The Place Where I Write: Ross Gay

I spent about three years thinking about my perfect writing studio, designing it in my head, sketching little mock-ups from time to time. I pored over books like Shelter and Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language, trying to get ideas for the simple yet elegant shed I’d build. I found myself talking about the importance of thresholds and window height and variety of chairs. I even enlisted my dear pal Cootie, a beautiful architect (he’s beautiful and he designs beautiful things), to help me think about my perfect writing studio, and even to consider a commission.

My perfect writing studio was going to be tiny, something I could bang up in a couple weeks at most with a few friends. It’d have a little comfortable chair near the door and a simple desk and chair tucked into the corner. Of course (of course!) everything that could be reclaimed would be. Maybe some nearby school would re-do their basketball court and I could scavenge the hunks of wood. Maybe I could dribble a basketball in my perfect writing studio! If we got ambitious there might even be a sleeping loft, so that the shed could double as a sleeping space for visitors.

We imagined a tiny wood stove in a corner, which would probably mean that corner of the floor and wall would need to be stone—either a reclaimed slate chalkboard I had a lead on, or some limestone I could get for a penny a pound at the local quarry. The windows would be big, abundant, with those hand cranks I don’t know the name of; Cootie said he could score me some kind of antique beauties, maybe from a building he was working on. I liked to imagine them looking southward, beneath some eaves, onto the blueberry bushes and cup plants, and beyond that a pear tree, some blackberries, and a peach tree. I would sip my coffee at my desk—oh yes, a desk!—also simple, also elegant, with the four or five books I’m reading at the time. And an old office chair with wheels, uncomfortably upholstered, or maybe just an old classroom chair I’d get from the re-use store at the college—and watch the seasons change.

I would write book after book in my little shed, I would be brilliant and happy in my little shed, because it would be perfect. It would be just outside of my house, and I would walk there in my slippers and sweatpants before the sun comes up. Steam would rise from my coffee cup. The neighbor cat would greet me on my way. I would remove my slippers, a bit moist from the morning dew (it is usually a nice spring morning in my writing studio). My writing studio would be a sacred space, a space where the magic gathered. It would inspire me. Oh, whatever.

Fact is, this past year, I’ve been living in my partner’s house in New Jersey, a duplex she lives in with her two kids, dog (Tucker), and cat (Daisy), right next door to her mother. It’s a family affair. Hearing the alarm at 4 a.m. as one kid gets ready for his 6 a.m. shift, getting the other one out the door to school; hearing the sounds of family dinners, school projects, games, performances, broken cars, heating oil, sleepovers; having morning coffee with Granny, feeding the animals; all the squabbles and delights, the dog barking, the cat meowing, whoosh whoosh whoosh, the whole shebang.

The room I share with my partner, a nice room, with beautiful light pouring in though the three big windows, is also, in part, shared with—in addition to the cat and dog, the latter of whom jeers me from sleep about three times a night, barking viciously and piercingly at nothing outside—her two kids, who do homework on the computer or watch YouTube videos or check their Facebook pages. On the desk where that computer is parked are candy wrappers or bowls or notes on some young adult novel the young adult was supposed to read but didn’t for school. Or an employee handbook from the café where the other works. Family photos. Etc.

So I’ve gone looking for a space of my own, a space where I could have some kind of physical quiet and solitude—by which I mean, I think, my own candy wrappers. I rented a little room a couple blocks away for a few months, but for some reason it didn’t quite work. And I’ve spent plenty of time in the public library or the café in town. But nothing has felt quite as good as the basement in this house, which, one day doing laundry, I looked at and thought, “Oh, I should make that my writing studio.” When I told my partner this, she crinkled up her face and said, “Really?”

It’s not exactly what I originally had in mind, I should tell you. No, umm, windows or natural light or anything fancy like that. No crackly woodstove or perfectly ordered desk. (I never in my life write at a desk anyway, so I don’t know why I’d have one in my perfect writing studio—except to keep me from writing in it.) I mostly just sit down on a couch to the right of which is a lamp. I have a CD player just beyond that on a little table. There is a rug, a humble rug, a rug something like a map of where Tucker’s not entirely reliable bowels faltered, and the valiant effort to erase the marks of such faltering. Last night, in fact, was one such faltering and one such valiant effort. I like to wear slippers or shoes in my writing studio.

If I sleep down here, which occasionally I do, although there is a bed, I sleep right here on the couch, this couch of my own. The couch is where I read, write, sometimes sleep, dream, eat popcorn or chips or apples and drink tea or coffee late into the night. There is a little pile of books at the end of the couch, and marked up drafts of the two pieces I’m working on. The bed, though, is where my partner’s son very occasionally crashes (he has his own room, but the crashing will be with his girlfriend, and his own room is very near his mother’s, and the walls are thin), and a few times he’s politely asked if they could “hang out in the basement.” I always say of course, sure, go ahead, no problemo, and do my best not to smile knowingly, which I’m sure I do, which I’m sure seems creepy. Then I grumble to myself and try to do some work upstairs in the living room.

These days, as the weather warms up and the humidity follows suit, there’s a humidifier that chugs about half of the time, maybe a little more. It is very loud. It is deafening, I mean. Above that and just to the left is an old and odd-looking print with some kind of Christian iconography, and next to that is an Adidas poster for a rugby team, I think a remnant from when my partner’s nephew lived down here, trying to heal. Over near the door I have a little library—two shelves stacked thick—of books I’ve acquired, alarmingly, over the course of the past twelve months. They are above the gigantic air conditioner that I will, in a couple weeks, haul up the stairs to my partner’s mother’s house, which this basement is beneath as well. If I’m ever down here in my writing studio at 7 p.m., writing or reading or trying to take a pre-game nap, I’ll surely hear Alek Trebek’s voice trailing down from her television. I kind of like his voice, especially muffled as it is by the floorboards.

Down here, almost a million (a trillion!) miles away from the writing studio of my dreams, nestled in its garden and surrounded by songbirds and everything the taste of honey, is where, this year, I have written: happily, mysteriously, and with my slippers on.

Ross Gay is the author of the poetry collections Against Which and Bringing the Shovel Down. He is currently at work on a book about African-American farming. His essay “Red, Black, and Green,” about the hybrid theater of Marc Bamuthi Joseph, appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Orion.


  1. Yup. Like it. A LOT! I can hear you reading this.

  2. This is a lovely essay that made me life and thank the gods of mitzvah for this man in the world!

  3. Sweet. I knew pretty much where this was going from the outset – I read it purely for the wonderful style and to see how you’d express your patient, easy wisdom. Thanks!

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