Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Women's Spaces (2024)

Apr 15, 2024 by Marlene Wagman-Geller

As a person who’s been engaged in the odd, deeply uncomfortable, not-always-remunerative, occasionally agonizing, periodically joyful and sometimes downright thrilling occupation of writing, I’ve given more than an average amount of thought to the spaces in which I engage in my work.  It’s a source of undying interest to me, how other writers (good, bad, brilliant, terrible) have dealt with the problem of where to put themselves as they go about the business of trying to create a book, an essay, a poem, a play.  For me, this is a crucial question.  Before I set about the task of starting a new project—whether it’s a five-hundred page novel or (like what I’m writing now) a short meditation on some topic that interests me, the first thing I do is situate myself in a place conducive to thought, imagination, and flights of discovery.  

I’m like a cat about to give birth, pacing around, looking for my quiet spot –a hidden one, maybe, or at least one in which I am least likely to be interrupted. A mother cat most definitely doesn’t want some overly enthusiastic and very possibly drooling golden retriever barrelling into the room just as her kittens are making their way in the world.  I’m pretty much the same, when it comes to birthing a book.  Leave me alone in my space.  As for the space:  It matters. A lot.

       I knew a man one time (OK.  He was, briefly, a boyfriend, and maybe this story will tell you why he didn’t hold that position very long) who wanted to be a writer.  He was a lawyer, and he got paid a lot of money from clients who also made a lot of money, but he dreamed of writing a novel (for which he would possibly be paid a whole lot less money and possibly nothing at all.)  One day he announced to me that in the effort to further this ambition, he’d bought a very beautiful antique desk.  I still remember the price:  $30,000, not counting shipping charges.  This represented more money than I had earned that whole year, though there were also times—when things went well—that the figure might rise considerably above that one. 

       The success or failure of my work—or the monetary value assigned to it in the world of publishing, which is not the same thing at all—never had a thing to do with what desk I may have been seated at when I wrote.  I remember thinking, when this soon-to-be-ex boyfriend of mine told me about this impressive and expensive desk, that if there was one sure sign his writing wouldn’t go so well, this purchase might be it. The work is what you need to focus on, not the piece of furniture on which it’s crafted.

       This is not to say a writer’s space (or by extension, the space occupied by anyone engaged in creative endeavor) doesn’t make a difference.  In the more than fifty years since I published my first book, I’ve worked in some great writing spaces, and some impossible ones.  Strangely enough, the ones I found least conducive to writing were never the shabby or low-rent places.  On a few occasions, they were actually rather grand.  Just not right for achieving what a writer most needs, which is to leave the world behind for a while and enter into the world of her characters and her story, with as little distraction as possible. And even less interior decoration.

       The book you hold in your hands is about the places where women of accomplishment (mostly renown and in one or two instances, infamy) have not only lived but worked.  This has to do not only with their desks and writing spaces of course (if they were writers; some whose spaces are explored here were not) but with the whole environment of the houses in which they carried on their lives.  Here, once again, I will inject my own experience as a woman who has worked hard at what she does –writing --for more than half a century, virtually always alone in her home.  If you ask me, that’s pretty much a requirement—though motherhood offers significant challenges to attaining that goal.

       Between the ages of 22 and 23 –before my first marriage--I had a job as a newspaper reporter in New York City.  I went to an office then, sat at a metal desk in a giant room surrounded by other people at other metal desks, all of us clicking away on our typewriters. (This was the 70’s). Telephones rang nonstop.  Editors paced up and down the aisles separating us. Now and then a copy boy raced in with some breaking news torn from a machine whose name I can’t remember (a machine that no longer exists).  Sometime around dusk (not that there were any windows in that room, but I wore a watch) we could hear an interesting rumbling sound from several stories above.  That meant the presses were running. The first edition went to press around 6 pm as I recall.  Some days—most of them—the pressure was excruciating, to get that story in on time.

       I could never write in that room. I couldn’t write the way I wanted to, anyway. For the entire time I held that job, reporting for the metro desk of the New York Times, I kept a well-guarded secret.  Once I had the notes for my story, and the reporting part of my work was done, I engaged in an act that felt as illicit as a love affair.  I raced from my desk to the elevator, out the door onto West 43rd Street, and hailed a taxi.  I gave the driver the address of my apartment. 

       Once there, I laid out my yellow legal pad and my reporter’s notebook.  Only there, in the small, unassuming space I’d made for myself –a space where I could be alone, but more than that, one in which I felt safe, and comfortable, and most importantly, undistracted by the world—I wrote my news story.  In longhand. 

When I was finished (and sometimes I only had half an hour, but I wrote fast in those days as I do still) I reversed the route I’d travelled as recently as thirty minutes before.  Got back in an elevator --the one in my apartment building this time. Hailed another taxi, back to the offices of the New York Times.  Raced through the impressive doors, through the lobby, into the elevator, and back to my desk, where I could then type up what I’d composed on my couch at home.

I don’t think I ever missed a deadline, and my editors generally seemed happy with what I delivered.  Nobody ever learned my secret. 

       All my life, I’ve had to be in the right environment to do my work. I’ll venture to say I’m not the only woman who feels that the room she inhabits has a big effect on her work.   Particularly if the space she lives is also the space where she works.  Particularly if the work involves her inner life and imagination, the sounds words make, even, and the rhythms of sentences. How do you hear those, when a printing press is grinding overhead, and those damn phones won’t stop ringing?      

No doubt it’s my preoccupation with writing spaces, and the living spaces that contain them, that has fueled my intense lifelong interest in the places other writers and artists have created to do their work.  In my years of making and working in a succession of such places, myself (a dormitory room shared with a girl who loved playing recordings of her high school marching band; a farmhouse shared with a husband and three children and a dog (where it was not unheard of for me to escape to a closet, or the car; a perfectly isolated treehouse in Guatemala in the middle of the pandemic; and so many more) I’ve visited the spaces of other creative types whenever the opportunity arose.  I’m always looking for what it is that other people choose to surround themselves with, as they live and work.

Not everyone has a choice.  I made a pilgrimage once to the place where one of my all-time favorite writers once lived when writing one of my favorite books—the one that influenced me first, and most, growing up.  I’m speaking of the attic in which Anne Frank hid out for over two years, creating the diary that has moved millions of readers.  All Anne Frank wanted, in the way of a space, was a place where she might succeed in eluding capture and murder at the hands of the SS.  In the end, as we know, she didn’t. 

I visited Frida Kahlo’s home in Mexico City, Casa Azul, where—severely injured and living in constant pain from an accident in her youth that left her impaled on a metal spike—she spent hours of her day painting in her bed, with a mirror on the ceiling overhead, to assist her in making self-portraits. I visited Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home in Savannah, where her earliest writings remain on display, along with the crib known as a kiddie coop, with a net over the top to keep out mosquitoes carrying dread disease, and the back yard where she once taught a chicken to walk backward. 

What did that cold, forbidding structure with its stiff, formal settees and narrow little bed on 207 East Charlton Street reveal to me about the work of a writer whose dark, brilliant, painfully perceptive gothic short stories haunt me still?  Maybe just this:  A house can offer a rich palette.  Or a blank slate. Who knows, maybe the blank slate allows more room for imagination to expand and wander than the palette with its array of color does.

Unlike the homes considered in these pages—the spaces occupied by well known women—the houses I’ve visited over my years of seeking out artists’ spaces have belonged to men as well as women.  I’ve visited the Ernest Hemingway home in Key West (ceiling fans, hunting gear, wide verandahs overlooking palms), the narrow rooms in which a penniless and tuberculosis-ridden John Keats spent his final days, alongside the Spanish Steps in Rome, the apartment where Berry Gordy presided over the Motown empire in its early years, above the studio where Diana Ross and the Supremes danced so hard, and so much, that in certain places, the floorboards remain rutted.  Houses tell stories as much as writers and others do.

Possibly my favorite of Famous Person Home of all was the home, in Santiago, Chile, of Pablo Neruda—also the place he died.  The Neruda home, preserved as a museum, is filled not only with the poet’s books and writings, but his vast and marvelously quirky collection of surprising, not necessarily valuable but beloved objects.  Here stands evidence of a man who—had he lived in the days of eBay, might have found himself so buried in possessions his very desk would have left him no space to write. Or worse, no time.  No concentration.

I loved the Neruda house in Santiago so much, when I visited, that I convinced my husband to visit the two other homes Neruda had maintained in Chile—one of them in a remote seaside town reached only after a drive of many hours, the other in Valparaiso.  What is a person to make of the fact that in all three homes Neruda’s collections were so vast that it left a person to wonder when he found time to write.  Some people might be distracted, living in a space like those created by Neruda, but it would appear, based on his voluminous output, that if anything, his writing spaces had the opposite effect.


As for me, I move between three different living spaces, depending on the time of year and what I’m up to.  One is a small house at the end of a long driveway in Northern California, where my desk is a big, simple table purchased at a consignment shop.  More important than the table is the window above it that looks out over the trees.  At night I hear owls.

Sometimes I write in Guatemala, where my desk (also simple) looks out over a lake and a volcano.  Birdsong begins my day.  Summertime finds me in a cottage in New Hampshire, where (like E.B. White, as good a role model as a writer could hope for) I work at a desk made from pine boards in a boat house, with the sound of loons out the perpetually open window when I’m lucky.

I love music, but never play any when I write.  Silence is what I’m after.  That, and birds.  I have heard those stories about women who write their books at Starbucks.  I can’t imagine how that works.  I’d be way too distracted by studying the characters around me to write about the characters in my books.

The proximity of endless amounts of coffee would be a plus, of course. But most important, in the end—for me, at least, and I suspect for most people who seek to explore what’s going on in their imagination,  is to keep one’s external circumstances as peaceful, uneventful and familiar as possible.  The house, and the rooms it offers, are the container.  But in the end, it’s the person who inhabits the space who makes everything happen.