When we first heard the concept for Lucas Mann’s new book, Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV, we were immediately intrigued. (Honestly, who doesn’t love love and reality TV!?) And then we got our hands on a copy (out this week!) and found gems like this: “Let me just admit this right away: I like to Google “Fat Rob Kardashian” to look at the images results. You know this. I think you do it, too.” No comment, Lucas. No comment! Or: “If I were a housewife my tagline would be: Say what you want about me . . . I probably said it first!” Which is a tagline we could, admittedly, get behind. So, when we asked Lucas to confess the most surprising thing about his home, we knew the answer would be as entertaining as a Bravo binge-fest (read: very!). Here’s what he had to say. . . .
I’m trying to remember the first time I registered the image of a writer’s desk. It must have been in a movie – Little Women, maybe? – when a character was marked as identifiably different from the others, a solitary chronicler, retreating to a space ordained to be theirs alone, to work. Since deciding that I wanted to be among the ranks of those solitary chroniclers, it has felt important to style my life, at least in some way, around the identity. This self-styling has popped up in other, more manageable ways – the glasses, the beard (finally full-ish, after a decade of effort). But the desk, the workspace as a whole, is mythic. Think of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” In graduate school, a professor described the desk John Cheever had set up in his apartment building’s boiler room, and how he’d dress for work every day, ride the elevator down with all the businessmen, then strip naked in the heat and get to work in his holy sauna. There’s Stephen King’s famous ass-in-chair dictum, and all the photos of his office in Maine, basset hound curled at his feet under the desk. And nothing will ever top the Vogue spread about Danielle Steele’s desk – custom made from the covers of all of her published books.
Among writer peers, the idea of the perfect work space comes up often. Instagram hasn’t helped; the hashtag #amwriting is dubious, since the truth is #aminstagramming, but when it accompanies a filtered photo of a desk piled with books, scraps of paper, the laptop screen glowing fuzzily, a tree flowering through the window, how can I not feel like these people are doing something right?
All of this to say, I too have a writer’s desk. And a writer’s nook where that desk is placed. And these floating shelves, ordered off Etsy, hewn from an old barn struck by lightning, meant to hold an indiosycratically organized set of folders containing early drafts. In fact, I’ve had a writing desk everywhere I’ve lived – crammed into a Brooklyn apartment, set aside in a carpeted guest room in an Iowa apartment, then in a more spacious room in an old white house next to a church, where I tried to adorn the walls with printed-out photos of writers I admired, quotes that seemed profound.
Eakachai Leesin / EyeEm
I had a contract to finish my first book at that point; I thought I was a writer real enough to warrant the space I had set up to write in. But being in that room only exacerbated my panic attacks. I’d linger at coffee shops instead, marking a work day by when I could reasonably justify moving from coffee to beer. If I worked from home, I’d keep my desk out of sight behind a closed door, as though it was haunted or contained my bondage den. I would lie on the thick orange carpet in the living room and write with the TV on in the background, an overgrown latchkey kid. It became a running joke – the groove of my shape imprinted on the carpet, the clothes piling in the room designated for inspiration.
In a more logical narrative, this would be a point of epiphany, or at least practical change. The being-a-writer thing had happened despite (maybe because of) a total physical and emotional rebellion from the place that I’d established for writing, so why not drop the pretense? How long could irrational insecurity, and then the attempt to placate that insecurity superficially, persist? Plus, my wife and I were about to move across the country, and my desk couldn’t fit in the pod we shipped. It was a chance for a clean break.
But I faced our new apartment antsy. It was the nicest place I’d ever lived, and I felt like we furnished it well enough, but there was one room with a futon and nothing else, and we weren’t expecting a ton of visitors. Again, I had the luxury of a space to write, I began to tell myself. What kind of jerk turns his nose up at a luxury? And this apartment would reflect my new life to any visitor, and how could I not want that space to reflect my life as a writer – more of a writer, in fact, than I’d ever been? I caved fast. I bought a new desk. The most comfortable chair I’d ever owned. Literary posters went up on the walls. I even framed a couple (Target frames, but still). You can guess what happened next.
Which brings me to my current home and, somehow, my current desk, with the custom Etsy floating shelves. This is the first house I’ve ever owned. It’s a little box, an 1860s New England cottage, with sloping wood floors that collect authentic, old-timey dust. My wife and I fell in love with everything about it, particularly the built-in bookshelves. It felt like it fit the two of us exactly, snug but comfortable, with wonky Victorians peeking in through little dormer windows. And no office for a desk.
“Is that a problem?” the realtor asked.
“He doesn’t really use desks,” my wife answered quickly.
Just in case, the realtor pointed out, there was a little nook next to the stairs. But it was otherwise usable space; there was even a laundry hookup, if we didn’t want to schlep down to the unfinished basement.
“Amazing!” my wife said.
“Yeah, laundry . . .” I said, but the gears were already turning.
I don’t remember how fast I started lobbying for my desk, but somehow I got it. We were living in this place indefinitely, I pointed out, and there needed to be some space for what it is that I do all day. Once again, I managed to ignore the fact that what I do all day has never had any attachment to where I do it. That who I am has a far less direct relationship to what I am and what’s around me than I let myself believe.
Ultimately, a house is a testament to the gulf between who we thought we’d be in that space and who we really are. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Design the ideal look of your life, and then a few months later the true shape will grow in around the design. What does my life look like? Well, my wife opened the top drawer to my desk the other day. I was on the couch, laptop perched on my knees.
“Why is this filled with gum wrappers?” she asked, and I couldn’t even remember.
Also, I will forever be the one who goes down to the basement to get the laundry.
Related: Meg Wolitzer Tells Us the Mistake That Changed How She Works from Home