Recent posts on writing spaces

A couple of recent posts about writing spaces have caught my eye. On Valentine’s Day, a New York Times Magazine piece highlighted the writing spaces of five different authors. Then today, the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a post by Joli Jensen on the quest for the perfect writing space.

Of course, as the two pieces suggest, there is no one-size-fits-all writing space. A few of the comments resonated with me, especially Jensen’s point that writing in the office can be difficult:

Our offices are where we meet with students, plan our teaching, and do our departmental work. They are physically and psychically connected to all the related obligations that distract us from our scholarship. Even when we close the door, we’re still on call. I’m always aware of the stacks of papers that need grading, the email that needs answering, and the recommendation letters that are coming due. It is very hard to shift into scholarly writing mode and stay there.

This is the biggest reason that I’ve had an easier time getting writing done outside of the office. I’ve been more productive in other spaces, like the library, the faculty lounge, or a local coffee shop.

In fact, I did most of my writing last year (on sabbatical) at coffee shops in Wheaton, Glen Ellyn, and Chicago (especially Hyde Park) and in various spaces at the University of Chicago (especially classrooms, a seminar room, and a library in Swift Hall, home to the Divinity School). 

One thing I noticed was that I was most productive where I did not have wifi access. I wrote a lot at a relatively quiet coffee shop and restaurant in Glen Ellyn that is (sadly) now closed. They said I was the first person who asked whether they had wifi and seemed happy when they said they did not. And when the University of Chicago’s wifi let me down, I actually felt like I got more done. I’m not the only one who has experienced a productivity burst when I don’t have wifi. As Jensen writes:

My laptop doesn’t have a working wireless card, so I can’t distract myself with email or the Internet. The room does have a door that closes, and though I can still hear household noises, I have headphones if I get too distracted.

One of my goals for my sabbatical was to establish certain habits–especially with regard to writing–that could be carried over to my post-sabbatical schedule. That has been a bit of a challenge, given the closure of my favorite writing spot and the end of my time at the U of C. Still, I think it’s working. For the moment, I get most of my writing time in at a local restaurant/coffee shop that does have wifi (that might be a deal-breaker if they didn’t have great coffee and cinnamon rolls!), but I try to be disciplined about what I’m doing while I’m there. The hardest part has been that this particular eatery is sometimes very busy and very loud. But I’ve borrowed a pair of noise-canceling headphones that seem to be working. Not only do they block out the noise, but they seem to send the message to others that I’m there to work on a project.

So my recent experience suggests that there’s no perfect writing space, but there may be some helpful strategies that keep us writing even in imperfect spaces. On that point, these two articles have some helpful suggestions.

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