On the perfect creative haven

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A metal filing cabinet, a pair of wooden bar stools, and a rolling computer cart sit in the driveway behind our jam-packed garage, amid boxes of foam padding and plastic bags waiting to be recycled. D. is filling our station wagon with the first of what promises to be several loads of Goodwill donations.

I won’t miss the martini glasses we registered for but haven’t used since our post-honeymoon housewarming 12 years ago. The cabinet, stools, and cart, however, were the first furniture I owned. In a 400-square-foot studio I rented for half my monthly take-home pay as a New York public school teacher, the cart and cabinet constituted my entire writing sanctuary, squeezed between the foot of my bed and a fireplace that had long since ceased to be functional.

I don’t write at a desk anymore — now on most weekdays, I stand on the staircase behind a baby gate while T., my 2-year-old daughter, listens to her favorite playlists piped from my laptop, which is precariously balanced on a stair post. Today, she’s tearing up the living-room floor to a combination of 1970s disco funk and Michael Jackson’s greatest hits, soon to be followed by the soundtrack to The Sound of Music. Her 5-year-old brother is usually in preschool, but it’s Saturday. As long as O. is also entertained by KC and the Sunshine Band, I have this moment to put thoughts to virtual paper before one of the kids will need food or the bathroom.

This isn’t my perfect vision of a creative haven. When I’m lucky, I get to count weekend mornings as partial work days, holing up with a notebook in my bedroom sans children until lunchtime. But the garage needs clearing before the new school year begins and home maintenance opportunities get scarce.

So D. and I have agreed that I’ll watch the little ones while he does the heavier lifting today. When I peek to check on his progress, my old furniture catches my eye, and suddenly, I’m remembering a different — but also not-quite-ideal — writing space.

In my apartment, the computer cart sat so close to a radiator that I had to keep the window above it partly open through the fall and winter. At some point, it melted the adapter cord to my DSL modem (yes, this was another technological age ago). The pullout tray for my keyboard wasn’t quite the right height, but my CRT monitor (purchased circa the Y2K crisis) left no room for it on the desk.

Still, when I should have been comfortably sprawled across my bed with lessons to plan and papers to grade, I would wedge myself into this cubicle to write, mostly ignoring the sound (and the exhaust) of semi-trailer trucks using their engine brakes along 2nd Avenue as they entered Manhattan from the Triborough Bridge. After my first semester, there was so much black dust accumulated on the window sill that it was a wonder the radiator hadn’t ignited it. 

My current perch with living-room view is better for my health, though I do miss working without interruption, trucks notwithstanding. But the real point I’m reminded of in this moment is that creative space is what we make of it. Sometimes it’s a state of mind more than a physical location (see stair post, baby gate). No matter what the perfect writing sanctuary may look like in my mind’s eye, I’d rather have time in a less-than-optimal location than none at all.

When it matters, we make do. In less than a week, I’ll need to lean on this reminder. When kindergarten begins, O.’s schedule will curtail my writing hours further — instead of getting dropped off at preschool by D., he’ll need me to walk him to his new campus. I don’t relish yet another constraint on my morning work window. But as years of adaptation seem to show, I'll figure out how to adjust, again — a process I know I’ll share more of here.

Where are you making your creative sanctuary in this moment? What makes it work? What is one thing you have the power to adjust to make it work even better? Share your thoughts with me by clicking the button below.