When I first cut and assembled the heavy boards into a coherent object, I was building a utility table—upon which I mounted a table saw and bench-top wood planer. Both the saw and the planer were given to me by an elderly neighbor as a token of gratitude for mowing his lawn, and their unexpected appearance in my garage inspired the hastily constructed work bench. Before that, the thick wooden planks were an integral part of a back porch on a house in rural Alabama, and when they were offered up for free I happily drove the thirty minutes to get them. Such is the humble pedigree of my beloved writing desk—now a cherished member of my inner circle—and in its twilight years, the work I ask of it is much lighter.
If I asked a group of writers to describe their idea of a perfect writing desk, I imagine many of the answers would be the similar—or at least be a smattering of opinions on similar characteristics of said desk. They would likely wax poetic about intangibles—using words like soul—and itemize in specific detail those things which are necessities for them. Few, if any, would know to suggest that you lay a thin sheet of plywood over the top to cover the sawdust vents that you had once sawed into it; fewer still would recommend that piece of plywood be shoddily cut and only cover two-thirds of the table’s surface. I wonder how many would be in favor of a desk that you could comfortably tuck your legs under? Mine, a table with a lower shelf designed to hold saw blades, clamps, and other carpentry tools, forbids any such comfort. I’d also love to get the crowd’s consensus on the effect of visible screw-heads and staples—and their impact on the overall aesthetic of a good writing desk. My own is peppered with exposed hardware meant more for stability than charm—it never occurring to me at the time to try and achieve both.
Not even a grazing discourse on writing desks can take place without also discussing where such desks get put. Most writers are familiar with the famous E.B. White photograph—taken in his spartan boathouse, only the barest of necessities visible on the table-top—and resonate with his choice of location even if their own space bears no resemblance. I remember years ago seeing a photo of Stephen King reclining in his chair at his desk. In stark contrast to the Charlotte’s Web author—who could have abandoned the boathouse in a breath without leaving a trace— King’s office looked like the last redoubt of a lifelong hoarder, with hardly an open space available on the crowded desk. Neither having the luxury of a boathouse, nor the disposition to accumulate clutter, my own desk can be found where you would expect to find it if you were familiar with its history: my garage.
I’ve never explored too deep into why famous authors choose to write where they do—if such information is even available. Perhaps White enjoyed the picturesque view from the large window overlooking the water. Maybe Mr. King wanted to have an exhaustive supply of information and amusement at his fingertips. Whatever they were, they had their reasons—as intimate to them as all ours are to us. My own reasons for using my garage as a writing space are as practical as my choice of desk. Just as I can go out and buy a new, (more task appropriate), desk, so too could I claim some corner of the interior house and declare it the sovereign land of my budding craft. But I would always be an interloper, forced to cede territory on a regular basis to a hundred different caveats at the hands of my busy family. The garage is my domain however, home to the tools and materials required to maintain the infrastructure of our beige, single-story suburban home.
In the eleven years that I’ve lived in my house my garage has, at one point or another, been: a woodshop; an auto mechanic garage; a roller-hockey rink; a children’s birthday party location; a gym; and in general, a sanctuary for me. It’s where I have been my most creative and my most daring. It’s the place where I’ve suffered a thousand little failures in private only to show the world the few times that I achieved modest success. When I decided to improve my writing to the point that other people would actually want to read it, I knew exactly where I wanted to work. Unbolting and storing the saw and wood planer that shared the table in the center of the garage, I pushed it up against the far wall and stood back to admire it; that’ll work, I thought to myself. The large hole in the center of the table needed covering, which I did with a piece of scrap wood. And having been purposely built large, I was happy to see that I easily covered most of the ugly surface with the things I want close at hand—practical or otherwise.
My one complaint about my desk is the view, (I’ve since adapted to not being able to tuck my legs underneath). I don’t get envious when I see the gracefully elaborate desks and tables of my peers—as a rule I avoid most finery—but ten minutes of gazing out my open garage door is all it takes for me yearn for a view of anything other than the houses across the street of my sleepy cul-de-sac. On a good day, looking south as I must in the windowless room, I can occasionally watch the arrival of a visiting thunderstorm—usually traveling from deep in the Gulf of Mexico before passing by overhead—but most times the scenery is limited in scope and lackluster in content. Like many suburban neighborhoods in America, mine is full of the little daily dramas that unfold while the normal segment of the population is off at work and school. Delivery vehicles creep past, their drivers squinting to read the faded house numbers. Various dogs, having slipped loose from their domestic confines, patrol the street looking for scraps of food and the random love that’s best left to animals. On Thursdays the garbage truck comes, and amid a cacophony of revved engines, hydraulic pumps, and banging plastic cans, the men compete their halting tour of the neighborhood and the show is over. Cars drive by, some fast and some slow, sirens crescendo into earshot before fading away to their own problems. And all the while I sit here—occasionally writing.
Some writers may find my taste in location to be too distracting—and indeed I have a television, radio, the internet, and middle-class America outside to compete for my attention—but I’m not opposed to distractions, only selective about those that I allow: Seinfeld—yes; kids fighting—no thanks. Here, in my sanctuary, I’m surrounded by all of my favorite things, neatly stored and organized to my specific liking: a cavalry saber mounted on a wooden display plaque (a gift from one of my platoons), hangs on the wall above my prized 1969 Bear Kodiak recurve bow; a basket of floor hockey sticks leans against a small workbench next to my fly fishing rods, waiting for my youngest son to come out and ask to play; the metal detector that I lucklessly bring to the beach stands near-by, taunting me with memories of soda can tabs buried deep beneath the sand. The list goes on for thirty-six years’ worth of accumulated things—all moonlighting now as occasional welcomed distractions from my labor.
One day I may find the perfect writing desk, (some drawers would be nice). I also might buy a house with the perfect view at some point, though I couldn’t say what that view would be of. Ultimately, the desk and the garage need no further improvement. Neither were ever intended to be temporary substitutes awaiting a more proper replacement. Both are crude things—utilitarian in nature—and that was, and continues to be, my real need of them. They’re places that embody action and progress, which is the exact approach I require for the heavy lifting that is the improvement of my unskilled work. They were also intended to be places of respite where I could escape the battering winds of the outside world and focus on what I’m determined to be without feeling the need to qualify or justify it to others.
Now, though, I can sense them getting closer and wonder if my desk, built as it were for the shaping of lumber, will indeed be sturdy enough to withstand the weight of their presence. While they know my name and wonder where I’ve gone, they know nothing of the reincarnated desk and the versatile garage, and the things that stay hidden the longest are those which no one knows to go in search of. I know can’t hold out forever—nor do I plan to—but I’m grateful for the delay. And while I wait, I’m safe at my desk, tucked into the recess of my garage while heavy rain lashes the large aluminum door, and I’m perfectly content.