Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Where Jan English Leary Writes

Welcome to another installment of TNBBC's Where Writers Write!

Where Writers Write is a series that features authors as they showcase their writing spaces using short form essay, photos, and/or video. As a lover of books and all of the hard work that goes into creating them, I thought it would be fun to see where the authors roll up their sleeves and make the magic happen. 

This is Jan English Leary. 

She grew up in the Midwest and Central New York State. During her junior year at Smith College, she studied in Paris, an experience which fostered the love of travel that runs through her fiction. She received an M.A. in French Literature at Brown University. While teaching French and raising her children, she completed an MFA in Creative Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. For the remainder of her career she taught fiction writing at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago and at Northwestern University. Her short fiction has appeared in Pleiades, The Literary Review, The Minnesota Review, Carve Magazine, and Long Story, Short Literary Journal and other publications. She has received three Illinois Arts Council Awards.  She lives in Chicago with her husband, John, an artist and former teacher. Her website is

Where Jan English Leary Writes

When my husband and I moved back into Chicago from the suburbs several years ago, we set up a room as my office with lots of light and plenty of bookshelves and the old wingchair-and-a-half that has been in my family since I was a girl. There is artwork by our son and photos of me acting in plays as well as family photos showing our children at various ages. I imagined spending my days there, emerging only for cups of tea and occasional interactions with my husband. I love the room and love that it’s the place where my most prized books and memorabilia are housed. However for the most part, it’s not where I write. It’s distracting. I find myself gazing at photos, flipping through short-story anthologies, rifling through piles to find a mislaid paper, reading letters my parents wrote to each other the year before they married. It’s a haven, a sanctuary. Too much comfort, too little work.

Three blocks from our house, in the Edgewater neighborhood on the North side of Chicago, there is a wonderful place called the Writers’ Workspace. Friends of mine are members, and they’d urged me to consider joining, but I didn’t think I could justify the cost. I had the space at home. I’d be distracted by others. What if I spent the money and didn’t use it? But because I was working on my novel at the time and needed a serious push to the end, I bought a ten-session pass. In contrast to my visually stimulating and distracting home space, the WWS has an austere feel that encourages quiet concentration. There’s a living room, a room with carrels, a room for one person (I call it the isolation booth), a conference room, and a kitchen. The room where I work has soft lighting and each carrel has its own light that focuses attention right on the screen. After the ten sessions, I joined for the year. It’s a quiet place for serious work. There are people with whom I’ve only exchanged nods despite working next to them for weeks at a time. My favorite time to go is very early in the morning. We have key cards for the door, and I love being the first person there, turning on the light, putting on a pot of tea, settling into my favorite corner carrel. In classrooms, movie theaters, and school buses, I’ve always tended to choose a spot and not vary from it. I put in my ear buds and I listen to Yo Yo Ma playing the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites or Rachel Podger playing the Bach Partitas, particularly the Chaconne. That’s the only music I can listen to while writing. Time tends to melt away, and when I emerge after a few hours, my eyes blinking in the sun, I feel I’ve been away on a trip and am ready to go home again.

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