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J.K. Rowling’s Magical Writing Hut and the Pursuit of True Depth

February 19th, 2015 · 20 comments

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A Magical Muse

This past fall, news broke that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was building a replica of Hagrid’s hut near the border of a forest on her Scottish estate.

Though its intended use is unknown, Entertainment Weekly speculated Rowling might be designing the ultimate writing cabin for her current project: penning the screenplay for a Potter prequel.

neal

This reminded me of Neal Stephenson. To set the right mood for his 17th century historical novel, Quicksilver, he wrote the manuscript longhand with a fountain pen, in a basement alcove decorated by an 18th century map of London.

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Similarly, when Michael Pollan still lived in Connecticut, he wrote his books about nature in a hut (which he built by hand) in the woods beyond his backyard. On nice days, the large window facing his desk could be swung open — erasing the boundary between outside and in.

Immersive Work

I love how these authors strive to inhabit the deep work that’s made them famous, and don’t just treat their craft as another series of tasks to be checked off somewhere between sending e-mail and stopping by the store. They make work an experience, not a chore.

Perhaps this is part of why they’re so good at it?

Staring aspirationally at the photos above, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s possible to translate this emphasis on crafting the best possible environment to other knowledge work pursuits. What would the ultimate computer programming den look like? How about the optimal mathematician’s proof solving chamber?

Maybe in a future where deep work is given its due, these are questions that will have ready answers.

(Hagrid hut photo by Scott Smith)

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My friend Elizabeth Grace Saunders just published her new book with Harvard Business Review Press. It’s called How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Elizabeth’s systematic treatment of making decisions about what to spend time on (as oppose to the standard focus on organizing your existing commitments) has been influential to my thinking. Check out what she has to say…

20 thoughts on “J.K. Rowling’s Magical Writing Hut and the Pursuit of True Depth

  1. Agustin Barboza says:

    Great post as always Cal. I wanted to ask you how you approach hobbies or how you used to approach them when you were a teenager? Because I have been reading your blog for almost a year now and I know that you say that we should focus in only one thing to achieve remarkable results. I am asking this because I am 17 years old and planning to study economics next year at college so I have been reading a lot recently about the subject, but I also would want to star learning programming because is something that I have always been interested in. What do you recommend me to do?
    PD: Sorry for the spelling mistakes, English is my second language.

    1. Elizabeth says:

      If you end up doing economics at a high level, programming skills will be very useful to you (you can use them to design statistical analyses and solve behavioral models, for example). So there’s not necessarily any conflict between these goals.

    2. David M. Dunn says:

      Your ” second language ” skills are pretty damn good.

    3. Chris says:

      Have you started reading the top books in these fields of interest? Reading articles on the web may be a superficial approach in comparison with reading the Deep thoughts authors put in their books, as well as the immensity of research backing these books up

  2. ryan fuse says:

    I think that’s what people meant when they say focus on the process. I’m just half kidding 🙂

    I’m work with a laptop all day long and i splurge on the laptop i love, a nice chair, and a quiet environment.

  3. Dan says:

    You should also see the writing cabin of David McCullough, and the library/writing room of Doris Kearns Goodwin–they fit the same pattern.

  4. Carl says:

    The ultimate computer programming den would have:

    1. Computer tables wide enough for large screens and deep enough to set them back. Tables should be a couple inches higher than standard tables so that the wrists bend slightly forward when typing. (Standard ergonomics give me carpal tunnel pain. My setup is closer to what typewriters used to be like.)

    2. Executive style chair with armrests so you can lean back while typing.

    3. More than one computer/table. Run Linux and Windows at the same time. No rebooting. Also good for testing network apps.

    4. Quiet ventilation system.

    5. Sound dampening materials in walls, ceiling etc. to eat the noise from computer fans. Go for quiet computer models when possible. (Not easy when you need video power or GPU computing…)

    6. Lots of table space for brainstorming. Ledger-sized paper for such when solo.

    7. If working with others, lots of whiteboards. Joel Spolsky writes that plate glass mounted over a white wall works better than standard whiteboards. Easier to erase.

    8. Natural light in day. LED or incandescent at night. No fluorescents.

    9. Decent sound system for playing classical or ambient music of your choice. If part of office complex, major sound isolation from other offices.

    10. Access to a place to sit outside on breaks and for brainstorming.

  5. Frank says:

    I smiled at the thought of writing in my laboratory for a few days. It worked well in Grad School. I was much more efficient 15 feet from my reactions (7 chapters, 280 dissertation pages, in 10 weeks) than I am now in my spacious office down the hall from the movements of an active lab. Not sure that my students would enjoy my presence . . . or that I would be able to stay out of their work.

    1. AS says:

      When I was an engineer I found it easier to write reports in the actual lab where I did the work. Trying to write it all up at home or in the library was always less productive. Somehow being surrounded by the real work that was done makes it easier to write about it.

  6. Charles Dickens had a tiny Swiss chalet (built from a kit) across the road from his Gad’s Hill home that he used as a get-away to write away from distractions.

    http://charlesdickenspage.com/photos/swiss_chalet.html

  7. Dave Small says:

    Great post Cal.

    Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Form follows function- that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”

    It’s certainly seems like we should give careful thought to our workspace — we shape our workspace and then our workspace shapes us.

    1. Mathias-Emanuel Hartmann says:

      Actually, what you are thinking of is Louise H. Sullivans 1896 article: The tall office building artistically considered. But you are, of course, quite right about the misunderstanding…

      1. Dave Small says:

        Thanks for your gracious response Matthias and the recommendation on the article. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  8. Duncan Smith says:

    The ultimate computer programming den would be one without an Internet connection. If you need to look something up on Stack Overflow, you have to walk down the hall to the connected computer. Of course, no one sets things up that way (including me), but I’m sure it would be more productive.

  9. Jacky Tran says:

    The composer Gustav Mahler had a composing hut (three, actually) he retreated to during the summer months. True immersion.

    http://www.johnsandell.co.uk/grandtour/klagenfurt-mahlerhouse.html

  10. Youssef Zadid says:

    Great post, being an (almost graduated) architect the questions you raise are very interesting, what spaces are the most conducive to deep work in different fields, I do some research on environmental psychology and architecture, mainly biophilic architecture as a means to recreate or reinterpret the natural environments that our dear ancestors lived in for the most of our history, perhaps a part of my research will go to the performance/focus aspect of this.

    Btw, I don’t usually comment on blogs (no particular reason) but I read “So good they can’t ignore you” and it has been a life-changing paradigm-shifting experience for me, I’m attempting to apply some of the principles to my work and I can see the progress although it’s only been a few months and I need some more adaptation effort for architecture (and design generally).

    It’s never too late to express gratitude, so thank you.
    From Morocco with “deep” appreciation 🙂

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