Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Just as people who seriously practice meditation have a room or space in their home dedicated to that activity, so too, writers (or artists) greatly need a location set aside specifically for the practice of their craft. A place that spiritually puts them in the mood to create.

In 1993, my wife and I remodeled our one-story home, adding a second floor, and we worked with two architects who designed the rooms (we wanted lots of book shelf space, but---sigh---quickly ran out of that) to our specifications. They built for me a second-floor study/office at the rear of the house, a carpeted room with a sliding glass door that opens onto a deck overlooking our back yard of apple, plum and pear trees. 

Two walls of this room have floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Two walls also have an L-shaped work bench on which sit the PC I'm writing on right now, a printer, copy machine, fax machine, and other office supplies. Amiddlemost this room is the first piece of furniture I purchased when we moved to Seattle in 1976---a big, wooden schoolhouse teacher's desk with many drawers. (Everything I've written since that year has been composed on this surface-scarred desk on which sits a mahogany version of Thomas Jefferson's laptop desk; I also have in one corner of my study a walnut reproduction of Jefferson's spinning book stand, which every serious reader will love.) The hundreds of books in my study are, naturally, the ones about Western and Eastern philosophy I refer to most often, along with Sanskrit, Pali and English dictionaries (The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Webster's 2,129-page New Twentieth Century Dictionary, which I read page by page in graduate school in order to build my own personal lexicon). Also there is a full set of the World Book Encyclopedia my parents got for me in 1956 when I was 8-years-old, which I've never been able to part with (I love reading those old entries.)

The walls of this room, which I suppose you could call my Man Cave, are covered with the awards, degrees (middle school through the Ph.D. in Philosophy), and honorary degrees I've received. Four, crammed filing cabinets contain manuscript copies of everything I've written or published since 1965. Another four contain my pens and tools for drawing, research on Buddhism, and news articles (as well as science articles) I clip every day, which I feel I may make use of in future writing, fiction or non-fiction. On the door is a copy of Carl Sagan's "Cosmic Calendar" tracing the history of the universe in 365 days (one second equals 430 years), and a wooden plaque that reads THOU SHALT NOT WHINE; and on the back of that door is a poster of the Milky Way galaxy.

On one wall below a wall clock and above a big calendar (on which I scribble appointments) there is a green blackboard on which I write in chalk my daily "To-Do" list (writing deadlines, deadlines for doing student recommendations, etc.) And there are many photos on the walls---one of Richard Wright in his Paris study, standing before a wall of books, one hand on his typewriter, the other in his suit coat pocket; a big photo of Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology, which I've had since graduate school; a painting of Jesus my mother once had; photos of myself, Ralph Ellison and my editor Lee Goerner at the 1990 National Book Award ceremony when Middle Passage won the fiction prize, and of John Gardner (one full bookshelf in this room contains every scholarly book and work of fiction he published.) There are framed copies of Buddhist gatha (prayers and vows) on the walls, as well as a page of color cartoons (with an essay) I published in The Seattle Times in 2004 to celebrate ML King's birthday. Some objects in my study have a little, stick-on label on them in Sanskrit (Devanagri characters) to help me memorize vocabulary every day. (Dipika is on my desk lamp.)  And there are small statues everywhere---of Martin De Porres (whom my mother loved), St. Francis, Aristotle, Dante,  Mark Twain, the Greek god Apollo, Martin Luther King Jr., Bodhidharma, two small statues of Barack and Michelle Obama, and a small, bronze 16th century, Burmese statue of Shakyamuni Buddha I purchased in Thailand in 1997 (This gorgeous artwork was made before this nation existed). On my desk, too, there is an orrery; a circular Tibetan prayer-wheel; miniatures of the Mars "Spirit" rover and Da Vinci's famous flying machine; a small piece of a real meteorite; and a little statue of Disney's Scrooge McDuck. There are stacks of the science magazines for lay people that I subscribe to (Science News, New Scientist, Discovery, Science published weekly by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, etc.), popular Buddhist publications I publish my work in, and a soft mat my dog Nova sleeps on when he's not curled up under my desk (He's on it right now). There is also on one wall a death mask (today we call this a "life-cast") of my face made by Willa Shalit, who also made one on the same day for the late artist Jacob Lawrence at University Book Store in Seattle during one of her book tours (You can see photographs of the life-casts she did for Richard Nixon, Muhammad Ali, Richard Burton, Federico Fellini, Sophia Loren, Paul Newman, Sammy Davis Jr., Whoopi Goldberg, Rosa Parks, and many others in her book Life Cast: Behind The Mask, Beyond Words Publishing, Inc., 1992.)

There is more here, but you get the picture. Like the workroom of my character Ezekiel Sykes-Withers, the Transcendentalist teacher of the protagonist in Oxherding Tale, my study is, obviously, a projection or externalization of my own mind and spirit: a cluttered catastrophe of books, creative tools, memorabilia, and images where I always feel most at home. 

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