The Truth About My Desk

Welcome to the Distress Signals Blogging Bonanza! What’s that, you’re wondering? Well, you can either go and read this post or read the next sentence. In a nutshell: Distress Signals was out in paperback in the UK and Ireland on January 5 and hits the U.S.A. on February 2, and every day in between I’m going to blog as per the schedule at the bottom of this post. 

I think it was probably sometime in 2007 that I saw Elizabeth Gilbert on Oprah. Eat, Pray, Love mania was about to hit and I already had dutifully purchased my copy of it from my beloved Barnes and Noble in Dr Philips, because The Great O had said so. I remember very little of the actual Eat, Pray, Love episode except for this: Gilbert going up to a lovely little wooden desk on the mezzanine level of her lovely house, carrying a cup of tea, to open up the neat little box of index cards on which she’d written her notes, turn to her computer and get to work turning them into her next book.

The tea was herbal but leaving that aside, I was as much in awe as I was jealous.

Many years later, The Book Show on Sky Arts interviewed Cecilia Ahern and filmed her at work in her office near her home in Co. Dublin. She looked gorgeous and had that healthy, glossy inner glow she always seems to have. Her office was gloriously neat. Her desk had only her computer, a candle and a coffee on it. Actually, the coffee might have been from earlier, so maybe it was only the computer and the candle. The only other thing in there was a shelf with all her published books.

The coffee was decaf but leaving that aside, I was as much in awe as I was jealous.

Scrolling through Twitter a while back, I came across a picture of uber-selling author Jeffrey Archer sitting at his writing desk. It took me a while to actually see the desk because the shot was taken at his house in Spain (I think?) and the desk was in front of a floor-to-ceiling wrap around window that offered panoramic views of the sea. It was magnificent.

I would never get any work done there but still, I was much in— Well, you know the rest.

I too am guilty of this ‘Oooh, neat, pretty desk’ thing. I’ve posted pictures of mine on here. Everything in it was colour co-ordinated, organised and clean. Aside from my computer, the only things on my desk were a cup of coffee, my blue chair and a picture of me as an eight-year-old, tapping away on the typewriter Santa had just brought me.

And it does really look like that a lot of time.

It does not, however, look like that when I’m writing.

I’m at the end of this draft now and when I’m at this point, I do nothing but write and eat and sleep, and I only eat things that don’t need much preparation or clean-up, and I only sleep enough to function at a level a shade more human than zombie. And you know what I’m most looking forward to when I’m done? It’s not sending the manuscript off to my editor and agent. It’s not the sense of accomplishment that will bring. It’s not the guilt-free Netflix binge-watching I intend to spend my weekend on.

It’s cleaning up my desk, because right now it’s like a little episode of Hoarders in the middle of my home. This is an actual shot I took last night, compared to the nice one I posted on here last year (in a previous desk accessories arrangement incarnation):


On the left, ‘nice’ desk. On the right, actual desk during writing time. Note the crumpled up Post-Its and the paper thrown on the ground. The blankets I wrap myself up in, one of which does not match the other. (I know.) The two cups of coffee. The discarded Milkybar wrapper. The carpet that seriously needs hoovering. The fact that all pretty things have been removed to another location to make room for my calendar-page-plotting map.

Not pictured: the Gollum-like creature who sits there for hours on end. She’s SO close to being done though. And after she cleans it, she’s going to reorganise her desk. She got some pretty things for Christmas to go on it so she needs to move stuff around to make them fit. She’s looking forward to making it all pretty again, just in time for Book 3.

Stand by for Instagram pictures.


Remember: there’s a super sexy hardcover edition of Distress Signals (the American one, out February 2) up for grabs, signed to you from me. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post or any post published here between January 5 and February 2. One entry per post, so comment on more than one and increase your chances. Open globally. Good luck!


21 thoughts on “The Truth About My Desk

  1. Joel D Canfield says:

    I was a slubberdegullion at my desk for years until Mihály Csíkszentmihályi taught me (in Flow) that tidiness would allow me to be wilder in my writing (cue Gustave Flaubert: Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d’être violent et original dans vos œuvres. which translate more or less to Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.)

    It’s not easy when writing becomes a life or death struggle marathon thing.

    Perhaps Dr. Richard Wiseman’s The As If Principle has some thoughts on the connection between a clean desk and not writing in marathon.

  2. katielookingforward says:

    I live in the world’s smallest studio apartment (think hotel room sized, and not a hotel suite). I did photos for my blog and it has never been that clean since! Every now and then I’ll clean a couple corners, but I like having my stuff spread all around me, all the time.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Katie, no. It’s ME who lives in the world’s smallest studio apartment. I doubt I am even hotel room sized. (I have definitely stayed in hotel rooms bigger than this.) Which will tell you just how messy things are, if I have managed to mess up a space that small! 🙂

  3. cherylsterling1955 says:

    I have a desk. It has many pretty things on it. Stones from important, sentimental places I’ve visited. IKEA boxes in white and turquoise. Shelves and racks and a magnetic board.
    I use it to pile stuff on.
    I write in a big, whitish chair across the room. Next to the chair is a table with a top that folds down. It’s rarely down as that’s what holds my notebooks and other writing detritus.
    But I love a clean, tidy desk. Even though I don’t write at it, I write better when it’s clean. Messy desk, messy mind.
    Good luck finishing your manuscript!

  4. Andy Blatchford says:

    Once again Catherine, you are reminding me that I need to take my own advice and clear my oversized desk. It had got so bad that I had moved the pile of paper from my desk into a cardboard box, which now resides beside my feet. Now the detritus has regained its previous overwhelming status. I must find a bigger bin for the rubbish! Or reduce the size of my desk.
    Please provide practical advice on how to keep your desk so tidy as your photos suggest.
    Now that you have finished the Draft and posted it (Well Done!), take your own advice (make us all jealous), and then enjoy a Netflix binge.

  5. hilarycustancegreen says:

    I’m afraid my desk gets a whole lot worse, but I’m with you. I LOVE that moment when the most important thing I can do is clear the desk. It means I have finished a draft caught up with emails, put a wash on and someone else is cooking the next meal.

  6. owenobs says:

    Greetings:                                  Hope sales are brisk, but when you get a moment between schooling and publishing, I’d like some info on the ‘Goodreads Free Book’ promo – and ‘cheap; overseas mailing.Some of my Beta Readers are based in UK – and are ‘Old School’ sailors who are not tuned into reading text on iPads – despite working in that field – for pleasure.My handful of books have NOT broken NYT records (YET) and when I priced sending hard-print copies from Florida to UK…I thought I was going to have ‘the Big One’.!  I told my mate, if I live long enough to pay a visit (row over) I’d get copies to him.THEN,  last month, I noted you re-issued blog scolding folks for NO offering books on Goodreads, due to mailing costs.  Naturally, I stashed that info in a fail-safe location for security…and its lost.HOW does it work?  As an ex bookseller (new and antiquarian) it was possible to ‘drop-ship’  common copies [Harry Potter] from a nearby bookshop’s stock to a client; sending cost of book and LOCAL shipping.  And I know outfits like Creatspace have printing jobbers scattered throughout the USA. I’m guessing the have them in UK, Ireland, Ethiopia too so its possible and order for a POD could  be placed, and shipped locally to the client or, Goodread ‘winnah’.Is that how it works??Enquiring minds are REALLY anxious to know. Later – Jack Owen

  7. carlamcgill says:

    I’m only just reading this today, March 21, so I’m behind on my blog reading, but I LOVE this post and the comments made by your readers! My blog (though not as well-kept and active as yours) is ultimately supposed to be about these kinds of things — the habits of writers, their “customs,” ways of doing things. I seem to forever be fighting clutter and disorganization. A line from Billy Collins’ poem, “Advice to Writers,” is always with me as something I am in search of: “A clean surface in the middle of a clean world.” I would love to hear more about the methods you all use for working on a project: clean desk, messy desk, no desk, just a tree to lean back on, kitchen table, coffee, tea, whiskey? Golly, an ocean view in Spain. Really? Does one ever get that fortunate?

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