The Woodshop is a feature examining the work spaces and habits of writers both big and small. Joan Didion spent the night in the same room as her work when it was almost finished. Don DeLillo kept a picture of Borges close by. When, and how, do you work? Our latest contributor is Tayler Heuston.
1. Where do you do your work?
I work in the living room of my apartment where there's tons of light and space. My desk is in the corner of the room next to the doors that open out onto my balcony.
2. What do you keep on your desk?
My desk has shelves built into its hutch where I have the start of my library (organized by color, genre, then author right now), postcards of paintings I found really moving when I visited the MoMa in NYC this summer, a picture of me jumping into my mother's arms as a toddler, a picture of the kids I nannied all of last year, the oatmeal box I painted to look like an oven last Halloween so I could go as Sylvia Plath, and post-its with lines I want to remember:
"...work is / keeping the wolves from your door..." Kwame Dawes
"Mother, I / understand how you have could have..." Leila Chatti
"You'll never know what your mother went through." Sarah Manguso
"What are you pretending you don't know?" Rachel Eliza Griffiths (by way of Leila Chatti)
"Rise to the occasion of your one and only heart." Steve Almond
My desk changes every so often. I might re-arrange my books, or replace the postcards, or find new lines that resonate with what I'm thinking about. I've also got practical things here like my stapler, desk calendar, the flash drive I keep misplacing, and a ceramic hedgehog that holds my mail.
3. What's your view like?
The view to my right, just outside the glass panes in the balcony doors, is the courtyard of my apartment building. It's full of light most days, and I can see stands of oak trees just beyond a neighboring parking lot. To my left, the wall is hung with a framed photograph that I bought from Emma Tillman when I turned twenty-five, a celestial map, and an illustrated calendar of the local, seasonal foods in North Carolina.
4. Have you made any rules for how you use this space?
My only real rule is to be flexible. I've been working very hard in the last two years to shed all of the early notions I had about writing, discipline, and structure. My process has to change a lot so I don't feel stagnant. Lately, I've been revising old work at the desk, or transcribing new work that I handwrite in my notebooks at a coffee shop in the heart of downtown that I love to walk to on the weekends.
I also pay attention to how my body feels in the seat, how tired I've been after a long week or intense pair of workdays, or if I'm feeling stir-crazy or flat when I come to the desk. Then, I know I need to step back and meet those physical or emotional needs before I'll have a good day of writing.
Some nights, though, I'll have that moment where a line that I really like occurs to me and I'll rush to my desk to type it up the way I used to when I was getting my MFA and I'd be half-awake in bed at 3 a.m. with the start of a story that I had to get down and I'd write past breakfast time, not even brushing my teeth or getting dressed, until it was all done around mid-afternoon. I can't write that way anymore, though—my body and work schedule just won't allow it. Now, I'll write down that one line and maybe it'll turn into an opening paragraph, but I let myself walk away and go to bed. I think I've learned to trust that it won't vanish forever if I don't set it all down now. I've also learned how to enrich my work and to write fewer drafts by pacing myself, letting things simmer.
5. Do you have any routines that help you get into the flow?
I write primarily in the morning, so it's usually a quick breakfast, turn on some music that is familiar enough to fade but still suits the tone of what I'm working on, and then I sit down with my cup of coffee and read over what I've already got on the page until something sparks. If I'm writing away from home, I get my coffee and, before I start drafting in my notebook, I open a books of poems—right now I'm reading Tarfia Faizullah's Seam and Safiya Sinclair's Cannibal. I've always loved poetry for its focus, urgency, and attention to language. I find starting with poetry really re-centering in terms of craft and the emotional terrain of a story.
6. What do you eat/drink while you work?
I drink coffee with way too much cream and sugar—really, I'm a total monster and will ruin a beautiful cup of locally roasted, full, fresh coffee with very little remorse. I usually eat before I sit to write, but I might snack on something easy and contained like a bowl of yogurt and granola or those to-go apple sauce packs for children.
7. Do you have any superstitions about your work?
I might not have any superstitions, but in a small jar that I keep in my bedroom next to hand-drawn portraits of Jane Austen and Wonder Woman, I've gathered every fortune from every fortune cookie I've eaten in the last five years, all the four leaf clovers my friend and mentor Belle Boggs has given me, and thick pieces of metallic confetti from the Beyoncé concert I just went to. They're items that feel very auspicious to me. I like having them in the same space.
8. Share a recent line/sentence written in this space.
"At night, when Kate was sleeping, I stretched out on the ground and touched every part of my body, reclaiming its terrain – brushing the fine hairs on my arms and legs, memorizing the ridges in my bones, reciting the names of the veins and arteries that carried my blood through me, feeling for the organs hiding beneath my skin, and dreaming of what it would be like to eat the flesh of my own hot heart."
Tayler Heuston, a California-native, holds an MFA from North Carolina State University. Her work has appeared in At Length, Carve, NANO Fiction, and Two Serious Ladies. Her story Hostages—winner of the 2015 Kore Press Short Fiction Award judged by Roxane Gay—is forthcoming through Kore Press this November.