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November 13, 2005

A room of one's own? Communal writer's spaces are the new new thing


Liesl Schillinger wrote a interesting story for the October 9 New York Times about the growing popularity of shared writers' spaces in such cities as New York, Boston and Los Angeles.

Pictured above is the Village Quill, a writers' space which opened in January in TriBeCa in Manhattan.

The writers' rooms, said Joy Parisi, a member of Paragraph, a writers' workspace in Manhattan which opened on September 12, are like gyms in that "in both, a large group of people share the same equipment."

Schillinger wrote that the first such facility, the Writers Room, was opened in Manhattan in 1978 by the biographer Nancy Mitford and her colleagues.

Anyone could join until the late 1990s when demand suddenly skyrocketed; the waiting list was two and a half years long by 2002.

Having been published is not a requirement there; the Writers Room only asks that its members be serious in their intent to write.

Here's the Times story.

    A Cubicle for You and Your Muse

    On a late-September day in Manhattan, as workmen heaved lockers up two flights of stairs to a newly opened workspace for writers called Paragraph, the garret's doyennes, Lila Cecil and Joy Parisi, sat at a table at the top of the staircase, snacking on brie and crackers and picking at a heaping bowl of candy.

    A member writer, Shivani Manghnani, appeared before the lockers did, having sneaked upstairs from her carrel on the second floor to grab some conversation and a Hershey's kiss.

    "Chocolate is pretty central to my productivity," she said.

    A clang echoed from the stairwell.

    "Are you O.K.?" Ms. Parisi called out anxiously.

    A deliveryman emerged on the landing, holding out a bleeding finger.

    "Oh, no!" Ms. Parisi said. "I'll get the first-aid kit."

    Stepping to a cranberry-colored cupboard, she pulled out the kit - still shrink-wrapped - opened it and put a Band-Aid on the man herself.

    Hominess is part of the appeal at Paragraph; writers, after all, notoriously crave nurturing.

    But those who use this space have a practical reason to show up as well: to overcome the temptation to procrastinate, and to get down to the hard work of writing.

    "When you write at home, there's a lot of distraction," Ms. Parisi said.

    "You want to go clean out the fridge, or tweeze your eyebrows. But when you go to a space to write, that's what you do."

    Paragraph opened Sept. 12 in a three-story building on West 14th Street near Union Square, a few months after its founders graduated from the New School with master of fine arts degrees in creative writing.

    On their second day of business, they met with a screenwriter from Los Angeles, Jay Gibson, who plans to open a room of his own, the Writers Junction, early next year near Venice Beach, Calif.

    He had come to New York to see how writers' spaces were run.

    "There's a huge population of creative people in Los Angeles who need a place to go - primarily screenwriters," he said.

    "A friend of mine once stood outside a supermarket with a microphone and asked people as they came out, 'How's your screenplay going?' And everyone invariably said: 'No way! How did you know I was writing a screenplay?' "

    Paragraph and the Writers Junction are part of a growing number of members-only centers springing up in writerly metropolises like New York, Boston and Los Angeles.

    For $100 a month, on average, members secure the right to a desk, a lamp and a power strip in a shared space where they can ply their trade day and night.

    Ms. Parisi compares writers' rooms to gyms.

    In both, a large group of people share the same equipment.

    And, paying for membership helps writers take their commitment to writing seriously, she said, and gets them "off of the couch" and onto the literary StairMaster.

    As Ms. Manghnani, who writes short stories, explained: "If I'm at home working, people don't respect that that much; they call or text or e-mail, or make arrangements to have coffee. But if I'm at a place that sounds legitimate to other people - a library or a writers' room - they don't disturb me as much. No one calls you at the gym and says, 'Lets go have a burger.' "

    And like exercise buffs, the writers who use these spaces need to be self-motivated and disciplined.

    "The concept of writers as drunken Hemingwayesque malcontents traveling the globe is over," Ms. Cecil said.

    "They see it as a job now, and they see themselves not as inspired alcoholics, or depressive psychopaths alone in a tenement. It's more mainstream. It's good kids going to M.F.A. programs, then looking for a place to find the kind of writerly community they had in grad school."

    The idea of a communal work space for writers is not new; the tradition began in Lower Manhattan nearly 30 years ago, when a group of writers, including the biographer Nancy Mitford, banded together to rent an office.

    In 1978 the group incorporated as the nonprofit organization the Writers Room, which has fostered the creation of more than a thousand books and screenplays, said Donna Brodie, the executive director since 1994.

    Today it has a roster of 400 writers who take turns at 40 desks on the top floor of a building on Broadway at Astor Place. Members include Lawrence Block, the best-selling mystery writer, and Michael Berg, a writer of the screenplay for "Ice Age," which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2003.

    Lately membership has become exclusive.

    Toward the end of the 90's, as the popularity of M.F.A. programs spread and the Internet gave writers new outlets for their work, applications skyrocketed until, suddenly, there was no room at the Writers Room.

    As an indication of the strength of the trend, the number of freelance writers registered with the Web site mediabistro.com grew from 19,000 in 2001 to more than 150,000 this year.

    When the husband-and-wife playwrights Scott Adkins and Erin Courtney applied for admission to the Writers Room in 2002, the waiting list was two and a half years.

    "We couldn't wait that long," Mr. Adkins said.

    They were working out of their tiny apartment and expecting their second child as Ms. Courtney struggled to finish her quirky drama "Demon Baby." (It has since been produced, as has the baby.)

    "I needed quiet," Ms. Courtney said. So in January 2003 they founded the Brooklyn Writers Space, a cozy cubicle-filled garden apartment in Park Slope. They now have 160 members and a waiting list of their own.

    In January another writers' space, the Village Quill, opened on Franklin Street in TriBeCa, upstairs from a chi-chi children's clothing store.

    The Quill is run by Harry Bruinius, whose first book, "Better for All the World," a social history of eugenics in America, comes out next spring.

    The members include screenwriters, journalists and a handful of TriBeCa moms with manuscripts tucked in their Peg Peregos.

    The Quill's high brick walls double as a gallery space for emerging artists.

    Like Mr. Bruinius, the organizers of the other rooms have artistic aspirations that extend beyond their carrels, from holding readings to offering classes.

    But they agree that their primary function is to provide a sanctuary for wordsmiths.

    Ms. Courtney sees her writers' space in Brooklyn as "almost like a monastery."

    "When people first come here, it's like a religious experience," she said. "They look so flushed and happy, and they get so much work done."

    You might think that a writer surrounded by dozens of direct competitors tapping away at the Great American Novel would find his creative juices frozen, not freed.

    But the playwright Kirk Wood Bromley, a member of the Brooklyn space, says he finds the atmosphere bracing.

    "I think writers get jazzed by writing in a room with other writers," he said.

    "Writing is a very competitive art."

    Another Brooklyn member, the novelist Lisa Selin Davis, was less jazzed.

    "I hear people typing and I freak out," she said. "I think: 'They're typing so fast. Why aren't I?' And then you've got the loud typists, and I always think they're showing off, and probably they're not typing anything; they're just hitting the keyboard."

    Nonetheless, working among rivals has its advantages.

    A screenwriter asked to option Ms. Davis's book, "Belly," after meeting her over tea in the Brooklyn space's kitchen.

    On a recent afternoon, restless writers pushed through the soundproof door of the Writers Room kitchen, seeking a break from their toil.

    Taking handfuls of M&M's from a dispenser, they began trading anecdotes about eccentric members: a man who snored, a woman who moved in with her cat, another woman who unnerved the members with her hissing oxygen tank.

    Francis Levy, who just finished writing "Savage Kiss," which he describes as "a comic novel about a couple who experience out-of-body sex," was in a talkative mood.

    "There's a power-packed world of fantasy that exists above all these somnolent heads," he declared.

    Writers at rural retreats might have the opportunity for horseplay, he speculated just for fun, whereas dalliances in town might be trickier.

    "I don't see a lot of heavy flirtation going on, particularly since, unlike a MacDowell or a Yaddo, it's an urban writers' colony, so we come here, do our work and go back to our life the same day," he said.

    "But I've heard rumors."

    The writer Anne Landsman, who wrote her first novel at the Writers Room ("The Devil's Chimney," about expatriate ostrich farmers in the South African Karoo), described the quiet camaraderie more innocently, as "parallel play, like toddlers in a sandbox."

    Like other writers' spaces, the Writers Room does not require its members to be published, only to be serious in their intent to write.

    "The person who can't write a lick today might produce a masterpiece tomorrow," said Ms. Brodie, the executive director.

    "We don't know who's going to be the next Trollope or Tolstoy. All we can do its provide the space for them to flourish."

    Rick Uhlig, wearing a T-shirt with a yellow bird printed on it, wandered into the kitchen, opened a paper bag and started munching an apricot Clif Bar.

    He had dabbled in screenwriting, he said, worked at a day care center and had been a househusband.

    Had he ever published anything?

    "I just sold my first novel last Friday," he said quietly. "Random House bought it."

    A chorus of "Congratulations!" and "Wow!" rang out across the room.

    The book, "Down at the Frigid Queen," is a coming-of-age novel set in a small town in Kansas.

    Ms. Landsman was overcome.

    Turning to Mr. Uhlig, she said: "I've been here day in and day out while you were writing this. Your kid was born while you were here. It's thrilling, as another writer, to see this moment."

    She turned back to the group: "No one else realizes how long it takes to write these things. From the outside it looks like books fall from trees, but we sit here and watch the whole process."

    After a pause a more pragmatic writer asked Mr. Uhlig, "Why are you here, if you just sold your book?"

    "It's a two-book sale," he said, and resumed chewing his Clif Bar. "Now I have to finish my second book."

I cannot think of anything more unconducive to creativity than having to be in a room with other people.

Except perhaps for being in a room with other writers.

You couldn't pay me to work in one of these writers' workspaces.


Virginia Woolf speaks for me.

November 13, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Paragraph is much nicer than the Quill. It's on 14th Street, near 6th Avenue. It's open 24-7 and they use it only as a writer's space. The other has evolved into a party/art gallery/whatever space, so a lot of times you need to leave earlier so that they can take your desk out, and arrange a party space. The website is www.paragraphny.com

Posted by: west | Jul 22, 2006 2:32:59 PM

> You couldn't pay me to work in one of these writers' workspaces.

Ah, but then you have trees, a yard, birds chirping and the Blue Mountains off in the distance if I remember correctly. If you lived in a 200 sq. ft. apartment on the top floor of a four-story walk-up in the lower teens with the sounds of NYC traffic blaring 24/7, would you think differently?

Posted by: tward | Nov 14, 2005 4:55:05 AM

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