Space Matters

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

My wife and I recently watched Julian Schnabel’s 2018 film At Eternity’s Gate. In the movie, Willem Dafoe plays Vincent Van Gogh during the years he lived in the south of France. During a brief scene of Van Gogh arranging the space where he lived and worked, I recalled some of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo where he described in considerable detail the arrangement of furniture in his room and the art on his walls. This was the space where Van Gogh would live and work, and it was important to him.

It may seem obvious, but at the same time I think it’s easy to forget the importance of how we set up our workspace. Where we work, and how that space is organized, has a considerable impact on our creative output.

Photo of narrow room with laboratory equipment
Some workspaces don’t offer much flexibility – just do the best you can

Whether you are working at home or in an office, these are some of the factors to consider when you arrange your workspace:

Keep the supplies and materials you need on hand at all times. You can’t paint your masterpiece if you run out of the oils or watercolors you need. Your photography studio won’t be complete without the backgrounds and lighting equipment that fit your needs. As much as I believe that creativity is a habit that can exercised anytime, there are also moments of genuine inspiration (or, what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a flow state): It’s important to be prepared for those times.

Home office with chair, desk, lamp, window, and photos displayed on wall
The desk in my home office

Arrange the space for your convenience based on how you actually work. In my own home office, I keep a fairly minimalist desk (really an old table from a thrift store) because I find clutter distracting. Pens/Pencils, a Post-it pad, and a lamp are within arm’s reach. A CD player is close enough that I can listen to music with headphones if necessary to tune out distracting noises.

Van Gogh easel in Arles, France, in front of the Cafe Van Gogh
Van Gogh’s studio was wherever he needed it to be (Van Gogh easel in Arles, France)

Design your space for inspiration. You want your workspace to encourage the right frame of mind for your work. Look for ways to keep your imagination fired up without becoming too distracted. Be certain you have the right amount of light – I position my desk by a window for natural light. American Indian arrowheads, a gift from my grandfather that he found decades ago while farming, reminds me that our work might be handed down in ways we can’t anticipate. And a display of my own photographs reminds me that my life is more interesting than I generally acknowledge.

Photo of laptop computer on outdoor table at a coffee shop, with a muffin and a mug of hot chocolate
Changing your location can lead to inspiration, and delicious pastries

Your workspace doesn’t need to be constant. I occasionally go to local coffee shops or cafes to write. Van Gogh created some of his finest paintings outdoors. I once saw an interview with Billy Joel addressing the subject of writer’s block. He talked about wearing “a nice outfit” and going to a restaurant in Little Italy with a notebook; he felt that made him look like a writer, so it became easier for him to actually be a writer.

You’ll do your best creative work if you’ve prepared, and part of that preparation is setting up the optimal workspace within whatever constraints you might face. Don’t settle – make sure your space works for you, and keep working on it until it does.

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