into the file drawers, though I mostly have them filled with excess paper napkins from the cafe underneath the arts library. I owned its love child when I was in college, an aluminum-and-formica affair barely big enough to get my legs under, and at it I wrote my first unfinished novel, a dumb fictionalization of some boring crap I did in high school.

My first actually-finished, worthless novel was called Telegraph Road, and it was about a rock band, and my teacher at the time said, "John, maybe you don't want this to be your first novel." It was written on the kitchen table. So were all the crappy short stories I wrote after college. I still write at the kitchen table from time to time. Different table, same vibe. And my juvenilia was written at a metal school desk my dad found at work, and later at my bedroom desk, the centerpiece of a hardwood desk-and-dresser sectional off of which my mother would clear any and all scraps of scribbled-on paper, however important, unless I carefully hid them.

Maybe it's my mother's fastidiousness that today makes me enjoy indulging in a hideously messy desk, with papers and books scattered everywhere, at least for short periods of time. The only thing I like better, in fact, is clearing it all off and starting something new. I can only hope that mouse, evicted once and for all, can similarly appreciate the pleasures of a fresh start.


unclewilco said...

Hi would you care to share your shed?
www.readersheds.co.uk We are a lack of writers sheds plenty of normal ones.

zoe said...

I love this post. It's so evocative. Do you find you need a familiar space to write in or can you write just about anywhere? Also, do you listen to music at all?
By the way, Chris Offutt is on Myspace. He's one of my pretend friends if you want to hunt him down and add him.

rmellis said...

I think the mouse took up residence in the drawer I stuffed chocolate bar wrappers in during the post-Halloween period a few falls ago when I tried (and failed) to work out there.


Anonymous said...

Hmm, I noticed the candy wrappers, but that doesn't explain the nest I found in the typewriter...

Anyway, unclewilco, that shed site is fantastic. I will try to take a picture out there this week and post it.

Chris Offutt said...

Glad i could help, john. My small contribution to your fine work.

yeah, that basement was one of my favorite writing places. very quiet and tucked away from the racket of young children. they used to come downstairs and play while i wrote.

nowadays i write at an L-shaped desk made of two slabs of playwood sitting on four 2-drawer filing cabinets. It's located in half of what would normally be a dining room, or front room, or originally the funeral parlor of this 160 year-old house. the basement is impossible, sadly.

stay cool, and my best to Rhian.
your all's kids must the about the age mine were when you babysat them. Now my oldest is going to college soon, while i remain blissfully unemployed!