“My Decors” by Joyce Johnson

Joyce Johnson at work
Photo by Tramaine George

I have been a writer all my life and was reminded today, after reading an illustrated feature about the rooms where three famous writers do their work, that I have never had a writer’s study. Instead I have mostly written in multipurpose rooms on whatever flat surface was available. My first table, which I also used for dining, dressmaking, everything, was a long piece of hollow plywood, stained walnut, held up by cast-iron triangles. It came from the Door Store, popular with short-of-cash young bohemians in the late 1950s. I considered that table truly “modern”—the opposite of the bourgeois furnishings of the apartment I’d grown up in on the Upper West Side. (Among other things, I was in revolt against drapes and upholstery.) My door table shared space in the so-called living room of my first apartment in the East Village with a secondhand studio couch, a rocking chair of unfinished pine, and a hopeless Pullman kitchen whose miniature appliances had been painted battleship gray. I can see it now positioned in front of the only window. The typewriter sitting on it is the same Royal portable my aunts gave me for my 13th birthday, never imagining that seven years later, after leaving home, their niece would use it to write a novel that included an account of its heroine deliberately losing her virginity. As I inched forward on my manuscript, moving backwards at the same time as I discarded sentences, paragraphs, pages, I faced a narrow airshaft where frantic pigeons sometimes got trapped; a wan light might fall on my work by midday if the day was sunny enough.

 
“Oh, you girls have such uninteresting little lives,” he’d scrawled on one of my papers, making me instantly determined to write a book that would prove him wrong.
 

Apart from weekends, national holidays, and periods of unemployment, I worked by night, after returning from whatever office job was paying the rent. In fact, after I began frequenting the enticing Cedar Tavern, where a whole nocturnal world of painters, poets, dancers, and jazz musicians—broke, brilliant, and boozy—opened up to me, I sat down to write later and later. This was the “real life” I’d longed to be part of and I didn’t want to miss any of it, even though I should have been devoting every spare minute to my book. Shortly before I moved downtown, I’d been stunned when the editor-in-chief of Random House offered me a contract after reading the 50 pages I’d managed to produce in the workshop he taught at the New School. I felt embarrassed about my contract. Since I’d gotten it when I was only 21, I hadn’t suffered very long, while most of the writers and painters I was meeting had experienced years of rejection for their avant-garde works. I was sure they’d think I hadn’t earned my lucky break, and since I doubted they would be very interested in what a young woman was writing, I didn’t talk much about it. My novel was not avant-garde, though my editor thought he’d seen something new in it. It had been inspired by a remark by one of my Barnard College professors, a man who taught writing to his female students while actively discouraging them from pursuing it. “Oh, you girls have such uninteresting little lives,” he’d scrawled on one of my papers, making me instantly determined to write a book that would prove him wrong.

Men, including Jack Kerouac, kept interrupting the progress of my novel. Too much romantic upheaval made it difficult to write, but so did the flat, dreary periods of recovery time when I would have given anything to be able to throw myself into my work. Two years after Kerouac, I left my door table behind when I moved in with a painter with a loft on Second Avenue that had no corner I could call my own. He was obsessed with the politics of the art world and taught me how to cook well enough to make couscous for Leo Castelli. Despite all my cooking, he didn’t get a gallery, and after two years he left me for a socialite just back from Paris whom he’d met in East Hampton. Before that, though, on an acrimonious trip we took to Provincetown I’d convinced him to bring back with us an old, round, oak table I’d bought for $12. It was just the kind of table I’d been wanting and admiring, and I gave it several coats of linseed oil. The table was transferred to a two-room, railroad-style apartment on First Avenue after we broke up.

 
One reviewer called me a “concise little miss,” which was perhaps his way of complimenting my prose, or perhaps not.
 

In my new apartment, I slept in the front room under a cracked ceiling that eventually collapsed without killing me or the poet I was with that night. My table was in the room that had no window, near an alcove that contained a noisy refrigerator and an ancient three-burner stove. I was 24 by then, and since I was cooking just for myself, I was able to settle down and finish my novel. “Come and Join the Dance” was published just before I met my first husband. Like most novels, it vanished soon and did not change my life, but it got a good review in the Times, plus some weird ones expressing dismay that a young woman fortunate enough to have a good college education had written about such shocking matters. One reviewer called me a “concise little miss,” which was perhaps his way of complimenting my prose, or perhaps not.

The oak table’s next stop was a loft in the half-derelict building on Chrystie Street my husband and I moved into, just around the corner from the Bowery. The key money, $500, was the portion of the advance I’d received when I finally delivered my novel. The loft was like our marriage, beautiful but also very challenging and always precarious. Pigeons had taken up residence in the abandoned floor above us. We lacked the money to fix it up, and we froze there in the winter since we had to supply our own heat with a small coal stove. A building inspector started coming around in the daytimes when my husband was painting—he must have been looking for a handout. He kept making threats that soon we would have to move out of the loft since we were living there illegally, and he condemned the refrigerator and stove that had come with the place, forcing us to borrow money to buy new ones.

Though it upset my husband that I wasn’t writing, all I wrote during the two years we were together were a few pages about the bums who slept in the doorways of the bridal shops on Grand Street and went uptown on the Third Avenue bus dressed as Santa Clauses. We were very much in love but I felt that something was hanging over us—it was like a sound I was always listening for, blotting out the first whispers of what might have become my next novel. Sometimes we were sublimely happy, but my husband was haunted—by his experiences on minesweepers during the war, by the two children he’d left behind in Ohio, along with a studio filled with his best paintings, when he’d chosen to end his first marriage and come to New York to change his life. Jim was a drinker who kept trying to stop cold and couldn’t. He called me at work to tell me proudly that he was sober two hours before he was killed in a motorcycle accident around the corner from the apartment.

My next attempt at writing occurred in another loft, married to another painter—this time in the neighborhood that came to be known as Soho. I had a small child plus the demanding editorial job that supported the three of us. I was always very, very tired. When I came home from work, I took care of my son, did chores, put dinner on the oak table. I would still be at the sink washing dishes when my husband would go out for the rest of the night. About 2,000 square feet were devoted to his painting, and if our little boy made noise playing at the far end of the loft, my husband would call out, “Tell the child to be quiet.” Toward the end of our marriage, I demanded a room to write in, and he reluctantly built me one—a claustrophobic sliver of a room lined with bookshelves. It was about the size of a storage closet. I left him shortly after he finished it.

It was 1978 and I was 43 years old when I published my second novel, “Bad Connections.” Most of it was written in the second apartment on the Upper West Side my son and I had moved into. Two windows looked out on the sedate, somewhat boring vista of the apartment houses that lined West End Avenue—the last view I would have chosen at 22. This room of my own was my bedroom, big enough to hold a desk, many books and a file cabinet. I threw out a small, unpainted desk I hadn’t liked very much and bought a new one. It was oak like my table and of the same vintage, and it was large. I’d found it on Columbus Avenue, which was then transitioning out of being a slum and had suddenly become lined with antique dealers. As time passed, I developed a hunger for real as opposed to makeshift furniture, so I acquired a handsome Victorian dresser with a tilting mirror, and eventually, after years of sleeping on mattresses that rested on the floor, an actual bed with a carved maple headboard. I had the feeling I was moving into a new phase—arranging things to suit myself.

In my bedroom I wrote three more books because I had made an important discovery—that I could keep my writing going if I resigned myself to producing just a little every day, very early in the morning before I had to go to the office. At 6 a.m., no one wants you, no one calls—the hour is entirely yours, and your mind is perfectly fresh because you haven’t been run over by the day. I found I could accomplish a lot in 60 minutes if I considered everything progress—even a few lines I might later revise. The secret was not to stop and lose the thread. If I kept the thread unbroken, the book would live and blossom overnight in my mind and its sentences would be waiting there for me the next time I went to my desk.

Now I live in a much smaller apartment, where another three books have been written. Before time runs out on me, I hope I’ll be able to write at least one more. But every book I’ve finished has been followed by a discouraging pause. I think I’m coming out of one now. My oak table is gone, plus the dresser, the bedstead and the desk—all that stuff was too large, too heavy for this place. Once you give things away, you don’t miss them.

I’m back to writing on the same table where I eat—a piece of glass that occasionally quivers on its slim cast-iron foundation. For far too long it held my printer as well as my computer until I found a clever stand that could be wheeled into a corner. I’m still delighted by my freed-up table, by its weightless transparency that goes with the light that fills the room on bright mornings. I keep a vase of flowers on it now, an old metal stand that says PAPER, a blue glass bowl sometimes filled with pears. I sit in an ugly black chair that supports my back and makes it possible for me to work more hours than I should. At times I swivel around and gaze through tall windows at the building across the street, which I am very fond of. Randomly ornamented with discolored white limestone, it is a remnant of the New York I grew up in—it has only six floors and is somewhat rundown, but its brick walls are that red found in Hopper paintings that at certain times of day glows from the inside out. Then I turn to my glass table and go back to my words.

Read also: “Minor Characters” Author Joyce Johnson Remembers Life Among, and Apart From, the Beat