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Tom Junod: The workplace

If you write, people want to visit your office. It doesn't matter if you're immortal or middling; the immortal may get lines of tourists, and the middling curious friends and straggling fumigators, but the impulse is the same -- people want to see where the mystery happens, if only to make the mystery less mysterious. They want to see the talismans rubbed smooth and the voodoo dolls stuck with pins; they want to admire the view that somehow produces the point of view; most of all, they want not only to spy where the magician stashes his hat, but also to make sure he feeds the rabbits. The work may revel in disarray; but the office should be nothing less than a vision of order, evidence that a story well-written should lead to a life well-lived.

In this, my office is no different from the haunt of any other scribbler: It attracts visitors. Its only distinction is that also repels them. Time and again, I've lead the hopeful up the stairs to the little bedroom that serves as my "atelier," only to see the reality snuff the hope -- and the fantasy that my office might be charming enough to warrant description en fran├žais -- from their eyes. It is a sobering experience, for them and for me; for I have seen kindly family members literally recoil from the sight of my workshop, and well-meaning acquaintances let out an involuntary "Oh" under their breath, before turning on their heels and getting the hell out, as if they have seen something they weren't meant to see. I have had many people come to visit; I have never had anyone stay very long, including my wife, my daughter and my dog.

I do not know why this is, exactly. My office is on the second floor of my house, with a pleasing view of a wooded backyard; it's loaded with knick-knacks and personal mementoes; it is bursting -- barnacled -- with books. Though small and cramped, it is, in short, as well-appointed as many another writer's domicile, and I am nothing if not friendly. Come and visit, and I will not only show you around; I will make sure the unsteady stack of literary magazines tottering in the corner doesn't fall on you. Come and visit, and I will explain why taped to my window frame is not only a succession of wallet photos of my daughter Nia, but also postcards of Hans Hoblein's portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, angrily squaring off. Come and visit, and I will show you not only the first book I ever bought -- "The Portable Faulkner," kept within easy reach -- but also, like, the four-thousandth.

And yet nobody visits; or, put another way, everybody by now knows better than to come up the stairs. Hell, I know better. When I come home from traveling, my office is often the first place I stop and visit; it also the first place I flee, even when I have to write. This is not a bad thing; more and more, I have stripped myself of rituals, and have made offices of wherever I happen to sit myself down. I write on the couch; I write in bed; I write, like everybody else, at Starbucks; I write, as I am writing now, in a cubicle at the local public library. My office is often where I start; some impersonal place, barren of everything but necessity, is generally where I, and whatever it is I am writing, end up.

My wife would offer a simple explanation for the failure of my office to be an office: it's a mess. I disagree. Not that it's messy, or that the accumulated water glasses and coffee cups tend to overwhelm the meaning of the carefully curated personal arcana; it is, and they do. But even on those occasions when I've tidied up, there is something about my office that keeps visitors at bay, something that goes to the heart of the whole idea that the best place to find a writer is where he or she happens to work. A scribbler's haunt is always haunted by the unscribbled, and so it is with mine. It hardly matters that I keep, within arm's length of the plastic core-building accordion that now serves as my chair, a chronological collection of every magazine in which I've published a story. It matters even less that, since I've been at this a while, the collection can be measured by the yard, for on the shelves above are the yards of uniform slipcased masterpieces published by the Library of America, to which I've dutifully and nerdily subscribed for 35 years. The discrepancy is intentional; so is the comment cast upon my output by the complete works of H.L Mencken and Mark Twain. My office, then, is where my motivation melds with my masochism, and where as a result I can neither stay nor stay away from very long.

Of course, unless you're Philip Roth -- unless you're in the Library of America -- I can't imagine that many writers feel differently about their offices than I do. I can't imagine that they find their offices places of refuge, as anything indeed but places of trial, which is why I've come to believe that admiring a writer's work enough to seek out the place where it was written is akin to liking a steak enough to seek out where it was slaughtered. It's interesting, if you can ignore the blood on the walls. I've never been able to, especially when it comes to my own little abattoir, though that's not to say that I'm not still beguiled by the promise of writing in the comfort of my own home, surrounded by books, magazines, and photographs of those I love. I even have a few good luck charms that seem to work, and a few photographs that serve to inspire me when all seems lost, such as those of me finally starting a football game at the end of my senior year in high school, after what seemed a lifetime of ignominiously riding the bench. It was not only the first success of my life; it was a success of endurance over talent, and so pertinent to my eventual life as a writer. The only problem is that when I look at those photos, what they have to teach seems small, compared to what I often see through the window right next to them. There, the red-tailed hawk that haunts my backyard has chosen as his perch a branch not more than 10 feet away, and directly in my line of sight; and so the greatest inspiration of my office is watching him go dutifully to his, where he tends to his wriggling prey, and then flies off, leaving nothing but bones behind.