What Writers Can Learn from a Carpenter’s Workshop.

Writers like to show pictures of their work spaces–their shiny or messy desks, comfy or straight chairs, desktop or laptop computers, bookshelves filled with books, plants, and personally meaningful knickknacks.

According to Virginia Woolfe every writer’s room ought to have a view. But even with a view, a writer’s workshop is still a small, confined space where the writer sits and sits and sits.

A carpenter’s workshop is something altogether different.

For as long as I can remember, my dad had a workshop. Some of his shops were as big as a small house. In fact, the house he built for us when I was ten years old was meant to be his shop … just as soon as he built a nicer house for us in front of it, that is.

House that was meant to be a workshop

His plans got away from him, and he ended up building a large shop behind the somewhat larger house that was originally conceived as his dream shop.

Five or six years later he did build a beautiful new house for us and a new shop for himself on another street. Shop first, house next. Naturally.

So why would I think that a carpenter’s workshop would have anything to teach a writer?

Mainly because I saw how intensely my dad loved his shops and because those shops were like sirens luring him back to work when the work day was done. Dad would come home from work all sweaty and a little tired, eat dinner, maybe watch a little TV. And then–not every night, but often enough–he’d stand up and say, “I’m gonna go fool around in the shop for a while.” My mom called it his play.

Inside Dad’s shop was everything a carpenter could desire. A circular saw, table saw, miter saw, band saw, scroll saw, hand saws, and a jig saw. There were hammers, tapes, squares, levels, chisels, cords, and every size and shape of lumber stacked on racks along the walls, inside and out.

Dad loved his work. I think one of the reasons was that carpentry combined mental work with physical work.

That combination is a big advantage not only for a person’s physical health and brain function, but also for his mood. Here are just a few articles with studies that show the effects of exercise on the brain and mood:

According to Michael Otto, PhD, a professor of psychology at Boston University, “The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong. Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect.”

A recent study from the International Journal of Workplace Health Management showed that “people who exercised during their workday were 23 percent more productive on those days than they were when they didn’t exercise.”

Another study showed that you can memorize new vocabulary best not after you exercise but while you’re exercising at a moderate rate. (The women in the study were riding a stationary bike.)

I may not be able to juggle my computer while I’m riding a bike, but it sounds like I would be more productive, learn more new things, and be in a better mood if I would take a tip from my dad’s example and be more active.









About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. What nice memories of your father, Nicki. If I didn’t workout every day, I’d be a basket case.

    • Congratulations, Jill. I’m not as faithful to my exercise program as you are, but I do realize that when I sit around too much and miss a few days of exercise, I definitely feel worse.

  2. Your dad looks hard at work there in the first photo 🙂 Your writing space looks very cozy, like you have everything you need. Interesting to hear that exercise and moving around makes one a better creative. I don’t think I could ride a treadmill bike and write at the same time. I already have enough trouble sitting still and collecting my thoughts, and when I multi-task, I can feel stress building up in my body. However, I do like the occasionally day where I get away from the computer for most of the day and wander around a beach of climb a hill, coming back refreshed.

    • Everyone is different. But for me, I think it would be good to have a little exercise break every hour or so when I’m writing. The trouble is, sometimes it takes a while to get into the flow, so once I get going, it’s hard to stop. As far as riding an exercise bike while writing goes, I’ll let someone else test out that theory. It sounds good, though. And L. Marie even provided a link for an exercise bike with a desk in case anyone wants to buy one. It’s $299.99 at Target.

      • Me too. Once I got a flow in writing, the ideas will come and I really do not want to stop. Of the times I did, when I came back to write, inspiration eluded me 🙁 So when I’m in the zone, I let the rest of the world fall away.

  3. That’s a great photo of your dad, Nicki.
    You can juggle your computer with this bike: http://www.target.com/s/exercise+bike+with+desk

  4. When I started reading this, I thought it would expound on how well writers do given space and sunny windows. Then it turned to exercise. Ugh! All true though. We built the house we live in 14 years ago. The first thing that my husband focused on was finishing off his workshop in the basement. He has every saw there is with the lumber on the racks and even a vacuum system. He said he needed it to be done so that other finishing would be easier. It makes sense…sort of…but I always think it’s his playroom. He turns up the radio with whatever game is going on and has quality alone time. Sometimes he produces really nice furniture too.

    • My dad also kept a dusty radio in his shop. I think he mostly listened to music. “Playing” in the shop after work, he built things like stools, spice shelves, and signs with letters cut out with his band saw.

      My grandpa was the assistant postmaster in our small town, and he, too, had a little workshop in the lower basement where he did woodturning. He made some beautiful things. Maybe the workshop provides both exercise and a creative outlet.

  5. So much to learn. So little time!

  6. Great memories and good advice!

    • When we’re kids, we take for granted all the marvelous things our parents did. Now, when I think of all the houses my dad designed and built–many of them working alone–I’m amazed. I could never do that.

  7. So true, that physical activity is crucial for mental stimulation.

    I solve some of my thorniest plot issues while walking dogs. And when I’m doing critiques, I think about overall plot issues also. Of course I made the mistake of telling someone in a writing group that I figured out what was bothering me about her story while I was walking my dog. She was all offended — as if I hadn’t given her manuscript proper attention.

    I was offended right back: “I gave up dog walking/ plot pondering time for you!”

    • How silly for her to be offended that you thought about her manuscript while you were walking the dog!

      Even though showering is not a physical activity, I get a lot of things figured out when I’m in the shower. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing else to distract me.

  8. I exercise most days . . . when I don’t, I don’t feel as good or as happy. My dad also had a shop where he built furniture, toys for the grandkids, etc. Sawdust smells = happy!

    • I also like the smell of a house under construction. I think it’s the raw wood.

      It’s interesting how many men like to make things with their hands. My little grandnephew has a child-sized upholstered sofa my grandpa made.

  9. I zeroed in on your mention of space and mood and writing. I know that I’m impacted by the environment when I write. Having a dedicated, “sacred” writing space is a huge help. Apparently now it needs a treadmill too. Ha ha. 🙂

    • Usually writing in my usual space with my usual music and my cup of green tea works the best for me. Sometimes, though, I do better writing in another part of the house or going to a coffee shop. All the advice about movement makes a lot of sense, and maybe if I were younger, I’d buy an exercise bike and try it out. For now, though, I’ll just try to remember to get up out of my chair and move around more often.

  10. Interesting. I have a standing desk. Does that count as exercise?

    • Well, it does sound better than sitting down.

    • I think it’s much better than the chair, for sure, Jennifer A friend of mine has included a stationary bike. She’s a prolific writer and started to experience the lack of exercise. She feels so much better since she can stand up to type and even do her Skype presentations. I try to do some typing or at least reading, standing up at my kitchen counter. And I do short yoga pauses during the day when I plan a whole day of writing.

  11. Traveller at heart

    I love the wonderful family stories you shared with your readers. The pictures are great, too.

    I relate to your positive experience of movement and creativity. I have not kept up with my DIY physio actively and I am feeling it now.

    • It’s a struggle to keep up with an exercise program. I admire those people who exercise first thing in the morning. I try to fit it in later in the day, which gives me many opportunities to do something else. Lately I’ve been giving myself permission to do ten or fifteen minutes on some days. It’s better than nothing. And sometimes I can work in two brief sessions.

  12. I love it when you share memories of your dad, Nicki. And I totally agree about the excercise statistics. I feel sluggish on the rare days I don’t do anything physical.

    • My dad had a hard life–certainly by today’s terms. And yet, he never complained. He left home at the age of sixteen, and made his way in the world from there. He worked in logging camps, built trails for the CCC, worked on Grand Coulee Dam, taught himself to build houses. I love remembering him and his can-do attitude toward life.

  13. Love the house in the snow… and your lovely memories of your father.
    . I so agree about exercise… it’s one of the most frustrating things about recovering from a broken leg with huge complications, I still can’t go for my long hour- long walks… fifty limping yards is my max at the moment…nil desperandum!!

    • My usual walks are only about forty minutes. We’ve had a bad winter this year, the coldest winter in 32 years. The weatherman says we’ve had only three days that could be considered sunny and fair. Consequently I haven’t taken as many walks as usual. I’m looking forward to spring.

  14. “Dad loved his work.”

    I couldn’t get past this. Your dad was fortunate indeed. Not many people can say this.

    • It’s true. He really did love his work. His father was a carpenter, so Dad had an interest from an early age. He left home at the age of sixteen, and after supporting himself any way he could in a variety of jobs and after fighting in the Second World War, he teamed up with a fellow veteran to build houses. He learned a few things from the friend, but mostly he taught himself. Maybe one of the reasons he loved his work was that he chose it. He worked for himself, and he built his career from the ground up.

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