Cleaning the Office

- by Linda Barrett

After completing a particularly heavy revision, I finally banged out THE END on my latest manuscript, felt my body relax to the point where a massage would be redundant, and pushed my chair away from the computer. I needed a break. So, I started cleaning my office.

Ten hours later, I would have paid a hundred bucks or more for the massage.

Cleaning a writer’s office is tedious work, a horrible undertaking. It requires major decision-making, and I’d already used up those brain cells in the story I’d just finished. Here’s one of the big questions I faced: should I save or discard a gazillion issues of old Writer’s Digest and The Writer magazines in order to make room on my shelves for current issues and new books?

My shelves are filled to capacity. Books are double-decked and double deep. My reference library reminds me that I’m not alone in my craft even though I’m alone in my writing room. Those books are staying. I try to cull my paperback fiction regularly…but you know how that goes…  Whether long time favorites or writers new to me, almost every author I buy turns out to be a keeper. The shelf space for my auto-buys is sacrosanct.  Mary Jo Putney, Roberta Gellis,  and Judith Arnold have reserved spots.  I just read my first Jodi Picoult – she’s staying. Alexander McCall Smith has found a home with me, too.

Books seemed to be untouchable, so I decided to victimize my magazine collection.

For ten hours I tore out articles from issues I didn’t want to keep, but couldn’t discard without re-examining.

November 1984 – Writer’s Digest had an article about offices where writers work. Leon Uris, in a chic home office in Aspen, CO, is pictured with a huge cork wall behind him for pinning up notes and maps. A sign at the top says, “This Is A Novel!” He’s standing near his chair with a little smile on his face. I would smile, too, in that office. He’s got SHELVES and shelves and shelves.

In the same article, Andy Rooney’s salt-and-pepper hair still has a lot of pepper in it. The man has sixteen Underwood typewriters in his office and not an inch of space for anything else. Except yellow legal pads. Everything’s just like now, except for his hair. And eyebrows.

I didn’t keep this article, but I lost time browsing.

January 1984 – Writer’s Digest had a Romance Roundup. Even then the genre was significant with more than 100 novels published each month and growing. Harlequin and Silhouette were separate entities, and Kathryn Falk and Romantic Times were around. So were Candlelight Ecstasy Romances/Supremes, Hourglass Romances from Zebra, and Bantam Loveswept.

I didn’t keep this article, either. But once again, light faded from my day as I lost time browsing.

More from the 1980’s – “How to Write Fiction That Will Grab Readers,” “What To Do When the Publisher Won’t Pay,” “The Secrets of Writing Powerful Dialogue,” “You Can Plot Like a Pro,” “Write the Popular Novel – Find Out How at the Movies,” “Reading Your Characters’ Minds.” And from 1998 – “How to Set Up Your Own Writing Website.”

Do the topics sound familiar? In 2008, The Writer offered articles in developing a series character, POV myths, setting characters in their time and place, screenwriting-and-how-to-break-into-Hollywood, keeping your readers engaged, and an article about Harlequin stepping into non-fiction. I saw that writing basics remained the same no matter the decade. The writer’s goal has remained the same, too: capture readers with our stories.

As I browsed the day away, I also noticed the changes through the years. Feature articles reflected their times whether the 1980’s, 1990’s or 2000’s. The current scene, for example, is exemplified by stories about: the craft of writing, social networking, self-publishing, e-books, the future of magazines, hiring a publicist, marketing…all the issues we talk about at conferences and beyond.

No, I’m not pimping for these particular magazines – I receive others, as well as professional newsletters galore such as NINK – but I did run across and decide to keep a particular issue of Writer’s Digest from 1985. In October, the magazine announced the winners of the various contests it had sponsored that year. Of the almost 2000 entries in their short story contest, the name, Linda Barrett, is listed among the top ten for her story, “Mom and the Man with the Gray Glinting Eyes.”  A tiny phrase was tacked on: “excellent writing.”

In my office over twenty years later, my heart did a little tap dance, warming me to  my fingertips and toes, reminding me why I kept the magazine in the first place. It was much better than a massage.

So, when did you know? Was there an event, an incident, a word of praise that pushed you toward this wonderful insanity we call a writer’s life? Please share in the comment section. And if you enjoy mixing laughter with your tears,  then pick up a copy of my current release, SUMMER AT THE LAKE, a Harlequin Superromance :)


  1. Linda,
    I’ve done the very thing you’ve described. A cleaning day is often lost in nostalgia, renewed interest in magazines I’ve kept, and some warm, remembered moments.
    I don’t know the moment I figured out I wanted to be a writer. I think I just always was a writer. I used to write elaborate back stories for all my dolls and stuffed animals; used to dance with my clothes hanging in the closet as if they were real people; and read GWTW eight times before my mom forbade me to read it again.
    I love writing and I’ve been doing it my entire life.

  2. I love your line about dancing with your clothes as though they were real people…kids have no inhibitions. As a tweenager, I used to dance with the refrigerator – to practice the steps. Oh, Lordy, I haven’t thought about that for a long time.

    Thanks for your comment.