A Cluttered Life. A Sparse Workspace.

The photo of my workspace says a lot: I’m not set up to be a writer. Now, I’ve got my laptop full of stories and the butt imprint in the couch (covered by said laptop in this pic) to prove that I put in the hours, but I don’t have a classic writer’s area. Maybe this is because writing is only one piece of how I spend my day. One piece of my life.

To follow Cynthia’s theme, I really didn’t “set myself up” to be a writer, and only lately am I able to utter, “I’m a writer.” The book deal certainly helped, and once I held an advanced reading copy of FALLING FOR HAMLET it felt even more real. But it still feels new. I think of myself as a great many things before I think “writer”. That said, when I realize that I AM a writer, it gives me a thrill that’s not easily matched by anything else.

For a long time, I was a closeted writer. I filled journals, zoned out and imaged stories, but I never, never wrote them down (which I could kick myself for now), and I certainly didn’t tell anybody about it . . . until I met Amy VanDerwater, who was teaching teachers to teach writing better. After one workshop, I quietly told her that I had started a manuscript, and she announced to the entire teaching staff of my district, “Michelle Ray is writing a novel.” The horror! But with my secret out, I started taking myself a little more seriously.

Now unlike Cynthia, it took another seven years for me to buy my first book on writing, and nearly that for me to show my work to anyone. I wrote a little and I read. Then I wrote a little more. And one day, I decided to show people what I was up to. And they liked it. My friend, Lauren, texted her fury when I killed off a beloved character, and my friend, Nickie, told me I’d ruined her night when she got to that death, too. I couldn’t believe my writing had an effect on people. It was intoxicating.

But at that moment, my life didn’t instantly become that of a writer. For better or for worse, writing is something I do when everything else is finished. I teach, I take care of my kids, I cook, I hang out with my husband, I grade, and on and on. BUT because I love to write, I’ve become efficient and a heck of a multi-tasker. I can help my kids write Valentines while revising a chapter. I can dream up plot twists while on hall duty.

My bedside table (see photo) is the perfect example of this squeeze. It’s full of things that interest me: a book of Shakespeare quotes, a play on Afghanistan, YA novels, grown up novels, report cards, my kids’ projects, and, yes, some books on writing. See? The writing stuff is just one part of the shuffle of my life.

I feel badly about this – like maybe I’m not a real writer if I don’t have shelves of writer books and if I have a day job. But you know what? It’s the truth. So maybe my kid is singing a pop tune as I write this (wish I were kidding), and the school play I’m directing opens in a week so I was too tired to revise tonight. But it’s okay. I am still a writer.


Filed under Writing, Writing and Life

9 responses to “A Cluttered Life. A Sparse Workspace.

  1. Marianne Knowles

    Michelle, Long live the cluttered life! My own prepublished existence includes a day job as a writer and editor in educational publishing. I juggle time for paid work with time for my own as-yet-unpaid writing, along with family, volunteer commitments, and all the rest. Funny thing, though. Those times that I think will be the most productive for my own writing–when I’m between projects–aren’t. Bedrooms get painted, lunches with friends are scheduled, shopping gets caught up, but writing? Nah. So, in my case at least, the day job is the engine that drives the writing. As you’ve noted, “writing is something I do when everything else is finished.” Maybe that’s true for most writers!


    • This is such an interesting conversation, because it gives us all a chance to compare our processes and discover there are so many different ways of approaching the writing life.

      Like you, Marianne, I would have to say that my job is the engine that drives the writing, but in a very different way. Because I know there are going to be busy times at work when I can’t get much writing time, that makes those “in between project” times super productive to me. It’s like the day job is a time bomb, waiting to go off and end all my creative productivity, so when I have the time to write, I write like crazy. Of course in my case, that means that rooms that need to get painted don’t, and the shopping never gets caught up. And let’s not even mention the house work! 🙂


  2. Cynthia Levinson

    Michelle, Bartholemew-Cubbins’ worth of hats off to you! I’m such an agonizingly slow writer, I can’t imagine how working parents, which I used to be BEFORE I started writing, manage to juggle it all and still be creative and productive, as you are. You’re right: you are a writer! Thank you for pointing out there are many different ways to maintain a rich and a writing-full life.


  3. loved this – being a writer is just one part of who I am. I am eager to read FALLING FOR HAMLET.


  4. Lynda Mullaly Hunt

    Well, I’d say you’re the real thing! Even if you don’t have what you’d consider a “real” office. I think the leather couch looks a lot more comfy than my chair. Besides that, I love your blog posts.

    You know the saying, “If you need something done, ask a busy person.” I really do think that a busy life leads to more creativity. My best ideas come–not when I’m sitting, trying to think of an idea–but when I am doing something else, taking a break from writing, and BAM! There’s an idea.

    Thanks for another wonderful contribution to Emus Debuts!


  5. J. Anderson Coats

    I have to say – I’m glad I’m not the only one without a lovely dedicated workspace. I write at the dining-room table. I have a good view of my laundry basket and some cluttered shelves. When not in use, my laptop lives on a bookcase. My research materials are in three distinct places. (I do have nice big windows, though. I tried setting up a desk in the closet, but my process depends heavily on natural light.)


  6. Let me say that even though I have a “writerly space” I often plop my behind on the couch and am not very productive. I too have kids, a husband, volunteer obligations, etc. etc. I am so inspired by your claim of being a writer even if your daily routine and workspace don’t conform to the romanticized version of what a writer’s life and space is like. Thanks for being brave enough to admit that and share it with us!


    • Michelle Ray

      Julie, that makes me so happy. You know, on websites, I had loved seeing where people work, and always wanted to get in on the conversation. But when it came time to show mine, I had to laugh because it’s so unglamorous. But some of my best ideas are scribbled on napkins, receipts and agendas from meetings. I guess our situations are as individual as our words.


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