08. June 2012 · 5 comments · Categories: Books

Pretty pathetic, huh? Yeah.

That brown paper, our cats like to lie on. I put it on the floor during the day and pick it up at night so they don’t wake us. Sometimes I forget to put it back down and it just stays there for days.

That’s my stack of old cookbooks, upper right, bathed in the light of the heavens. Magazines I haven’t gotten to yet. A note from a neighbor inviting me to a bi-weekly ladies night out I haven’t made it to yet. There’s lots of dust.

I do ninety-nine percent of my work on my laptop, which I use in the living room, on the bed, at a desk with a view of Lake Michigan. It is what Austin Kleon refers to in his book Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative as my “digital desk.”

So what is an “analog desk” then? It’s the polar opposite of the digital desk and Austin makes a case for it in Chapter 4, “Use Your Hands.”

“Computers have robbed us of the feeling that we’re actually making things,” he says. “Instead, we’re just typing keys and clicking mouse buttons.”

In addition to being a writer, Austin Kleon is an artist whose work is inspired by others artists going back to the 1860s: making poems by blacking out words in newspaper stories, which you can see on his Newspaper Blackout Web site (and book by the same name). He used to do most of his work at his digital desk, but then he realized something:

“Sitting in front of a computer all day is killing you, and killing your work. We need to move, to feel like we’re making something with our bodies, not just our heads. Work that only comes from the head isn’t any good.”

So he made major changes to his setup:

“I have two desks in my office—one is ‘analog’ and one is ‘digital.’ The analog desk has nothing but markers, pens, pencils, paper, index cards, and newspaper. Nothing electronic is allowed on that desk. This is where most of my work is born, and all over the desk are physical traces, scraps, and residue from my process. (Unlike a hard drive, paper doesn’t crash.) The digital desk has my laptop, my monitor, my scanner, and drawing tablet. This is where I edit and publish my work.”

Once he did this, Austin discovered that work “didn’t feel like work. It felt like play.”

Some of the most joyful times in my life have been when I’ve created analog-style. When I was an art minor in college. When I produced a community play for kids and sketched the costumes and painted the set. A poster I made after a bad breakup years ago titled “Things I Want To Do,” which hung in my office and fascinated my friends. It was the simplest thing. But they loved it. And I loved making it.

I have been glued to my digital desk far too long. The current state of my analog desk reflects this.

My only defense is that I have been playing in a band. So I am creating at the music stand. But point well taken: time to clean up the desk but good. Get out the sketch pad, and I don’t know. Doodle. Paint. Cut up magazines. Something. Not sure what yet. Audrey Niffenegger came up with the title The Time Traveler’s Wife while working on a project in her art studio; she wrote it down on the paper she covered her analog desk with, and her book was published a few years later.

“If we just start going through the motions, if we strum a guitar, or shuffle sticky notes around a conference table, or start kneading clay,” says Austin Kleon, “the motion kickstarts our brain into thinking.”

Now hand me that Lemon Pledge.



  1. Your analog desk resembles the side table in my kitchen, except for my dirty ashtray and half finished cup of now cold coffee. Magazines, printed internet articles, recipes, notes to myself, catalogs…and the toaster. It is not so much an archive as my personal ready reference desk. A record of my recent history. It is in this room that I sit and feign control over this record, while in reality I am usually staring out the window at the back yard, mulling things over and planning for …what? Something. It is also in this room that my most creative inspirations come to me. Where I can suddenly have a blinding flash of insight and clarity and purpose. I think the energy somes from the “scraps of my process”, evident but non judgmental. Like the cats that sometimes seem to occupy every foot of space in the house.

    • “A record of my recent history”: I love this. And “feign[ing] control” over it. Funny how we try to control so much, yet those most beautiful insights come out of nowhere, when you are just being. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to work/create just about anywhere and be productive. The only thing I haven’t been able to grab on to, as many of my writer friends have, is writing at the coffee shop. I know two published writers who’ve written whole novels at Panera and Alterra. And I’ve enjoyed another writer friend’s status updates on a creepy guy who was perpetrating at the Starbucks she writes at. Until he got tossed out, permanently. These spaces of ours, whatever and wherever they are, are precious, aren’t they?

      • I know that Hemingway often wrote in cafes. I don’t think I could ever focus enough in a public space. Too many distractions.

        As for “recent histroy”. Um. Maybe not quite as recent as I would hope. I found our tickets from the “Lest” show in that stack of stuff this morning. 😉

  2. (Cindy) I love this. I can relate. I must read the book Steal like an Artist. Have seen parts of it in other artist friends’ posts. As you probably know, I worked in the field of animation for over 30 years, a traditional cel painter…ink and paint. By 2000, most of the work had gone digital. I spent 3 years in Atlanta (Turner studios and Radical Axis) learning and painting digitally. Something was missing. I gave it up, the art and skill I had known was gone. It was no longer satisfying or fun, and I struggled with it. I needed to mix and smell real paint, use a real brush, and use my hands.
    I look forward to hearing about what you do when you clear off the analog desk!

  3. Thanks, Gretchen. I highly recommend the book; only $10.95 at your favorite bookstore. When I tell people that when I worked in public radio, I used to edit my stories by literally cutting out pieces of tape and then taping them back together again, they look at me like, “Say what now?” But it was very satisfying work. One of the things Austin said at the author event I saw him at (which I edited out of my post for length) is: “The digital world is just a layer over the real world.” A layer of whatever computer screens are made of. This is what your comment reminds me of. I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I have vivid memories of sitting next to you in kindergarten; we were all working on an art project, and I remember thinking, I wish I were as good as Gretchen! And then you grow up to be an artist. Very, very cool. I’ll let you know about my desk!

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