For a long time, I dreamed of having a writing nook. Not a room of my own, which I would never have been able to afford anyway, but a nook of my own, a space big enough for a table and chair, preferably next to a bookcase big enough to hold the dictionaries, books, and file folders I needed.
All through high school, I shared a desk with my three sisters in the small bunkbed-lined bedroom we all slept in. The desk, darkwood and glass-topped (with red felt under the glass), was the type commonly seen in offices, and may indeed have come from my parents’ office back when they had one.
We had a time-share system in which one sister studied while the other did chores. Following the practice of our neighbors and friends, we arranged our baby and family photos on the red felt under the glass, only to find that the photos could no longer be peeled off the glass without ruining the pictures.
In college, my parents bought two conjoined bureaux des dames, which sounded a lot fancier than they looked, being constructed entirely out of plywood and fake leather and devoid of marquetry. The good news was that two of us could now use the writing desks at any one time; the bad news was that the other two sisters still had to await their turn between chores.
I wrote my first publishable short story at the age of seventeen on one of the writing desks during my time share, but I never felt that the desk was mine to use, to sit at for hours on end, scribbling away happily. I couldn’t even leave notes and paper on the desk because the sister closest to my age was a stickler for tidiness.
In graduate school, I finally had the chance to work at a desk. The one I liked best belonged to my friend Andrew, who was away doing archival research in Spain and Holland the year that I was writing my dissertation and who lent me his desk, among other things. The desk was huge and gray-black modern, and could accommodate a computer and printer, with room to spare for piles of notes and open books.
My bedroom in the apartment I shared with two other graduate students was my first solo bedroom. It had a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that looked out into a patch of woods, green in the summer, brown and white in the winter. But I remember very little of the time spent writing in such a nice room. Finishing the doctoral program was the imperative, and slogging through tons of readings and papers and a dissertation on a series of deadlines was not my idea of fun. By then, writing (and even reading novels) had already begun to feel more like a chore than a vocation.
Once in a while, I wrote short stories, but they were written largely during the odd break between hours and hours spent spewing out academese that even then I was already starting to hate. These bouts of fiction-writing were intense, invariably brief, and as the academic-writing period became more and more protracted, particularly after I started working in the university, the urge to write fiction flickered, grew fainter. There was a six-year stretch during which I wasn’t able to write any fiction, and I despaired of the thought that the trickle from the faucet had been shut off completely.
Instead, I trawled the internet for pictures of writers’ rooms, fantasized about the perfect writing nook. I envied Charles Dickens his book-lined Victorian study, majestic rosewood desk, and windows that afforded him a vista of trees and rolling hills; dreamed of the white-frame windows next to Hilary Mantel’s desk that showed the straight line at which the blue of the sky became the blue of the sea; and imagined myself seated at Virginia Woolf’s plain wooden desk, grain visible, in the middle of a room in a rustic cottage, mere steps away from the door that led to a green field.
But the pictures I was most drawn to were those of Jane Austen and her tiny table, fit only for an ink pot and sheet or two of paper, and Roald Dahl and his brown wing armchair, the scroll arms of which held up the writing board on which he composed his slyly subversive stories for children.
In Austen’s Persuasion, the protagonist Anne Elliott speaks of women living “at home, quiet, confined,” and it was a source of wonder for me that Austen could delve with grace and precision into the lives of these women on the twelve-sided table she worked at next to the window that opened out onto the outside world. As for Dahl, cramming himself and his writing ledger into the cushiony depth of an armchair was exactly what I thought someone like him would favor over a standard desk.
William Faulkner’s desk wasn’t big, either. A gift from his mother, the table held a lamp and an Underwood typewriter and whatever book he needed at hand, plus a can of Scram Dog Repellent that Faulkner used to drive dogs away from his climbing rose bushes. Faulkner taped the outlines for the chapters of his books onto the walls of his back office. Faulkner modestly called his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi his “little postage stamp of native soil,” and created a map of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County–a little postage stamp that delivered such a capacious, expansive understanding of the world.
Kerima Polotan memorably painted a portrait of herself turning a baby over her knee as she hit the typewriter keys and strove to meet her writing deadline. There was Shirley Jackson, too, who came up with the idea for “The Lottery” while toting child and groceries up the hill to her house, and wrote the story in one sitting.
I ended up making a nook out of the dining table of the apartment and, later, house, I moved into. On that corner of the dining table, next to the sliding doors, the concrete, carless garage, the garbage bin, and the planter that screened the house from the street, I spent a feverish summer writing twelve of the stories that now make up a second collection called Demi-gods and Monsters: Stories, to be published by the University of the Philippines Press. In contrast, it had taken more than twenty-five years to collect the stories I had written into my first book, Recuerdos de Patay and Other Stories.
None of the new stories was written in the perfect writing nook I was finally able to create for myself. We now have a study upstairs, equipped with an old narra desk with side drawers a tad too low because it had been constructed for people who were on average shorter than we are nowadays. There is also a bookcase where I can finally put my dictionaries and file folders and books. And yet, all the stories I have written this past year were begun and completed at the same dining table downstairs, the laptop computer having to share the space with toast in the morning, grilled fish and miso soup at lunchtime, and hot pot, stirfries, and boiled vegetables at suppertime.
It is a cliché to say that people write when they want or need to, that they will write in whatever space they find themselves. I finally had a perfect writing nook, only to realize that it wasn’t a nook I was yearning for all these years, but the will and courage to write.