It has been a bit difficult to concentrate on writing blog posts recently, for reasons which I will tell you about very soon, but it’s given me the chance to think about how and where I work best. For one thing, I have been choosing a new desk, which proved to be a surprisingly fraught process.
My current workstation is a little computer desk on the large and sunny landing with a view over the fields. The landing also has my reading chair, a compact 1920s armchair which nobody but me finds comfortable. I love working here – but the desk itself is just too small to spread out my books and papers – things keep falling off the edge!
Over the years, in various work contexts, I have occupied a large open-plan office (my idea of hell), my own room (nice, but a bit isolating – I tend to get engrossed and forget about meal times), shared offices (the success of this depends on whom you are sharing the office with!), and dual-purpose space (desk in guestroom or dining room). The common factor is having my own desk. Having recently read about various free-ranging creatives who work anywhere, as long as they have their laptop with them, I toyed with the idea of giving up on a desk altogether and being a roaming writer. I can see a few issues with this. Firstly, the cost. Most of these free-ranging creatives seem to work in coffee shops. As it’s not reasonable to expect a retailer to provide a table for hours at a time without income from the sale of coffee, this would seem to be expensive compared to using one’s own home which one is paying for already. Secondly, the effect on my waistline – the purchase of coffee is inevitably accompanied, at least some of the time, by the purchase of cake. Thirdly, the effect on productivity – with the best will in the world, if I have editing to do, or a complex piece to research which involves not only internet searches but reading books, this requires a level of uninterrupted concentration which is not really possible when out and about. (Fourthly, we have the current restrictions on visiting coffee shops etc because of the pandemic, but hopefully this is a time-limited problem).
Last but not least, I like my favourite resources within easy reach of my workstation. A diary (page to a day, so that I can write my to-do lists alongside appointments and deadlines), notebooks (one for each current project – see my recent blog post about my notebook obsession), pens and pencils, a mousepad and mouse (I have never been able to get on with the integrated ones on laptops), a coaster for drinks. I also have at least one ‘to read’ stack, of books and papers relating to whatever I am currently working on. It could be argued that I should tidy these away on a bookshelf and bring them out when required – except I know from experience that this would ensure I never get round to reading them! Sometimes there’s a vase of flowers, or crystals (currently a big piece of fluorite), or an interesting pebble I’ve found on the beach.
In short, my working environment isn’t particularly portable. I’m happy to spend the occasional few hours elsewhere with my laptop, but I am most settled, and concentrate best, at my desk. As I’m now writing full-time, therefore, it seems not unreasonable to treat myself to a good desk that does what I need it to do and is aesthetically pleasing – I have to look at it all day, after all. Simple, you might say, just go and buy one. Yes – but which one?
I’ve had to work out how big I need a desk to be, in order to accommodate my laptop, all the stuff mentioned above, and have space to spread out books and papers when I’m researching. I have learned the hard way that I need to get the height right, too, in order not to damage myself in the long term. Also, what kind of desk do I want to look at every day? I browsed a lot of office furniture catalogues and felt uninspired – I really don’t like the corporate, nine-to-five look of most of them. My desk may be my work space, but it’s still in my home, and it would be nice if it was pleasant to look at. What kind of ‘look’ does the rest of my furniture have? A lot of it is quite industrial (for example, the coffee table is made out of reclaimed timbers from Indonesian fishing boats). Something artisan-made from reclaimed wood, then? Eventually, I found just the thing on Etsy – made to order, to my size specifications, using scaffolding planks and industrial steel. It is being made as I write this.
I mentioned earlier that the landing where my computer desk is situated has a view over the fields. I have discovered that having a workplace with a view is something of a mixed blessing. Some years ago I moved into a house and chose the larger bedroom as my office because it had stunning views across the rooftops to the hills beyond, complete with sheep (whose bleating was just audible with the window open). It seemed a waste of the view to use that room as a bedroom. I positioned my desk in front of the window, to get the full benefit of the view.
Reader, a week later I moved the desk. I was getting precisely no work done. I spent hours gazing out of the window, watching the sheep move around their fields, watching the birds in the gardens, watching the light and colours change on the hillside as the sun moved around during the day and the shifting clouds cast their shadows, watching the rain sweep through the valley, watching the flock of racing pigeons which went for a fly about at 3 o’clock every afternoon, watching the bats at dusk. In order to get anything done at all, I had to move the desk to the side, and only allow myself gazing time when on a coffee break or having an eye rest.
Here, instead of sheep, there are a pair of muntjac deer, who graze the field and occasionally venture into the neighbour’s garden to drink from the pond; a barn owl who quarters the field on silent wings, hunting, at dusk and dawn; a kestrel who hovers, defying gravity, high above the field, occasionally dropping like a stone into the grass and emerging with whatever hapless rodent is his dinner for today; tinkling flocks of goldfinches; a pheasant, whose call reminds me of vintage car claxon, and his girlfriends; a pair of red-legged partridges, with their Egyptian eyeliner, who also visit next door’s garden; and an enormous hen buzzard who circles on thermals over the field before sliding off downwind beyond the oak trees. It’s very distracting – but it’s a nice problem to have.