This story originally appeared in our October 2013 issue. Photographs by Zack Arias.
Writers tend to present themselves as hardy flowers that bloom wherever planted, when in fact, most of them more closely resemble hothouse orchids in their finicky sensitivity.
Some probably do dial the thermostat way up (or down) in their offices and insist on those conditions. Many are fanatically neat and organized and dust-averse in their filing systems, explaining that so many other, messier characters teeming within their imaginations require crowd control and cleanup. Others embrace the creative chaos of clutter that could conceal a dead body—and just might, at least metaphorically.
A select few love—and command fat enough contracts to afford—a panoramic view of some body of water, while others effectively hunker down in monastic cells devoid of any sunlight. Looking at old photographs and travel souvenirs may inspire productive musing, as may poring over passages from canonical role models. Some scribblers, though, eschew reading or gazing at anything altogether during a project—too much potential contamination of “voice.” Music helps some and distracts others. That one guzzles coffee like a Peterbilt consumes diesel; this one practices yoga or at least displays a barbell beside the bookcase. And of course, writers in general have been known to drink now and then, and grow loquacious and loud in their shoptalk. Orchids need liquids and fertilizer, too.
They all differ in these details, but they are alike in their obsessive commitment to their art, to the process of honing every word the way a prisoner fashions a lockpick or a shiv. After all, writing sentences alone can feel like just that—a sentence, in this case to solitary confinement. Environment affects the recidivism rate, for better or worse.
So come in and make yourself at home with them. Psychoanalyze their knickknacks and totems. Just don’t touch anything.
1. Tom Junod, Esquire writer at large, Marietta
Junod is an eleven-time National Magazine Award finalist and has won twice—both times for feature writing.
“I’m not a talisman guy, and I don’t have any rituals, and I’m not particularly quirky,” Junod says, by way of shrugging apology. “Writing is one of the more sacred things I do, but it’s largely demystified at this point. More like hammering nails.” His small and tidy home office is dominated, though, by a large, framed collage his mother crafted with obvious parental pride, a compilation of headlines and bylines from the places that first published his work—alumni and trade publications, then Atlanta magazine, then GQ. Since 1997 he’s been at Esquire, where his stories—which are somehow humanely warm and knowingly cool at the same time—have earned him a place in the canon alongside his early role models. Read “The Falling Man,” Junod’s contemplation of 9/11 filtered through an unforgettable photograph. Or “Mercenary,” a frightening look at the consequences of deception.
Junod points to a shelf with titles by Joseph Mitchell, Lester Bangs, Tom Wolfe. “Those were the books that cast a spell over me, that I used to read over and over,” he says. His window offers a view of Lake Fjord, in a sedate subdivision, and the room is organized into “queues,” he says. “So many queues these days, from the books I’m reading to my inbox to my iTunes—I shuffle from 23,000 songs, from George Jones to George Winston. Sometimes music functions as a good distraction.”
He also displays photos of Vince Lombardi among family shots of himself playfully boxing his “old man,” both shirtless, and hoisting his little girl, along with a porcine paperweight souvenir from China, where his daughter was born. Junod often labors at night in the mellow company of his old dog, Carson, a pit bull rescue. “Boredom kills people, and writing is a great boredom defeater because you learn about different worlds,” he says. “Writing is the reckoning, but the learning is great fun, too.”