I like to think that writing where I live has allowed me to let more of life into my writing.
I probably waited too long to buy myself a desk.
I put it off for all of law school, a period when I spent a lot of time studying in libraries and cafés. When I had to work at home—which was often because I was always working—I’d usually opt for the couch, so my body could feel at rest though my mind never did. But every Friday afternoon, for a few hours, I’d break the pattern and sit at the dining table. This was the one place where coursework and case law weren’t allowed to follow me. The table, a vintage wooden library desk with turquoise inset shelving, was my designated writing spot. It’s the place where I taught myself how to pitch and drafted my earliest essays. It’s also where I, you know, ate most of my meals, so the setup wasn’t perfect. But such is often the reality of carving out space for art in the mess of a life—part deliberateness, part improvisation.
I’ve since had to part ways with the table, which was too heavy to carry up to a second-floor Toronto apartment. But the fantasy of a creative space, unsullied by earthly demands, is one that I’ve chased for a long time. I’m drawn to structure and rigor in my work and my life, and I love the idea of a writing space that works by the same logic. A place where you go to shed your obligations and channel a pure creative force. At least in theory.
After graduating, I spun into a panic about my future. I’d learned the hard way that I wasn’t cut out for a life in law and, while the essay-writing thing seemed a little dodgy financially, I also sensed momentum there. This was around the time I bought my tiny writing desk—Kijiji, cash, delivered by a sweet elderly couple who insisted on loading it out of the car themselves even though they clearly had a hard time doing so. I didn’t have a job, but I would have a desk.
But by then, my habits had calcified enough that they were too rigid to break. Now, the desk is one among many rotating options. It’s followed me through three apartments and presently sits in an actual, book-lined office that I share with my partner—arguably the closest I’ve ever gotten to that fantasy of where I’d write. But I still spend more time working on the couch. I’m writing this from my bed, curled up on my side in a very un-ergonomic position I know I’m going to pay for later. On mornings when I have no meetings, I linger here longer than I should to work on edits, a context-bleed I refer to by the portmanteau bediting.
Despite my big-R Romantic fantasies, I’ve come to like writing where I live, in the room that’s literally named for the latter. The living room has the best light. It has fewer books than the office does, but it has the books my friends have written (along with the books that don’t fit in the office, a cozy reminder of the stories I like to surround myself with). It has a poster of Sigmund Freud’s diagram of the mind, which I picked up at the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna almost a decade ago; a reminder of the generative creative forces that simmer beneath the surface. It has a massive cactus that recalls the world beyond Toronto in a way that gives me hope, and a tiny one, christened Horace, who gives me a perpetual thumbs-up in a way I find encouraging.
I like to think that writing where I live has also allowed me to let more of life into my writing. Not my life, per se, though that’s necessarily the case if it’s a personal piece. More so the textures of life; its questions and concerns and stakes and conversations. If you have the privilege and discipline to do all your work from a garret—which still, let’s be real, sounds incredibly sexy to me—then the trade-off may be that that work is less engaged with the world. That was certainly the case for me. The stuff I produced when I lived at my parents’ house in the suburbs, on a magisterial desk in the basement, felt as cloistered from the stuff of life as I was. It’s impractical and, for a lot of people, impossible to sever all your ties as part of your creative practice (unless you’re, like, Jonathan Franzen, whose famously monastic writing routine for The Corrections—blindfold, earplugs, the archetypal garret—I obsessed over as a teenager and may or may not have tried to recreate). But where I write shares a character, tone, and sense with the writing of mine that I’m proudest of: part deliberateness, part improvisation.
Tajja Isen (@tajjaisen) is the editor-in-chief of Catapult. Her first book, Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service, was published in April 2022.