• Eugenia Kim
  • Romance of the Writing Life and Where the Writing Happens
Romance of the Writing Life and Where the Writing Happens
Written by
Eugenia Kim
January 2012
Written by
Eugenia Kim
January 2012

It took three weeks to clean, paint and reorganize my office—my garret, my sanctum sanctorum. Part of that time was to transition this space from graphic design workplace to writing/teaching space, another part was to empty it out after 25 years of packing things in, and the other part (likely the real reason) was to avoid a writing deadline. How easy it is to be distracted from the writing, and the persistence needed to allow the muse to visit and take command.

But there was positivity in all that reorganization: most everything put into this office was intended to inspire and foster the writing. I hoped these objects would be conducive to creativity, to help narrow my focus from busy life to writer’s life.

But what does it mean, “the writing life?” We think about the romance of it—the fancy fountain pens and green banker’s lamps, billowing summer curtains over a coffee-stained desk, vintage typewriters, upturned whiskey bottles, the metal mesh trashcans full of crumpled balls of paper. There are plenty of these sorts of romantic images in my office.

Dave Eggers, in a Washington Post article, talks about the romantic notions of the writing life that we all have: “We imagine more movement, somehow. We imagine it on horseback. …We imagine convertibles, windswept cliffs, lighthouses.” I would add that some of us imagine literary lunches in New York, accolades at sold-out readings, and stepping out of the limousine on the movie’s glittering opening night. When I went back to school for an MFA twelve years ago, my head was filled with such notions.

Back then, like many women writers, after feeding the family or doing the laundry, after meeting the demands of a paying job, I stayed up nights to meet school deadlines, to revise the work yet again. I read dozens of books, seeking the keys to greatness in every line, and was dismayed to learn not only how slow my reading had become, but how brilliant everyone else was. I learned that being a writer is to always have that doubt, and that part of our work is to push up against it with every line, every word we write.

In the isolation of writing, I lost touch with some friends in the real world, but I gained others—most of them dead: authors and poets of literary classics, writers whose work I could strive to reach. I could sit in my garret, ignoring the outside, and dare to reach for their mastery, one word at a time.

Dave Eggers continues his take on the romantic notions of the writing life: “I didn’t imagine quite so much sitting. I know it makes me sound pretty naive, that I would expect to be writing while, say, skiing. And I thought, okay, the writing life—damn that phrase—it doesn’t have to be romantic. It can be workmanlike, it can be a grind, and it can take years to make anything of value. But if, at the end of it all, there’s [a reader or a student] who holds the words to her heart and rides the subway through the night… thinking of what those words on a page did to her, then the work is worth doing.”

I look at the artwork, photos and ephemera in my office, these talismans for creativity and productivity. They still interest me and I like looking at them, but they’re part of those romantic notions of the writing life, this writing life which really comes down to one thing: the tunnel between myself and the page before me. That narrow corridor can be an inspiring place—one that is often frustrating, sometime fruitless, often lonely, sometimes dark, often filled with unexpected energy and emotion, a place rich with discovery.  That’s where the writing happens—where nothing else matters. 

Photos top to bottom (all by E. Kim): • My office. • Crowned blackbird with a glass peach that Mr. Eugenia banned to my office. • Iron man bookend from a friend. • Above the computer are photos of my son, an illustration I did in college, and a poster of the series “Men in the Cities,” by Robert Longo. These figures in action remind me that plot is movement, movement is action, and that not everything needs to be described for us to get it. The purple alien I confiscated from my son's toy box. • These photos continue to inspire me to write the stories from my family. The Chinese poster says “Teaching is Happiness.” This is a truth. • A painted-metal striped man from Cirque de Soleil dangles from a lamp. 

Eugenia Kim is the author of The Calligrapher's Daughter, winner of the Borders Original Voices Award, and a 2009 Best Historical Novel by The Washington Post.  She teaches fiction at the low-residency MFA Program at Fairfield University. Parts of this posting are derived from her Fairfield MFA commencement address in December 2011. 

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  • Eugenia Kim

    Thanks for your lovely comments, all. Sharon, this is the only place the article is posted, but you can hit the "share" button at the bottom of the article, and thank you!

  • Sharon Ferguson

    Is the posted in an online magazine because I'd like to share it...

  • Karla Brown

    Eugenia, must be something in the air, because I transformed my hideous writing room into a sanctuary this week. I wrapped the walls in a lovely floral print, covering the virulent orange/brown sea scape mural on the dominant wall I skirted the bottom half of the wall with delicate sheers, stapled fabric on tyhe back of an old bookcase, bought toile storage cases from Burlington Coat factory to store papers and folders and arranged a plant or two. Wow. It's so pretty and welcoming. When my grown daughters see it they're flabbergasted. Not only is it a lovely writing room, but it encourages me to continue decorating this old fixer-upper that we bought 2 years ago. Glad to see your sanctuary is lovely, too. Surroundings make a difference.

  • Yuliana Kim-Grant

    Lovely piece, Eugenia. I think about our too brief meeting often, usually when confronting the blank screen. I hope the writing is going well, or as well as any of us can hope. Next time I see you, I will have your book in hand for you to sign. 

  • Ann Phelps

    Ah, the writing space. I worry that I spend so much time finding the "right" place to do my work that I never get anything done. I am glad to hear that I am not the only one who feels both that the space is important and that at the end of the day, you simply have to get over your romantic notions of the perfect "room of one's own" and just write. I can only hope that the creativity is fed by this tension...

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Sorry it's called "The Writer's Desk", I linked to it...

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    I just had my writing workshop on Tuesday and our workshop leader was sharing a beautiful book with us -- "Writers at their Desks."  It's out of print now but not hard to find.  We played a game trying to guess the writer from the space.  (Our workshop leader had cleverly placed post-its on people's faces.)  It was really fascinating, and I feel like I have gotten some illumination on you now from being invited so generously into your space.  Thanks, Eugenia.

  • Sandra Beasley

    Eugenia, what a great post! You show how the literal order of our physical spaces can affect (for better or for worse) our philosophies toward our writing. And I -love- all the photos...though knowing me I'd have to move the chair--I'd be staring out that window all day, every day. = ) Thanks so much for sharing~