Where we write

Janice Pariat | Updated on April 15, 2020 Published on April 15, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic, which has confined people to their homes, has also prompted a reacquaintance with the spaces where they make a life and a livelihood

When the lockdown was announced in India, I’d already been — because of a trip to Europe — in self-isolated quarantine for a week. Though for a writer, I’d joked, quarantine, or lockdown, meant little change or difference in routine — still at the desk, still working, still distancing yourself from the world because you need to maintain that manuscript ‘headspace’. But even then, I found I was spending extended hours at my writing table, more so than on normal days, when engagements with friends, or a hankering to work in a café, called me away. I’m very particular about where I write — not because the space must adhere to a certain aesthetic, or must overlook the ocean (though about this I wouldn’t at all complain), but because it must be quiet, and infused with a certain creative energy. House-hunting for me means asking myself when I enter a space, “Can I write here?”.

My table now is an Amar Colony market birthday present purchase from my partner, filled with an assortment of things. A test tube set stuffed with dried leaves and flowers for botanical inspiration for my work-in-progress novel, a hand-carved wooden bird named Omija, a candle from a dear friend in Bangkok, a metal stag from a Bastar artist at the Crafts Museum, a tray of collected stones, a selection of ink bottles, a small van Gogh box, an amber ammonite fossil, a dish of dried flowers from every bouquet my partner has gifted me, pine cones, a Caledon pottery bowl from my writing residency in South Korea last autumn, a cement ‘J’ from a design studio called An Artful Life; some of these are gifts, some are collected — picked up from roadsides, beaches, forests. My workspace is so much of myself, I realised, and what I find inspiring. It is projection, curation, comfort, motivation all at once.

This got me thinking — and curious. I put a post up on Instagram: “What’s your work space like? Do share, send pictures, show”. And slowly the photos poured in, from across the country and across the world. The call had struck a chord perhaps, given that most of the planet was in lockdown ‘work from home’ mode. People were now forced to reassess the spaces they inhabited; for the majority, what was personal and work wasn’t as neatly demarcated anymore. Many had to conjure a workspace (dining table!) where their homes had none. Someone from New York sent a picture of a makeshift standing desk she’d cobbled together for her apartment, some had colonised small corners of their homes where the rest of the family weren’t allowed to disturb them. For some, old workstations that had long been abandoned or become convenient surfaces for things — clothes, books, keys, other random stuff — were revisited, tidied, dusted, and reconnected with.

Many wrote to say that they usually worked from office, or a café. “But I’m forced now to spend time at my desk, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it.” Some workspaces were pristinely neat, laptop, lamp, notebook all in place, some (like mine) were more dishevelled, but each were sweetly personalised — a life-sized Frida Kahlo mural for inspiration, sheep-shaped fairy lights, bee paintings, travel seed bowl, a favourite sketch, a black-and-white photograph of a father, a toddler, a partner, notes from friends, potted plants, fresh flowers, space for cats, a framed leaf, snacks, medicines, vintage typewriters, books of poetry, sunny spots, reused furniture.

What I found most moving was that each picture offered a tender glimpse into someone’s life — who they are, what they hold dear and important, the small things they’ve collected on their journeys, and choose to place around them. Each, in their own way, tell a story. As did, sometimes, where these workspaces were located. By decorated walls, or windows — with cityscapes, or the ocean glimmering beyond, or mountains, or trees, trees, trees.

What also struck me was how our workspaces are infused with the energies of ourselves, not just of the present moment — but our hopes and dreams for the future. “I’m starting out as a boutique watch designer,” read one message, “and this is where I work.” “From here, I run my own design studio, my textile business.” So many messages also from scholars, saying, this is where we hope to finish writing our master’s dissertations, our PhD theses.

For many writers, desks are scattered with notes for the next book, the next novel — and all the thrill and nervousness and despair that entails. Here is where knowledge is gathered and generated, yes, but, perhaps more important, also where we hope to make our families, and ourselves, proud. I called the series “Where We Write”, and it’s become, for me and some others, more than merely a fun thing for our quiet lockdown days. Here is where we learn to adjust, to think things through these unsettling times, to acknowledge our immense privilege to be able to retreat to a workplace at all. Where we write is where we are most ourselves, where we are most vulnerable, comforted, most alive.

Janice Pariat   -  BLink


Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart

Twitter: @janicepariat

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Published on April 15, 2020
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