Winnie Li on Finding That Elusive Thing: A Perfect Writing Space
The Author of Complicit Reflects on the Cozy Writerly Dream, Motherhood, and Making Peace with a Messier Reality
I have a dream writing space, which is like all the ones you see on Instagram: cozy wooden desks surrounded by books and a view of nature, secluded from the rest of the world, blessed with a desktop computer, a generous monitor, and an inspiring quote or two.
That’s the dream.
In reality, I’ve written all my novels on a laptop which I’ve trucked around from the kitchen table to my bed, to countless cafes and trains. My computer generally has thirty web browser tabs open at any given moment, and the imprints of a few hundred WiFi networks I’ve accessed over the years (which I should delete, but haven’t gotten around to doing).
It also functions as an entertainment center for my toddler, a call center and accounting system for me, and the repository of thousands of unnecessary photos and videos. It’s about as far as I can imagine from a sacred, secluded space of creation.
There is the dream of the writer’s life, and there is the reality. We may always want to escape from the world as writers, but the truth is, the work of writing is often embedded into our everyday lives—and inextricable from it, both in process and in theme. If we can create in and amongst mess and chaos, then we’re doing something right.
Here’s what I should remind myself: despite that very wide gap between the dream and the reality, I’ve still managed to conjure two and a half novels out of nothing. And that’s something to be celebrated, even though most of the time I’m grumbling about not having my own dedicated writing space.There is the dream of the writer’s life, and there is the reality.We may always want to escape from the world as writers, but the truth is, the work of writing is often embedded into our everyday lives.
Like many writers, my place of residence leaves much to be desired, thanks to the economic realities of this day and age. As a forty-something, I have yet to own any property, and I only bought my first car two years ago (necessitated by having a baby). Until the baby arrived, I could only afford sharing city apartments with roommates.
And now, with a three-year-old, there’s not enough rooms in the cottage we currently live in to dedicate one solely to my work and writing. Finding the time and especially the space to do creative work has been a challenge ever since I committed to the writing life a decade ago.
But you know what? That’s fine.
Writing itself, I’ve found, is a remarkably versatile act and one that suits an unmoored life like mine. I’ve scribbled notes on napkins and the backs of receipts, and gradually nursed them into short stories and scenes from my novels. A great many more of those notes have gone unused or unread, but it’s the act of scribbling down—of sparking an idea, and respecting it enough to preserve it somehow—that is a promise to yourself as a writer: a statement that this idea is worthy of transforming into something more.
Different physical environments suit different parts of my writing process. Solo journeys on trains and buses are great for that initial flash of inspiration: simply staring out the window at passing landscapes seems to liberate my imagination. I find cafes, with their background chatter and readily available caffeine, are fertile places to nurse the first draft of any fiction project.
When I’m re-drafting and require absolute quiet, I’ll seek out the silence of a public library. (My third novel—still in progress—was written at various Orange County public libraries, while my partner and toddler were at storytime events.)
Time is much more of a premium now that I’m a mother, but when I’m in the final clean-up stages of a draft, I will steal away for forty-eight-hour writing retreats—usually to an Airbnb or a friend’s house when they’re on vacation. All I’ll do on these retreats is work, eat, sleep, and go for the occasional walk, but I find them to be incredibly productive.
Would I love a cloistered writing room where I can pin a fancy plot chart up onto my wall and stare at it? Sure. Have I managed ok without one until now? Yes.As a full-time author, it is very easy to develop an anxiety over money, the luxuries it can buy, and one’s distinct lack of it.
In an era of Instagrammable writing desks and thousand-dollar writing coaches, it helps to remember that someone like Charles Dickens literally wrote himself out of poverty by hand, with only paper, pen and ink, and a multitude of candles. I visited the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire, and stared at the single table where Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë all sat and penned their respective masterpieces: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, along with various other novels and poems. The lighting couldn’t have been very good back in the nineteenth century, during those cold Yorkshire winters.
And yet, these authors still did it.
So what am I even complaining about? I have a laptop, I have Scrivener and Word and a laser printer: I can create anything. I tell myself, at least I’m not a sculptor. My art doesn’t demand a physical studio, a multitude of tools, and some very hard raw material in order to come into existence. In fact, as writers, we’re lucky how adaptable our art is.
As a full-time author, it is very easy to develop an anxiety over money, the luxuries it can buy, and one’s distinct lack of it. But if I could afford a home with a custom-made, well-appointed writing desk, I also wouldn’t have the life experience to write believably about the financial struggle of working on the lowest rung of the film industry. Or about inequalities of gender, race, and class, and how these elements of our identity—over which we have so little control—can ease or impede our journeys through the world. This theme fueled both my novels to date, and will infuse my future books, because it is very much a theme I’ve encountered in my own life.
I tell myself if stability—and a room of my own—were so essential to me, then I would have prioritized that by now. Instead, I’ve pursued a life of adventure and travel, of creative fulfillment and economic unpredictability. Some aspects of those adventures I would have gladly exchanged for a dedicated writing room and a regular salary. But mainly, it’s a trade-off I’ve been happy with: frugality and a dose of precarity, in exchange for variety and richness of perspective.
So yes, that dream writing space still taunts me. One day, I’ll sit down at a desk all my own, shut the door joyously behind me, and lose myself in a sacrosanct sphere of words and ideas. Walls all around me, no distractions. The words will flow in glorious silence.
But until then I’ll still keep tapping away at my laptop, surrounded by the messiness of life.
No matter what, I’ll still be able to write.
Complicit by Winnie M. Li is available via Atria/Emily Bestler Books.