Writer in Residence

Where We Do What We Do

By Andrew Forbes

The first stories of any quality that I produced were written at an old white melamine desk in the windowless furnace room of my future in-laws' house in suburban Ottawa. The hot water tank clicked and hummed, and fluorescent lighting buzzed over my head while I hammered away at a PC keyboard, writing pieces for a creative writing workshop at Carleton University (and strenuously avoiding coursework for other classes). The reasons I was there would require a lengthy explanation involving a bad apartment, a broken lease, a month-long road trip across the American West, and the house my wife-to-be and I would soon buy. It was among the least-inspirational spaces I've ever inhabited, but it was, for a time, mine. I was only rarely interrupted when someone needed something from the chest freezer, and thus did my subterranean writing lair yield some good results.

Since then I've known a number of different spaces. After the furnace room came the sunroom of the subsequent house, out in the country. Windows on three sides, an acre of lawn, cedar, and split-rail fencing, with a view to the east and the rising sun. The dog would lie at my feet, sighing demonstrably, while I sat with laptop open in the chair there. I wrote a whole novel in that spot. The novel was unspeakably awful and will never be seen by another set of eyes, but I did it. I wrote a lengthy short story in a terrible motel room in Newmarket, Ontario. I wrote a nonfiction piece in one sitting in a hotel room in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, while outside the sun shone and the sparkling Atlantic beckoned. I have written in shacks on Ontarian lakes, taken over a screened gazebo nestled among autumnal maples and oaks and birches, scribbled cross-legged in tents, and pulled my car over to the side of Highway 7 in order to bang out a paragraph while it occurred to me. There was a large verandah on a rented house in Vermont, overlooking the spring-fed pond, and shadowed by the Green Mountains, and there was a card table with a view of Hopkins Gut and Doyle Island in Maine, the panorama more often than not foggy at high tide, slick and mucky at low.

The unifying theme here, the element which ties together each of these spaces, whether temporary or long term, is solitude. I can do the busy work which attends writing – the administrative tasks, or research, or editing – in public places, such as libraries or coffee shops, but never the deep work. The thought alone gives me hives. I know many excellent writers who thrive in such surroundings, and one or two have invited me to join them in these spaces. I have accepted, and played gamely along, staring at my laptop screen, scrolling through documents, trying to look busy, but the truth is that I can't do it.

In this current house I have a space. An office, if we're insisting it be given a name. It's a room in the basement, with a wide window at ground level, through which I can see a juniper bush and the branches of a maple tree. On warm days I can slide that window open. The desk is a teak table, first used for dining in a string of apartments and that first house, now re-purposed. The floor is a pine parquet, installed by the house's previous owners. Until quite recently this room was a visual riot. A mess, frankly. It tended to collect all manner of things which found no other place in the house, but which could not be discarded. Mountains of books, all my records and CDs, a million baseball souvenirs and dozens of ballcaps, winter coats, posters, old photos, photography equipment. The clutter overwhelmed the space, and eventually forced me out. I spent a year writing upstairs, at the long, weathered pine dining room table. It was lighter up there, and even with the detritus associated with parenting three kids, it was visually more calming than the room in the basement. But I wanted my own space back.

A weekend of ruthless purging was undertaken. I donated or discarded an untold number of things: books, letters, magazines, computer parts, and other unnameable junk. I took a van load to Value Village. I did a Saturday morning dump run. What remained in the room was stored away, or displayed more judiciously. The stereo dominates one wall, the speakers topped with a single bobblehead each (currently: Ryne Sandberg on the left channel; John McDonald on the right). Next to me, on a single hook drilled into a stark white wall, hangs a Seattle Mariners jersey with Ichiro Suzuki's name and number on it. There's one unimposing bookshelf and behind me, all but unseen, are the shelves of music. Atop one ledge rest a few baseballs and tchotchkes. Everything else was put out of sight on that unburdening weekend; boxed, bagged, hung in the closet, or relocated.

Then came the fresh coat of white paint. Now the space is spartan and clean, and I feel liberated. The overall effect is of quiet. My eyes feel quieter. My mind feels quieter. The white walls gleam with the pregnant possibility of a blank page.

I try not to subscribe to notions of the delicacy of the artistic sensibility; it's an easy frame of mind to lampoon, and I tend to believe foremost in the value of hard work. But I have come to realize that you have to go with what works best for you, and while I have written in some fairly random and cacophonous places, and learned to sneak in a few lines in whatever scraps of time were left to me amid the demands of a busy household (i.e. while standing at the kitchen counter waiting to flip the kids' pancakes), I work best when I'm able to secret away to a space that's quiet in both an aural and visual sense. It's worth it, is what I'm saying, to zealously guard your space as you must your time, in order to wring the most from your abilities. These white walls might not look like much, but they represent for me an ideal long in the discovery. The formula (roughly: solitude + visual quiet = good work) is likely as obvious as it is simple, but part of the learning process in this ridiculous lifelong undertaking involves coming to terms with those things about which you are fussy. Your mind knows things you might not realize it knows, goes my thinking. It takes a while to listen, to trust it – to trust yourself – but if you feel a nagging pull toward one particular place, or sort of place, when it comes to the work of creation, it pays to pay attention.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.


Andrew Forbes’s work has been nominated for the Journey Prize, and has appeared in The Feathertale Review, Found Press, PRISM International, The New Quarterly, Scrivener Creative Review, This Magazine, Hobart, The Puritan, All Lit Up, The Classical, and Vice Sports. He is the author of What You Need, a collection of fiction, and The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.