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A writer by predilection, an aunt by blessing and a friend by choice, Shelley has spent many years journaling before sitting down to draft her first novel. She has a B.A. in English discourse and is currently working on her third romantic-suspense, the title of which will be announced soon pending publication. Shelley is a member of the Romance Writers of America as well as her RWA state chapter of the Maryland Romance Writers.
"I love story-telling. It's a way to live an experience through the eyes of a character." - Shelley N. Greene

Thursday, July 7, 2011

New Desk, Good Chi

The surface is smooth like satin; I admittedly spent the first 20 minutes staring fixedly at its flowing lines and a solid half hour after that petting it.  For my own sake I have not called it “my precious” yet, but give me time.  

 Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I formally announce that I have a new desk! Woot!  

And this newest addition to my writing area has a story even though it was just delivered last week.  Plus my new arrival brings up to an important journal subject: a writer’s workspace. 

 Of course, the writer's desk is easily the most essential piece of furniture.  While the computer can be viewed as the CEO equipment-wise, the desk and chair are its bodyguards and the most critical furniture.  And when I first started writing, I hadn’t really thought much about what it meant to have a good desk but now I have a much greater appreciation.

 To tell the story of my new desk’s journey into being, I have to first give you a brief history—the ghosts of desks past, as it were.  Before I’d really researched anything carefully my work furniture was a sad hodge-podge mix of pieces that my family members didn’t want and that I’d accepted out of necessity.

The first desk was small with wide drawers on either side of a cramped leg nook.  While it was sturdy, the thing was most likely a kid’s desk. The drawer storage was convenient, but my lack of leg room paid the price for it, and I didn’t have a whole lot of surface area outside what little space was taken up by my compact laptop.  While it was solid wood, it was obvious that it'd been painted over several times and oddly, a few splintered blocks would periodically fall down from somewhere inside the drawers, making a sudden thump of a sound that would startle me because I never knew when my desk was going to “drop its wood.”  I paired the old monster with a leather-covered, hardback chair that I’d purchased on sale at Macy’s.  

Looking back now, I’m amazed that I wrote my first novel-length as well as several short stories on the thing, and while I can’t remember the feel of sitting at it, I can still clearly recall the resulting back pain.  

 Halfway through my second story, I (well, my knees and lower back) decided that I needed something better, so I gave the kiddie desk back (because it was presumably a family heirloom) and I shelled out a little bit of money for a prefabricated computer desk that had shelves built into it.  And while I was at the office supply store I picked out another chair (also on sale), hauled it all home and went back to work.  While the computer desk was functional, the particle board smell lingered for weeks after I'd brought it home and it would wobble when I'd lean too heavily on it.  I mentally chided myself for having such high expectation of a desk that was bolted together using an L-wrench smaller than a mini pen.  Compared to its stocky predecessor, the compressed desk seemed cheap but I'd been determined to get my money’s worth out of it.  

 Months later, after I completed my second story, the replacement brown chair began to sag, regardless of how many lumbar pillows I arranged on it, and the rickety particleboard desk was really starting to bother me.  The once practical shelves seemed to loom over my head while I worked and gave little storage as I couldn't place anything heavy on them.  When I would write on the desktop the keyboard tray would coast forward with gravity, pushing itself at me as if saying, write, Shelley, write now!  After a while I stupidly began to feel pressured to write by my own desk, as if the damn thing was chastising me for not producing enough.  And the chair wasn’t behaving any better; it was brown vinyl and the padding started to wear out where I began to slip out of the seat unless I would prop my legs up with yet another pillow.  Anytime I would get up the swivel of the thing would pivot of its own violation, dragging an armrest across one side of the keyboard causing a yelp of pained, jumbled computer type to run across the screen. 

 While paying my bills one day, I actually had the thought that my cursive handwriting on the check was filling out was too forceful with the way the desk was shaking—it was then that I realized that my workspace wasn’t working.  And I decided that if I were going to go through the trouble of replacing everything again that I was going to do it right.

Making a mental list of everything I wanted from the space I came up with the following words: sturdy, firm, solid, supportive, spacious and quality.

I started reading several of the writing guides published by famous authors, just to see if there were guidelines to what I was looking for, and interestingly, every single one of them described their workspace and the descriptions were almost identical.  Their offices had (paraphrasing) “a lot of light, a good desk and a supportive chair.” 

 No one really even dropped computer brand names or took a side with the MAC versus PC debate; they all had simply focused on the layout of the room, the windows, the type of light and the furniture.   I figured if those were the important items endorsed by a popular consensus of great writers, then that was what I needed to look for too.

 Taking this advice, my brain lolled over the elements of it.  Over the years I’d seen offices that were ornately furnished, but for all the elegant splendor they somehow never felt like an environment I’d ever be comfortable in.  And while an office doesn’t have to be a stark cubicle with an industrial computer and a tank-like printer in order to be productive, it does need to have level of practicality that goes beyond velvet throw pillows and fancy window dressings.

Exploring the internet for more information on this topic I discovered that a couple authors have even gone as far as to show you their workspace.  Out of a slew of author’s websites Sue Grafton’s has always stood out in my mind for some reason.  Under her photos link she shows her office, displaying the lovely and efficient layout; a gorgeous tree framed by the bay window of her writing area.  A long counter making up her desk and bookshelves leading up to her awards and a sitting couch, it was such a nice set-up and it had obviously served her well throughout her writing career.

 Considering the photos I asked myself, What makes a workspace comfortable and still conducive to work? Why do some places feel so intrinsically warm and welcoming while others feel so stiff and unpleasant?

 Incorporating my casual review of New Age subjects into my understanding, especially the study of Feng Shui, I started my expedition to find the perfect desk.

 According to the placement art of Feng Shui, the atmosphere of any living space is defined by one word: Chi.  Chi is said to be the energy of living things that moves around objects.  When you swat at the air, the force of your movement (and life force) makes a little wave that rolls invisibly around until it hits something inanimate and “bounces” in different directions. 

 Some objects can strengthen Chi and keep the positive energy rolling while some impacts bounce Chi in a not-so-good way. For example, sharp corners puncture the chi and reflect the energy into volatile patterns.  The refraction is not positive and is called “Shar Chi” or as it’s more commonly called, “Poison Arrows.”  The “poking” of Chi causes the energy to ricochet back and scatter, negatively affecting anything that is in the path of this runaway energy.

(Illustrations courtesy of the book MOVE YOUR STUFF, CHANGE YOUR LIFE by Karen Rauch Carter)

  Reading more about the types of Chi, the concepts made sense.  Used furniture is said to hold the energy of its previous owners, so if you want to be a successful writer you might not want to use a second-hand desk (not unless you bought it from Stephen King or J.K. Rowling). 

   And doors and windows are channels of Chi, kind of like energy rivers, so if you have a bed or desk in the path of either one, you feel like you’re in the middle of the stream of force.  Similar to Shar Chi, you’re getting pummeled with energy and eventually it will affect you.  If you’ve ever worked at a desk with your back to the door, you may sense that there was something hitting you; those are the positions you want to avoid when setting up your work area.

(Illustrations courtesy of the book MOVE YOUR STUFF, CHANGE YOUR LIFE by Karen Rauch Carter)

So you want to position your desk in a way that ensures that you feel safe and at ease.  The Feng Shui principle for desk positioning is that there are preferable positions for your desk to face.  Ideally you want to be able to see the main door of your office when seated at your desk.  This is called the “power position.”  It basically means that no one can sneak up on you or startle you (which induces bad Chi).  

(Desk position illustration courtesy of www.KenLauher.com)

If a front-facing desk position is not an option (and as I noticed while desk shopping, a lot of newer desks don’t even have a front – it’s like particle board planking that’s designed to be pushed up against a wall), it’s suggested that you “cover your back” by putting a mirror on the wall in front of you that reflects the door. (Note: Same rule applies to beds in bedrooms as shown in the graph.) That way, again, no one can drop in unexpectedly, disrupting the calm of your space. 

(Illustrations courtesy of the book MOVE YOUR STUFF, CHANGE YOUR LIFE by Karen Rauch Carter)

 And so, empowered with loads of information, I began my desk quest.  While numerous Feng Shui books refer to the office as a separate room, I had the added obstacle of my living space being a studio layout.  With my bedroom and my “office” being one in the same, the size of my desk became an important selling point.  Most desks are a standard width of 60” (5 feet) which was much bigger than what I needed.

 But, not letting that detour me, I began with the quality word from my list, and I checked out all the solid wood furniture companies.  I wanted real wood, no more particle board or thin planks glued together with toxic resin. I was out for something sturdy—another one of my words.

 Early in my search I was sad to discover that a lot of the bigger names, like Thomasville furniture, had succumbed to the troubled economy and gone out of business.  Another reputable name included Broyhill; however it seemed that they too have been challenged by budgets and had to limit their inventory to mostly large, estate-like desks and modular pieces for children. 

 This left one of my more favored options; a company that I was familiar with because my family had owned a gorgeous bedroom set made by them in the 1970’s.  The furniture set we’d purchased for my sister was all solid wood, made to order and had proven its worth after withstanding our adolescent years.  I remember that is was a lovely, light yellow color and that the finish was so resilient.  It took a lot to scratch it, it was always level and the wood never warped or faded color.

 So with the measurements I wanted for my new desk firmly in mind, I pulled up the website for Ethan Allen.  

 Researching the company, Ethan Allen had also suffered the effects of the recession, having closed several of their production plants in the last few years, including one original facility in Vermont.  Keeping this in mind, I really asked a lot of questions and looked into what I was buying.  The aura of this piece of furniture was important to me, so I did have the high expectation that it to be made in this country.  If I were going to pay a fair amount for a nice desk, I wanted that money to go to creating jobs.

 Considering all my options, I did conclude that Ethan Allen was the best place to go.  They held a good reputation, including my own experience with their furniture, and I was later informed by my EA representative that all the parts of my desk were cut and assembled in Beecher Falls, Vermont. To which I responded, “Cool beans.” J

 It took about 10 weeks to produce but it was worth the wait (and I'd visit with the floor model at my local design center quite a bit).  My desk wasn’t crafted until I ordered it, so while it was an investment of money and time, in the end I can honestly say that it was custom made for me. It’s solid, the perfect height and has fantastic rounded corners (no Shar Chi!).  The finish is a gorgeous shade of warm brown and the inside of the drawer smells of real wood.  One Feng Shui rule that sprang to my mind when I'd rolled my chair up to my new desk was that you always want to have enough space to “have room to grow.” My legs stretched, but not so much that I felt small compared to my desk.  A 5-foot desk would have been too much. 

Kind of like Goldilocks, what I got was “just right.”

A sign of quality, the front of my desk is finished, the front as polished as the sitting area, where I can place it in a power position if I choose to, but for now I have to back against a wall with a mirror that reflects anyone entering the room.  It’s is rock solid (I write checks without a second thought now) and when I place a level on its desktop, the bubble stays perfectly centered, so I'm very happy.

 And with that I feel like I’ve accomplished what I set out to do—I found my match. My soul mate of desks. And as I type these words I’m playfully kicking out my legs and meeting with no interference.  My keyboard rests on top my desk now, waiting for my command, not the other way around.  Now it’s says, Do you feel like writing, Shelley? I’m ready when you are.

 Oh, and I did spring for an ergonomic chair.  Admittedly it was pricier than the old vinyl one, but I got 5 levers on this baby.  If I want to go up, down, backwards or forwards; I tell it when and how and how much. I even have a lower back adjustment feature which is great for maintaining a good posture and I got a seat tilt which modestly keeps my derriere in the chair, where it’s supposed to be.  ;0)

 Now when I get up the chair still twirls, but the armrest merely taps one of the brass pulls of the desk’s drawer, as if giving my desk a knuckle-tap of camaraderie before it slowly rotates back into ready-to-write position.

 I come full circle, and I look forward to this desk remaining with me far into the future.  To my left I have a window view of grass, trees and a lot of natural light.  And while it all cost a bit financially, I strongly advise that you acquire good writing equipment.  A writer sits for hours at a stretch and that requires good body support, so the expenditure is supporting yourself and your craft.  Just do it.  The return is worth the investment.

 And as I run my palm across the smooth finish one more time, I finally have that homey feeling, like I found what I was looking for, at last.  I’m eager to see what kind of incredible stories I’ll write with this desk.  I feel the good energy flowing through it already.


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