Dispatches | September 20, 2008

Lately, I’m totally fascinated by the spaces where people write. This was demonstrated today when my friend Marybeth called to tell me she finished the story she’s been working on for the last year and a half.

“Where did you write it?” I asked, forgetting that I probably should have congratulated her first.

She thought for a moment.

“My living room,” she said. “It’s a soothing place. There are windows. It’s comfortable and the color isn’t overwhelming.”

I like that. I also like the feature “Writers’ Rooms” on The Guardian’s website, which posts images of authors’ workspaces and adds brief biographical paragraphs. Visitors to “Writers’ Rooms” can see the table used by Virginia Woolf, who elegantly stressed the importance of having a private place to write in A Room of One’s Own. Or they can check out the greenish rug in Charles Darwin’s study — a natural selection to tie the room together ( … see what I did there?).

To me, a room tells a lot about an author — maybe even more than a cover letter. I sometimes wish for a cover letter like:

Dear editor,
I enjoy your publication. You folks do good things.
Thanks for taking a look at this piece I wrote. Hope you like it. I wrote it at the Starbucks on 45th — very good chairs there.
Take care,


Then, as I would read the enclosed manuscript, I’d picture Dan in a good chair, composing a response to an acceptance letter, so he’ll have it ready, just in case. (By the way, although he is very optimistic and confident, Dan is imaginary. He is also horribly addicted to caffeine, and he needs to remember to e-mail his mother once in a while) The manuscript would open a portal between two people, one seated at the vast boardroom table in The Missouri Review’s nice digs in Columbia, the other all cozy in a Starbucks on 45th.

That’s the power of writing to connect people, regardless of distance. It happens each time we remove a manuscript from an envelope. We don’t always know where we are or who we’re looking at right away, but we know we’ve left our own space and entered someone else’s. 

Of course, most of the time, the portal’s one-way. It’s like that special window in the police station, in that room where there’s just one bare light bulb and the furniture always gets thrown around. No one can see us watching.

That doesn’t seem fair. Let’s reverse the glass.

Welcome to the offices of The Missouri Review. Do you see those industrious-looking, well groomed people scurrying hither and yon with ant-like efficiency? Those are TMR staffers, and they’re gearing up for the 18th annual Editor’s Prize contest — a big deal for us.

See the pair who are busy combing past issues and typing at breakneck speed? That’s Allyson and Darren, contest editors who’ve been dutifully blogging about previous winners and linking to their stories. Hint: These links are great to check out in order to gain inspiration and an idea of what winning pieces look like.

See that guy trying to decide whether all authors deliberately perfume their submissions before mailing them, or whether that bottle of Joop! in his backpack came open? That’s me.

Anyway, back to the Editors’ Prize contest. As I said, it’s a big deal, but not just for us. Keep in mind the contest pays $3,000 for a winning entry in poetry, fiction, or essay. With a payout that big, a contest winner (read: you) could afford to make some pretty sweet renovations on a writing room. Think of the possibilities! the desk! the chairs!

Meanwhile, if you’ve got a sec, comment in about the writing space you already have, so we’ll have something to show people after you win our contest.