On Keeping a Studio

I rent a studio in which to write. To me this idea seems fairly self-explanatory, but you’d be surprised at the wide variety of responses I get when I drop it into conversation. Some people express envy; they wish they could get away for a while, as if a studio were a place for a vacation, and not (another!) place of work. Other people, eminently practical, want to know the cost. The answer: surprisingly cheap, especially if you share. Some people want to know if it makes me feel like a “real writer” – whatever that means. Still others – in my estimation, the strangest of the bunch – feel confident enough in their knowledge of both literature and real estate to suggest that my writing space is a needless extravagance.

“But you’re a writer,” they say. “You can write anywhere!”

I don’t entirely disagree with this statement. Unprecedented advances in computer technology have produced a device called a laptop, which allows you to sit in a crowded coffeeshop, surrounded by bawling preschoolers and couples engaged in passive-aggressive arguments, and produce line after line of thoroughly legible prose. I’ve done this myself, from time to time – but I know from experience that this kind of prose doesn’t generally make it through to later drafts.

No, when I want to do what I call “deep writing” (especially novel-writing), I need a place that’s quiet, preferably without windows, where I can be alone.

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Reason One for keeping a studio: you don’t watch anybody, and nobody watches you.

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My first studio opportunity came when I was twenty-four. In those days I worked as a guitar teacher at a music store near Philadelphia’s (in)famous South Street, across from the coffee shop some of you might know from early episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. One day, while I was waiting by the counter, one of the baristas mentioned that she was rehabbing an old cabinet-maker’s studio in the south of town. She was looking for people to share the labor and, afterwards, the rent. I didn’t know her very well, at the time, but I was interested. I’d just gotten out of a messy relationship, and my life felt small and pointless. I was ready for anything, provided it was different from my own, empty apartment.

The studio was in terrible shape. The previous owner had died unexpectedly (so we later gathered), leaving decades’ worth of wood dust, assorted trash, and tiles that looked suspiciously like asbestos. Wearing masks, we spent weeks sweeping and shopvac-ing the floor, stairs, and rafters; the wood dust hung in the air, a brown haze, the way I imagined a Dickensian fog. Even with the masks, we complained of coughs, chest pains, and irritated eyes.

Once the dust was cleared, we began to make small improvements. We hung Christmas lights on the stairs, and put assorted magazines in the closet-sized bathroom. A Chinese dragon-head was scavenged from the dump and hung near the entrance. Some people built walls, some put up curtains. Some people, like me, simply pressed their desk up against a free wall and called it an office.

There were seven of us in the studio to start: two painters, a printmaker, a drone musician, a playwright, a poet, and me. Each of us paid roughly a hundred dollars a month, including utilities. There were some drawbacks: the lack of heat, for one, and also the auto body shop across the street. Their employees parked cars in front of our space, harassed the women who passed in and out of our front door, and sometimes left bottles full of pee for us to clean up.

But inside, the building was a refuge. During the week it was a place for serious work; I spent many sweaty summer nights in the company of my studio-mates, typing in my underwear, taking communal cigarette breaks. In the company of a group, the work felt purposeful, even courageous: a pair of hands in the service of group labor. The essentially lonely quality of writing was ameliorated somewhat, and in a good night, in the right company, I could work straight through until dawn. Once or twice, when conditions were perfect, I produced a complete draft in a twenty-four hour stretch.

(There was also cold, fear, self-doubt, and a great many cockroaches.)

The weekends were set aside for parties: punk shows, theater performances, dance parties, art exhibits. We were cross-disciplinary, though we wouldn’t have labelled ourselves as such; artists helped with readings, musicians helped with gallery openings, writers ran the PA. In exchange for a token fee and a cut of the proceeds we ran the door, dimmed the lights, and cleaned up after the audience went home. There was great satisfaction in drunkenly sweeping up at two in the morning, knowing we’d made enough money to lower everyone’s rent for a month. It was a feeling of intense camaraderie, of self-definition, of overcoming one’s own isolation.

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Reason Two for keeping a studio: we need spaces in which nothing permanent happens.

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For me, a communal studio was a life raft. Before I joined, I was writing almost nothing. When I left, I had an agent, a novel manuscript, and a series of published stories. But more importantly, the studio reminded me that there were other people in the world engaged in the same sort of work as me, and that mutual reinforcement can help make that work feel meaningful. In those days I would get out of bed on a Saturday, survey the solitude of my apartment, and feel real joy that I had another place to go, free of the associations of home. I knew that at the studio I could work, without being interrupted by painful ghosts.

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Reason Three for keeping a studio: a desire to be geographically removed from the rest of one’s life.

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Even now, happily married, I look forward to going to the studio. Not the same studio: I left the old place with a few other people in 2011, and set up shop in a smaller spot on Jeweler’s Row, the city’s historic diamond district. My rent is still only a hundred and fifty a month. Above us is a yoga studio, which emits occasional bangs and animal grunts. Below is an old engraver and her incontinent dog, which occasionally shits in the hall.

My new studio is just a place for work. No readings, no shows, no parties. There are only four of us now: a drummer (who practices on weekends), two writers, and a painter. I share the room with my friend Alyssa, another writer. We often work at different times, but when we do meet it gives us a chance to talk over what we’ve been working on.

I’m often struck by the way time passes in a working studio, especially when I’m alone. I’ll get up from my desk and wander around, listening to the sound of my footsteps. Across the street, through the dirty windows, jewelry workers examine gems, using loupes: cylindrical magnifiers that look like cybernetic eye enhancers. They are engaged in silent work, too.

Since it isn’t a living space, a studio maintains a certain arbitrary quality: air enclosed by walls. In a home, a table waits to bear dinner, a chair offers you comfort. In a studio, things exist only for their current function.

As studio is not a living space, or a place for living, but a place for imagination. A place that is a conduit into other places.

I like when night falls in the studio. It’s an elemental way of knowing it’s time for me to go.

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Reason Four for keeping a studio: it’s a place you can always enter, and a place you can always leave.

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When somebody tells me my studio is a needless extravagance, I feel like saying: but wouldn’t you be happier if you had one? Isn’t that the reason for the profusion of “third spaces” in recent years: the Starbucks model of a home away from home? Except, of course, that the Starbucks model is predicated on buying coffee, sitting in uncomfortable chairs, and listening in on other people’s anxious conversations.

When you rent your own studio, you’re only buying silence, which is more expensive than coffee, but probably more healthy.

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Reason Five for keeping a studio: it reminds you that you aren’t working enough.

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Tomorrow I will get up and go to the studio. I’ll get on the bus at 8:30 with the rest of the commuters, ride to 8th Street, and then walk one block from Chestnut to Jeweler’s Row. I’ll say hello to my landlord, who maintains a reserved good humor about what he obviously considers my strange work, and then I’ll climb the flight of stairs to the second floor landing, running my hands over the cracked plaster as I go. I’ll listen for Geri’s voice downstairs, and the yap of her dog. I’ll listen for the yoga people upstairs: their occasional chanting.

But once I’m in the studio, and the door is closed, I’ll stop listening. At my desk, which faces a bare wall, I have only a collection of books, a poorly maintained printer, and a series of empty coffee cups. I’ll pull on a heavy-duty pair of encircling headphones, which silences the hum of the florescent lights. I’ll slip away.

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