What’s on Your Desk?

by J.T. Ellison

I’m in New York today, running around being a tourist post-Edgars. Since this was also my birthday week, I’m taking the shortcut of posting a piece I wrote for a magazine called The Verb. I hope you’ll forgive me for not checking in until later — but check in I will. Happy Friday!

It’s beneficial for a writer to be asked this question every
once in a while. Metaphor aside, the place where we create is vital to our

I have two desks. One is upstairs in my home, in a bedroom
converted to an office. It’s a funny little room, a connector into the bonus
room over the garage. It’s got awkward angles, but a nice big window which
looks out onto the river birch. The tree is big enough that it blocks out
everything else, but that’s fine. In the winter, it’s not much fun, but in the
summer, the cardinals live in the tree, and at 5:00 each evening, they have a
cocktail party. Apparently it’s open invitation, because all the cardinals from
the neighborhood, the surrounding neighborhoods, probably the state congregate
in the tree, jostling for space on the branches. They are gossips and scolds,
and have a merry old time of it. When I worked in my office full time, the
cardinal cocktail hour was my signal to start wrapping up for the day.

My space upstairs has
evolved into more of a business office than a creative space. When I first
started writing, I was working on a tiny computer table. The keyboard tray was
so small the mouse wouldn’t fit, so I developed shoulder issues from the
constant up and down movement. When I started my second book, I decided Enough!
We bought lovely furniture to replace the tiny desk. The pieces fit snugly into
the corner (I’m a big fan of angled placement) with a desk to the right which holds
my printer and files, and a bookshelf to the left. The desks are two-tiered,
with cavernous hutches that are loaded with books, magazines, files and knick
knacks, including my precious Ted the Bear from Harrods. He’s there to bring me
international flair.

The top two shelves of the bookcase to the left hold my
favorite titles – LOLITA, ANTHEM, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, all my Austens, Hemingway,
Dickens, Conrad, Norton Anthologies and Greek Mythology texts. My shelves of
Classics. Most are the books I read in school and thought were fabulous enough
to keep. Which was pretty much all of them.

The center desk has my computer screen, a full sized rip-off
desk calendar, a small desk calendar called “The Year In Space” which has so
many cool photos of distant galaxies and stars that if you’re stuck, a quick
glance will humble you. I like to be reminded that while I’m struggling, there
are things that are much more important happening. There’s a black rubber,
bendable string cat that I’ve had since I was ten, and a green-faced Wicked
Witch pencil topper. Next to those childhood trophies is a small golden clock
that was a gift from the Secretary of Commerce. Tons of paperclips in magnetic
holders, post-it notes and separate containers for pens and pencils finish out
that section. There’s also a fantastic Mexican ceramic tissue box cover, the
cords to my iPod, the envelope that stores all my business receipts, speakers,
and the box that holds my special embossed cards for thank you notes. Along the
top, front and center, are my special books: the ones I’ve gotten signed by
authors I love, and my first run Harry Potters. Friends get co-op space too, so
the first thing you see when you walk in is their current title. A POISONED
SEASON by Tasha Alexander is at the forefront right now. As you can tell, I
love having everything in its proper space.

On the shelf to the right is a framed print of a Chinese
character from the I Ching called CHAOS. The small print below says “Before
the beginning of great brilliance, there must be Chaos. Before a brilliant
person begins something great, they must look foolish to the crowd

I love that sentiment. It’s how I approach my work, and my
life. Chaos equals risk in my mind. If my life is organized, it leaves plenty
of room for my mind to be chaotic, and as such, my work to push the edge.

My big black leather chair swivels, and to the left of the
window is another chair, cushy and comfortable, a table with a lamp, a white
board for plotting and a corkboard. All
my conference and self-congratulatory detritus, book covers, important emails
and notes go onto the corkboard. There’s another sign on the table, this one
stone. It says, “Don’t Piss Off The Fairies.” Amen to that. Without the magic
sprinkles of fairy dust, where would we be?

But I spend my creative time downstairs, in my black leather
recliner. The windows have a view of the street, I can distract myself with the
neighbor’s comings and goings. The cat sleeps on the bench to the left of the
window on a large red plaid flannel, snoring and twitching her way through my
day. There’s a slate table to my left that holds my drink, the phone (whose
ringer is off,) an Italian pottery catch all for pens, and a basket below for “stuff.”
A magazine rack to the right handles my notepads and current files.

I sit in this chair with my laptop on my lap and write.
After all the care and feeding I put into creating the perfect office upstairs,
my lap has become my desk.

So what’s on your desk???

Wine of the Week: From a pre-birthday dinner this week, a fabulous and surprisingly affordable bottle. 

2002 Terre dei Volsci Velletri Riserva 

Be sure to let it breathe for about fifteen minutes before you try it. Nice and dry with a beautiful finish.


This essay first appeared in  The Verb in February 2008, a very cool ezine. I asked for and received permission to post it here.

22 thoughts on “What’s on Your Desk?

  1. billie

    JT, I loved reading the details of your desk – and that you’re using your lap for the creative work!

    And happy birthday! We celebrated two of them here this week – horse and daughter.

  2. J.B. Thompson

    Happy Birthday, Sister – and Zoe too – I hope you’re having a wonderful time in The Big Apple. Take pictures for me.

    Since you asked … I love telling people what’s on my desk, but it would take too long for a comment (suffice to say that it’s rare that you can ever see the top of it, and it’s occupied on most days by at least one cat – sometimes two). Maybe I’ll steal your idea one day and list my workspace inventory over at the Lunch Room.

    Thanks for sharing yet another peek into your creative world – I love your Chaos theory, especially since it frees you to write such brilliant wicked stuff.

  3. JDRhoades

    The desk with “Bob,” the tower computer, is shared with the family, which is why I too do a lot of writing on my laptop.

    The desktop currently contains:

    A pile of CD sleeves.A Saitek Cyborg 3d joystick.A box for THE ELDER SCROLLS IV: OBLIVION which is a PC game that, judging from the mutterings and frustrated desktop banging by my son and heir, still does not work properly.A map of some place called Cyrodill, which I assume has something to do with the game.A printed out version of the new BREAKING COVER cover.A copy of Megan Abbott’s QUEENPIN.ROGET’S SUPER THESAURUS 2d editionD & D players handbook v. 3.5Various keyboard reference cards from PC games, such as Age of Empires III and European Air WarOUR DUMB CENTURY by the OnionThe Holy Bible (Revised Standard version)The penguin classic translation of the KoranJames W. Hall’s BONES OF CORALTHE CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE (Vol III)A folder containing cards and letters and e-mails from online friends that another friend brought to my very first book signing.MURDER ONE: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO HOMICIDE by Maura Corvasce and Joseph PaglinoSimCity Societies, game CD out of its caseA copy of THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HANDThe wireless unitA can of FingerEze guitar string lubricant (cuts down those squeaky noises)A bottle of ExcedrinA pile of CD’s I’m too lazy to catalog

    On the cabinet to the right:

    Printervarious papers including photo paperA drawer full of unidentified cables and adapters

    On the shelf above:

    A variety of slips from fortune cookies taped to the front of the shelf. Examples: “You are a lover of words. Someday you will write a Book”; “Use your versatility to keep from being bored”; “You will live a long life and eat more fortune cookies.”Speakers and subwooferAssorted unidentified papers stuffed in various cubbyholesThe box from my wife’s new Canon PowerShot cameraAnother pile of CDsA pile of cassettes of old interviews my wife did while she was doing freelance work

    Top shelf:Manuscripts of several of my books including my unpublished first oneA sand sculpture from which I’ve hung the credential holders and credentials from all the book festivals and conferences I’ve been toA baseball cap with the logo of the Sandhills Regional Library SystemA guitar cleaning kit

    Moving to the right under the bay window:

    A Yamaha keyboard sitting on top of a plastic storage bin full of computer games and manualsA mountain dulcimer in its case

    Directly behind:Bookshelves stuffed with reference books like dictionaries, almanacs, and the NY PUBLIC LIBRARY DESK REFERENCE.

    Guitar stand, currently empty, but which usually holds a Martin D-15 or my old Alvarez.

    On the ledge of the open window slightly to the right of the bookshelf:

    the neighbor’s tortoiseshell kitten, meowing for someone to come out and pet her or at least give her something to eat.

  4. Louise Ure

    Lovely to see you last night, JT!

    When I had my desk built, I didn’t realize that the only other pieces the man had created were guitars. As a consequence, the desk has inlays of ebony, mother of pearl and turquoise.

  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    J.T. AND ZOE,Happy birthday!!!

    My desk as as chaotic as my mind. Phone; creams; Indian pottery; old-fashioned rolodex; pink, purple, green and turquoise post-its; monitor, modem, computer and keyboard, business cards, silly calendar; pens, pencils, markers; huge coffee mug; raku pot; fossilized whale bone . . .

    Oh, my. Time to clean.

  6. Kaye Barley

    You folks have FUN work areas!Louise – does your desk really have these gorgeous inlays? Really? i love that!My desk here in the office at ASU has a Tweety Bird doll sitting on it. When you press a button, its wiggles and plays “Do You Love Me?” I’ve almost grown to hate Tweety. The new Willie Nelson box set of “One Hell of a Ride.” A Hillary 2008 mug full of pens & pencils. A picture of me and hubby on our wedding day, a more recent picture of me and hubby. File folders and the usual office clutter. On the credenza adjoining my desk, there’s a rogue’s gallery of photos taped around where my monitor, my printer and more clutter sits. Photos include Harley the Wonder Corgi, girlfriends wearing tiaras, friends doing things they probably would rather there not be pictures of, and ticket stubbs to a Brooks & Dunn concert. Over the rogue’s gallery is a shelf with a few books, but my favorites are at home. And at the tippy top of the credenza are a couple of teddy bears, a couple of Barley jars, a few pieces of pottery. The window behind me has a few more pieces of pottery, an old black and white photo of a cemetery showing a sign tacked to a post saying “NOTICE. Beginning Jan. 15, 1973, unkept graves will be cleaned by city personnel. Cost to be billed to owners or liens placed on the properties.” I’m sure there’s a story behind that, but I have no idea what it might be, or where the photo was taken.

    And a belated Happy Birthday, JT!

  7. Scott Parker

    I have two desks–one made by my dad–and I use them in different ways. The writing desk is literally the desk I sit at to write anything long hand. There are times when pixels and a keyboard don’t do it for me. I break out the pen (Pilot PreciseGrip 0.5mm blue ink) and paper (college-ruled comp books) and compose. Yes, there are times when the ideas flow too rapidly that my handwriting is horrible. (During those times, I make notes in the margins or on yellow Post-its.) But the old-school way of writing helps the flow sometimes. Then I have the computer desk. It’s really a old server thingy–with shelves on both sides of a central post. On the closest shelf, I have it lowered to where my ergonomic keyboard sits. The other shelf I have raised so that my MacBook is almost eye level. Behind the Mac, in plain view when the Mac is closed, are my Current Books. (Right now: Money Shot by Christa Faust, Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, By Night in Chile, Hell of a Woman (anthology), The White Trilogy (Bruen), and the book I just finished and reviewed, Kiss Her Goodbye by Allan Guthrie) On the walls next to my Mac are my awards (so far). I use them to remind me that I have the talent to be a writer…and that only persistence will help me become a *published* writer.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT – Happy Birthday!

    Somebody asked me what was on my desk during a phone interview recently. I looked around quickly and said, “A load of empty shell casings of different calibres, two spent rounds test-fired into body armour, and a US Army training manual on long-range sniping … er, hello? Are you still there?”

    And, of course, I could have added, “Dust.” For some reason, the computer either creates it all by itself, or sucks it up from all over the rest of the house. So, “LOTS of dust.”

  9. Tom Barclay

    Happy birthday, J.T. and Zoe! She, Margie has ‘special’ birthday presents for you over at The Lipstick Chronicles.

    Dusty, you have a D-15? I should hate you. But I can’t really play four strings, let alone six. Oh, and BTW, Rita at TLC has been asking for you.

  10. simon

    I have following:

    3 stuffed toys.A cow that poops candy when you lift its tail.A photo of Jim Clark leading the ’65 Indy 500A stack of CDs.And lot of red ink.

  11. JDRhoades

    Tom: Yep. The D-35 gets all the press, but I do love the brightness and sustain of that mahogany top combined with the depth of that dreadnought body shape.

    Now if someone wants to BUY me a 35….

    And I shall repair to TLC forthwith and see what the lovely Rita wishes of me.

  12. JT Ellison

    Hi all!Thanks for all the wishes. Zoe, happy birthday!!!

    I’m in my second airport of the day and have yet to leave New York. It’s been a long afternoon.

    I love hearing about all of your spaces!

    See you later (I hope!)

  13. Catherine

    Happy Birthday to Zoe and JT.

    The only thing my work area has in common with JT’s is my desk is it is on a angle. I can see out my door and window this way, and I have a massive tree outside. In my case a Liquidamber. It’s nice to see the seasons reflected in the colour of the leaves, or absence.

    After actually looking at my desk I think some of today is being spent cleaning it.

    I have dust, lots of dust, and pistachio shells in a cup, and earrings and other jewellery that annoys me as soon as I sit down to work and gets dumped here. A mobile phone manual, a paid bill…hair tie, vitamins, a Cavanelli calendar of ‘colorful images of New York from the Cavanilli archives’…assorted pencils and pens(none in their container), nail file…paperclips and hole puncher

    Media comunications in Australia-Turner & CunninghamBest Sellers – Popular Fiction since 1900- Clive Bloom.

    Bookshelf to the left of me crammed with Uni work, textbooks, folders, magazines in spiffy holders, a framed Strategy Award.lol.Only painting I’ve done in the last 20 years resting against the wall in the corner. A totally obsolete calendar that needs to go in the recycling bin.

    As well as cleaning I think I’ll be sanding back the new to me desk on my front verandah and painting it. I want to have the ‘new’ desk for my computer and another sort of mutated chest desk arrangement backing it. Then I can have all my electricals consolidated. I’m also aiming to get a piece of glass for my desk top and putting things meaningful to me under it.

    I’m saving for a lap top as I’ve been finding that mixing up where I work is actually more productive…not just because my desk is mired in debris… I think the complete change helps new neurons to find each other.

  14. Pari Noskin Taichert

    J.T.,I just logged on to see what was happening and you’re stuck in the airport. I’m so sorry. It can be an incredible drag when you just want to get home.

    Here’s to sleeping in your own bed tonight!

  15. JT Ellison

    Hey P!

    Just got home. : ) Tornadoes heading our way, but it should be fine. I feel like I’ve opened a twitter account on my backblog. Sigh.

    The bed calls…

  16. Kevin

    HiLovely blog space – thanks.

    “On the shelf to the right is a framed print of a Chinese character from the I Ching called CHAOS. The small print below says “Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be Chaos. Before a brilliant person begins something great, they must look foolish to the crowd.”

    The transliteration of this character is Hundun. A powerful figure which drags all organisation (even nature) into chaos so that it can reform and begin a new.

    We necessarily spend so much time in the modern world fighting the tendency toward Chaos whereas the Chinese believed that allowing it some presence was to allow life to dip back into the ‘fertile chaos’ to refresh itself with new creativity.

    I hope this thought is pleasing to you.


  17. Doug Riddle

    Pair of Levis or salt and pepper shakers….I use a combined process of notebooks and then a laptop so that I can write where ever I am….resturants, boring office meetings, etc.

    Have a basic desk for the family computer, rarely ever use it, but I does have my favorite Batman figure perched on the monitor.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *