In October 2005, The New York Times ran an article on a writing space in NYC called Paragraph. That same afternoon, my friend Pat Cronin and I were meeting in my dining room—a room that also served as living room, play room, office, and art studio.
My husband and five-year-old had vacated the house so that Pat and I could have a few, rare hours of uninterrupted conversation and writing time. In the middle of our monthly check-in, I was seized with clarity. I knew what I wanted to do when my daughter entered kindergarten: I wanted to create a shared writing space in Chicago.
My history made this predictable, but I hadn’t seen it coming. In 1994, my now husband (then boyfriend) and I had founded a literary arts center, WorkShirts Writing Center, and an annual publication, Fish Stories. Four years later the workshops and journal were doing well, but I was burned out. Leaving behind the nonprofit was a difficult but necessary turning point. I needed to earn a more reliable living, focus more on my own writing, and overcome an untenable work-life imbalance.
As we’d emptied bookshelves and packed away chairs, dismantling nearly five years’ worth of passion and work, some of the writers and I wistfully longed for the community we’d created within the workshops to continue, and I’d playfully urged, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a studio where we could just write? You open it, and I’ll share the rent.” We’d all laughed, teasing and serious at the same time. “No, you do it. I don’t want to do it!” We parted ways for several years, occasionally in touch but mostly retreating to separate lives, some of us moving on to more serious writing careers, others settling into parenthood or little to no writing at all.
But now I was ready. I didn’t want to freelance at home, isolated. I no longer wanted work that required sitting in front of a computer all day or even to spend my time focusing solely on my own fiction should I be so fortunate. I needed a balance between the stillness I craved as a writer and the engagement of face-to-face community. I wanted the flexibility of taking care of my child but knew other work was necessary, too.
“I’m going to do it.” I told Pat. Within a month, I’d started a business plan.
Who knew the journey that would begin? By February 2006, Pat was helping with the launch as best she could while working another job. My husband Lee, many friends, and professionals pitched in tremendously. By November 2006, we’d built out more than 1,600 sq. ft. into an eight-room shared space that included a library, conference room, and kitchen. The heart of The Writers WorkSpace was a large, beautiful room of inspiring quiet that we deemed the main writing studio, with 14 desks and plenty of additional writing space as needed. The studio’s financial goal was to be as affordable as possible while covering its own monthly expenses.
There is a much longer story to tell about WWS’s evolution. What unfolded in a nutshell: Today my husband Lee and I volunteer a minimum of time to manage the space’s ongoing needs, trying not to repeat burnout. Members sometimes contribute toward the workspace’s physical and communal operation—hosting an event, covering a tour, or unloading the dishwasher if Lee or I cannot. But largely the space runs itself, with each member using the space as he or she needs. This means that we focus on our own writing, with the option of enjoying community or ignoring it on any given day.
Life changes daily, and I never know exactly what I will need from WWS. I’m grateful for its ongoing flexibility. Sometimes after a morning at home, I hurry to WWS’s kitchen for lunch, where I know I’ll enjoy the company of whomever is present. Other times, I just want to be in the quiet writing studio, where the only interruption will be getting up to pour myself another cup of tea. There, in the main studio, I’m surrounded by Mark DeBernardi’s timeless art and by other writers or no one at all—no cell phones, no unpredictable music, or loud conversations, no laundry or dishes, no pets or bills or demands to ignore. The world falls away, and I am only here, singular in purpose. I know that if I stay in this room, my imagination will unfurl. Writing will happen. This is a far cry from trying to focus at home where I might find myself perched on the kitchen counter, sorting through cupboards; or in a conversation with a neighbor who peeks into my backyard; or at a coffee shop, distracted by a loud cell phone conversation, when I’d intended to be writing.
Coffee shops and libraries still lure me. I love writing while in my parked car near the beach, sitting on the front steps at home, or even at my old dining room table. It's not that WWS is the only place I write. I can drift away from it for weeks, due to life’s demands and my own inclinations. But all I need to do is return to the studio for a few hours to remember why the instinct to co-create WWS with so many others remains a valuable gift for me, too. Connections happen here—leads exchanged, friendships formed, inspiration shared as naturally as saying "hello" when someone passes in the hallway or posts a flyer on the bulletin board. Aside from perhaps Ragdale, I’ve never experienced anywhere else quite like this unique mix of coffee shop, library, and think tank.
Here, surrounded by steady, creative energy—from both the physical space and the writers who may be present—I focus, write, and enjoy the process; and then equally valuable, I let go of the obsession that writing can sometimes bring, allow home to be home, and enjoy the rest of life, which is a balance I always need.
Amy Davis’s writing has appeared in The Sun and Book magazine, among other publications. She has received artist residencies at Ragdale and has taught writing and guest-lectured for more than 20 years at high schools, colleges, and art centers, including at the Guild Literary Complex, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Columbia College-Chicago. In 1994, Davis co-founded WorkShirts Writing Center, where she taught fiction writing, ran a public reading series, and was Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning, national literary magazine Fish Stories. Currently, she serves as director of The Writers WorkSpace, a shared work and meeting space in Chicago. Her latest projects include a collection of poetry and the forthcoming book, Art Works: How Making Art Illuminates Your Life, which she co-authored with artist Don Seiden.
Written in Summer 2010.