When I started this project, I considered cheating and taking a carefully staged photo of the hand-carved writing desk I acquired in Thailand many years ago. It graces a corner of the living room, all teak-scented cubbies and drawers, with a heavy, drawbridge-style writing surface. It’s the kind of desk I like to imagine myself working at on summer afternoons, with the sun cutting through the venetian blinds and a gin & tonic close at hand. But the truth is I’ve scarcely written a thing there. Thanks to my husband’s generous accommodating of my distractable nature, I have a room of my own, and this is the place where anything resembling work gets done. Kitted out on a budget at Staples, Ikea, Kitchen Corner, and the Apple store down the street, it’s terrifically generic and utilitarian (and the beverage in the mug is decaf coffee).
The L-shaped desk configuration allows me to move back and forth between hard-copy drafts (that’s my second novel in the open binder on the desk to the left — 383 manuscript pages, the first 68 of which have been marked up with satisfying scribbles and scratchings-out in different colours of pen) and, over on the computer desk, the latest Word version, which I update every few pages as I work through the hard copy.
My desks are usually cluttered with unwriterly bits and pieces, and I’d say the amount of clutter that appears in this photo is just about right. Any more and the junk would become too distracting. Much less and my awareness of the contrast between the tidiness of the space and the stubborn scruffiness of my work-in-progress would become paralyzing.
There are a few objects of interest amid all the generica. One of my favourites is the framed diploma over the computer desk. It’s my grandmother’s National Conservatory diploma in voice and piano, dated June 1915. I’ve inherited none of my grandmother’s musical talents. I can barely play Chopsticks, and I couldn’t sing in tune if my life depended on it. But when I was working on my first novel and creating a character whose existence does, in a sense, depend on musical expression, I would glance up at the diploma and imagine I was channeling the spirit of Granny Burt.
Heather Burt’s first novel, Adam’s Peak, was shortlisted for the 2008 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Both Heather and her partner, novelist Paul Headrick, teach English and creative writing at Langara College, Vancouver. Heather is currently at work on her second novel, Driving, the story of a man whose attempts to live an authentic, self-contained life end up backfiring in ways he never anticipated.