My 18th book debuts next month. When I was in my early 20s, I thought it would be fun to teach college. Then someone told me I would be expected to write books, so I became a Quaker minister instead. I like being a minister, but if I had known I was going to write books anyway, maybe I would have taught college to get the summers off.
I’ve written all 18 books at the same desk. I bought it in 1991 at an office-furniture store on Meridian Street. I went there to buy a new desk, but I saw a used model on the loading dock out back and offered them $25 for it. All the new desks were made of particle board. My $25 desk is made of solid maple with a leather top. I seldom see the top, because my desk is messy, but it’s nice to know there’s genuine leather under all my papers.
When we moved from the city to Danville, it took four strong men to carry the desk up a flight of stairs to my office. They set it alongside a window, where, because of its weight, it has remained ever since. Our sons are now grown and gone, and for a brief time we thought of down-sizing, but I’m not sure I can get the desk back down the stairs without sawing it into several smaller pieces, so we’re staying put. I’ve tried writing on other desks, and it doesn’t feel right. I don’t think I can write anywhere else.
In addition to the desk, there are other things I like about my office. It has two windows, one of which looks out onto our driveway. We have a lot of visitors, whom I hear pull up while I’m working. It’s an easy matter for me to roll over to the window to see who it is. I can see our visitors without them seeing me. If it’s someone I want to see, I open the window and yell at them to come upstairs. If it’s someone I don’t want to see, I don’t answer the door. If they ask about it later, I tell them I probably wasn’t home. It’s a great office to hide in.
Everything I like, I keep in my office. My Case pocketknife collection is on the shelf next to my desk. When I hit a snag, I look at my pocketknives. I have 20 of them. I used to have 25, but I gave some away. If people come to my office for counseling and I’m not able to help them, I give them a pocketknife so the hour wasn’t a total waste for them. Most times, it cheers them right up. There are few feelings as satisfying as a knife in your pocket.
I have two Emmys in my office, on the top shelf to the left of my desk. I won them writing for the TV show Across Indiana. I put them in the closet at first, but then my wife came across them and put them on my shelf. I told her it felt like bragging to put them on display, although apparently I don’t mind people knowing since I just mentioned them. But I work hard at writing, and sometimes after I’ve received a letter from someone telling me how lousy I am at the craft, it’s nice to look at the awards and know there are other people who feel differently.
On the wall is a plaque from my high school, announcing my induction into its Hall of Fame. They misspelled my first and last names, so the honor lost a bit of its shine. When I graduated from there in 1979, none of my teachers thought I would ever make their Hall of Fame. To be honest, I’m surprised by it myself. A graduate school I attended awarded me an honorary doctorate. I can’t help but wonder if they did it hoping I would give them a lot of money. Everyone thinks writers are rich. Writing has permitted me to live a middle-class life, which pleases me to no end. I could maybe cough up a hundred bucks for my alma mater, but that’s about it. I’ll probably donate my old sermons to their library instead. My wife has been after me to get rid of them. They take up an entire closet we could use for other things.
When I met Andy Rooney, we chatted about our desks. We writers like nothing more than to talk about the subject.
Our family picture albums are stored in my office. Fourteen of them, covering every significant moment of our lives for the past 29 years. With the boys gone, I look at the albums more these days. I used to get annoyed at my wife for taking so many pictures, but now I’m happy she did. “One day you’ll be glad I did this,” she used to say. She was right.
In the bottom-left drawer of my desk, I have miscellaneous cords and manuals from every computer I’ve ever owned. I’m on my fifth one and have recycled the other four, but I still have the cords and instructions for all five. I’m afraid if I start pitching things like that in the trash, I’ll get carried away and throw away something I might need later. There’s no telling what bad things might happen when one gets exuberant about cleaning.
One neat thing about being a writer is the access it provides to other writers. I have autographed books from some of my favorite authors: Garrison Keillor, E.B. White, Pat Conroy, Andy Rooney, Anne Lamott, and Elizabeth Berg. I wouldn’t want to give you the impression I’ve actually met all of those people, though I did have supper with a gracious Conroy at a book convention in Florida, and I spent a few minutes with Rooney, who was grouchy, probably because I pestered him to sign a book for me. I was in a Half-Price Books not long ago and came across a volume I had autographed. It had been marked down from $30 to $20. I had signed it for a former neighbor, who said she would treasure it forever, which turned out to be a slight exaggeration.
When I met Andy Rooney, we chatted about our desks. We writers like nothing more than to talk about the subject. He told me he’d made his desk from the flitch of a walnut tree. When I asked what a flitch was, he said, “Look it up,” so I did. A flitch is the longitudinal section of a tree trunk, or an unsliced side of bacon. I assume he meant the former.
Every birthday and Father’s Day, my boys made me cards from construction paper. They’re in my desk, left-hand side, top drawer. If I lost my pocketknives, Emmys, and autographed books, I wouldn’t bat an eye. But those cards my boys drew me are more precious than gold. I’ve written thousands of sermons, hundreds of essays, and 18 books, not one of them as lyrical as those crayoned, misspelled lines. This confirms what every writer knows—the best writing never gets published.
Illustration by Ryan Snook
This article appeared in the August 2013 issue.