How do gay writers celebrate the end of
a book, a poem, a story? I don’t know about Sarah Orne Jewett,
Langston Hughes, Willa Cather, or Allen Ginsberg, but after that
brief moment of relief, before the serious editorial worrying begins,
after my sweetheart takes me for a long walk on the beach and a
romantic dinner with a view, I clean my desk.
Okay, I don’t clean it that night. Or
the next day. It might take a month. Or two. I like to get a few
short stories written between books, so the purging comes in fits and
starts. But definitely before I begin the next book.
This time, after four years of
concentrated writing and nine years of research on my new book,
Rainbow Gap (due out in December), I’m still struggling with
the logistics of making the desk optimally functional. For
inspiration, I went on line.
I found a photo of Emily Dickinson’s
desk. In an old issue of Amherst Magazine, Dickinson’s niece
is quoted: Emily's "only writing desk... a table, 18-inches
square, with a drawer deep enough to take in her ink bottle, paper
and pen. It was placed in the corner by the window facing west."
Eighteen inches square? No wonder she wrote such short poems. Didn’t
she need space for her drafts? Her little red toy tractor? An index
card file? Her thermometer/barometer? Oh – I guess that would be
I do the household filing and a while
back that situation got out of hand. Our filing consists of shoving
the right piece of paper into the right folder – eventually. I
never expected the pile would climb to such heights. As a stopgap
measure I plopped a cardboard inbox on the desk.
There were complications.
Our cat’s personal physician
suggested some time ago that we provide stimulation with kibble
“hunts.” It soon emerged that Bolo’s most stimulating place to
hunt was my desk. Kibble could be found inside the overflowing inbox,
under the escaped bills, behind the paperweights and hand thrown pots
of pens, and inside irresistibly tiny boxes and mini-crates filled
with small hand tools, pretty rocks, batteries, a penknife, outdated
newspaper clippings – the ephemera of the writers’ trade.
The kitty dumped the contents of the
inbox between the desk and the adjacent four-drawer file cabinet so
often I placed a wicker trash can there and labeled it Inbox.
“There was a secret compartment in
Henry James’ desk,” according to the brilliant biographer Leon
Edel. He wrote that, when explored, no secret stash was discovered. I
would have found something to put in that compartment, you betcha.
Louisa May Alcott’s “… father
built her a half-moon desk between two windows and a bookcase to hold
her favorite books.” That sounds a bit roomier than Emily’s. I
wouldn’t want a desktop computer on it, though, cutting out the
window view. I’ve learned to place my desk to one side of the
window, so I can watch birds at feeders we’ve hung right outside.
As a matter of fact, I just spotted my first Chestnut-backed
Chickadee of the season. I’ll bet Louisa May was as distracted by
the view as I am.
Langston Hughes was more disciplined.
His very small manual typewriter and metal gooseneck lamp were on a
desk that faced a wall. To use a typewriter, a sturdy desk was
necessary. Hughes’ desk also held a large telephone, his cigarettes
and matches. Neat, and a far cry from Emily Dickinson’s writing
Although Willa Cather is sometimes
pictured with a substantial desk – perhaps after she moved to
Greenwich Village – one of her writing desks was a “secretary.”
I have my Nana’s secretary. Spindly legs, a flip down writing
surface that rests on the open drawer for support. Some cubbies
inside. A narrow shelf low to the floor. I never penned a word there.
Sarah Orne Jewett wrote at an elaborate
secretary, more of a hutch with glass display case above, ample
drawers below, and a hinged writing flap. I could no more write on a
secretary than I could build a skyscraper on a placemat. Nana’s is
in our kitchen storing address books and gewgaws.
A 1986 photograph Dave Breithaupt took
of Allen Ginsberg's desk, in his bedroom on East 12th in New York,
shows neatly arranged stacks of paper, a lamp with a bare bulb, a
pen. It looks as if Ginsberg tamed his desktop and would have known
where to find exactly which page of “Howl” he was looking for. Of
course, he had at least four, maybe six, drawers that hid who knows
James Baldwin’s desk was gloriously
outrageous. Large, a photograph shows it covered edge to edge with
paper and more paper and a great big electronic typewriter. My desk
except for the machine.
Because writers no longer need desks. A
desk makes a great surface for stapling and organizing. Its drawers
are indispensable. I write seated in a small recliner, but it seems
an apt celebratory ritual and homage to the queer writers before me
to give my desk periodic respectful attention.
[Editor's Note: Lee Lynch is the author
of over 13 books. Her latest, An
American Queer, is available for pre-order.
You can reach Lynch at LeeLynch@ontopmag.com]
Copyright 2016 Lee Lynch.