Guest Blog: Where do I Write by John B. Lee

Where Do I Write: the boy who made his own desk

One of the questions that students of writing frequently ask me is, “Where do you write?” And I
always say, “When I write, I want to be alone in a room, alone in the house, alone on the street,
alone in the town, alone in the nation, alone in the world, and alone in the universe.” In other
words, I seek sublime solitude. And ever since I have lived away from the home of my birth
on the farm, I have managed to achieve the luxury of having a study in which to seek and find
solitude and a writing desk on which to compose my thoughts.

And although I had a bedroom of my own on the farm, I did not have a desk. When I realized
at about twelve years of age that I secretly wanted to be a writer, I begged my father to buy me
a desk on which to write. That didn’t happen. Somehow, since he hadn’t bought me a bicycle
either, nor did he buy me a bed, I knew that a writing desk was an unlikely prospect.

The first bike I ever rode was a shocking pink girl’s bike left on the farm by cousin Helen. I
learned how to ride on that bike, but when my grandfather Busteed saw me riding a pink bike, he
said, “the boy needs a man’s bike,” and so he brought from his shed an old man’s bike two sizes
too big for me. I fastened longhorn handlebars on the front, fixed a banana seat to the frame and
rode high on the gravel like a gentleman on a penny-farthing. I’d slept in a crib until one day
when I was five, my grandfather Busteed said, “that boy needs a bed,” and so I acquired the bed I
would sleep in for the next ten years.

However, despite my expectations for disappointment, when the clerk’s table came up for
auction in the village, my father proudly struck a bargain, bought it, and brought it home for
me. Unfortunately, it was a table designed for writing while standing up, or perhaps one might
imagine the clerk sitting on a high stool ciphering the books for the next council audit. It seemed
Dickensian enough, something Bartleby the Scrivener might use, but I didn’t fancy myself
dipping my quill in a well and squinting over columns of numbers. I wanted a poet’s writing
desk. Something Hemingway might own. And so, I grabbed a dull handsaw from the barn and
sawed two feet off each of the four legs. From then on, it wobbled like cottage card table and
it did not satisfy. In addition to being cocked by my bad carpentry, the top was canted to serve
nineteenth century stand-up ergonomics.

Then I had an idea. I’d make my own student’s writing desk. I found a two-foot by four-foot
sheet of plywood from the barn. I think it might have been meant for a pig partition. I sawed off
two one by one’s for legs and found two orange crates and stood them side by each, on end. I
hammered in six ten penny nails, sanded and varnished the top, and ‘’voila” I had my first writing
desk. And there I wrote my early poems. The first poem I ever had published, “Thoughts of a
Mouse at High Tide,” was written there, and a poem I still think of as a keeper, “My Alibi for an
Eventful Wednesday in May,” was written there when I was an aspiring seventeen-year-old high
school poet.

Now, I write on a manufactured desk. Alone at my study window, I compose my poems, but I
have a photograph of that first scrivener’s station, that ideal writing locale, the one I hammered
together with things I’d found at the barn on the farm, the desk my father wouldn’t buy me, the
desk I had to make on my own. I use that photograph as my screen saver, and it reminds me of
my younger self, the lad who aspired to be a poet, that boy who made his own desk from orange
crates and plywood and ten penny dreams.

John B. Lee, Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity
Poet Laureate of Norfolk County
(2011-2014)

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