Up on the fifth floor of a drab building nestled between a Dunkin’ Donuts and a 7-Eleven store on State Street in the Financial District is an office unlike any other. At any time of the day or night on most days of the year, a writer or 10 might be inside working on a magnum opus or a minor work, tucked away among the mid-rises, government buildings, low-rent stores, and Freedom Trail hot spots that crowd the neighborhood.
They gather at the Writers’ Room of Boston, the only place in the city expressly designed to give writers an affordable, quiet, secure place to work. For nearly 30 years local scribes have been able to rent 24-hour access to the room and stave off the crushing loneliness and worldly distractions that often accompany writing at home. Most of them show up from 9 to 5.
The Writers’ Room opened in 1988 under the auspices of the Artists Foundation of Massachusetts, a now-defunct grant-making organization; essayist Lewis Hyde and writer and educator Ivan Gold among its founding members. Those who work here pay dues of $100 a month, enough to cover two-thirds of the operational costs. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Boston Cultural Council help, too, as do private foundations like the one endowed by authors Stephen and Tabitha King. Some members exceed their monthly payment to help keep the lights on, as do fund-raisers held by the board of directors.
“When you walk in here, it looks like it could be any other office,” says Camille DeAngelis, a writer of young adult fantasy novels, who commutes to the Writers’ Room from Somerville. “But people are making stories here. It’s a magical place.”
Indeed, at first glance, it would be difficult to differentiate the Writers’ Room from any office anywhere. At second glance, its decor seems conspicuously spare. Very few adornments — just a framed illustration here and there — break up the the bare, white cubicle walls. No motivational posters spur its workers to try harder, no stress toys offer the respite of pleasant squeezing. The only clue to its esoteric mission is the unusual furniture placement on the industrial gray carpeting: two couches and a few chairs, seating typically found in a lobby, are jumbled in a corner beneath large windows overlooking the city, designated spots for reading and quiet contemplation. Napping isn’t discouraged, either, nor would it be difficult to do; unlike other offices, save for the sound of typing, the Writers’ Room is quiet as a tomb.
“It’s a silent workspace,” says Alexander Danner, a playwright, fiction, and comics writer who has been affiliated with the Writers’ Room off and on for the last 10 years. “It can be difficult to actually form relationships without working at it.”
Cambridge-based author and Writers’ Room advisory board member Stephen McCauley, some of whose novels, including “The Object of My Affection,” were produced there, holds this silent communion very dear. “I’ve always had a hard time writing at home, even when I’ve lived in an apartment with a designated office,” he says. “I started going off to writers’ colonies and residency programs when I was writing my first novel, and it was like magic for me. I’d get more done in 10 days than I would in two months at home. . . . When I heard about the Writers’ Room, it seemed like the perfect solution: an urban retreat accessible by subway. Over many years, I made a lot of friends there, but the paradox is that you can’t get too close to people or the spell is broken.”
Still, the room can be a sociable place for those who want it to be. It holds an annual holiday party and an annual reading — each with wine — and more frequent events offsite, such as salons and book releases. Sometimes socializing involves spontaneous trips to nearby pubs. In the office itself, conversation happens where the coffee is.
“The kitchen is magical,” says Debka Colson, a fiction writer who, as the Writers’ Room’s part-time administrator, is its only paid employee. “I was really struggling with my novel one day, and the former administrator was there and she was working on a novel, and another member was working on her novel, and we were all hitting walls. It was the most wonderful thing to just sit and kvetch about what was holding us up.”
The bathroom, an unlikely venue for communion, also has its place in the Writers’ Room’s office culture, says Gail Fenske, an architect, architecture professor at Roger Williams University, and author of one book and several essays on the American skyscraper who has been with the Writers’ Room almost since the beginning. “There’s a conversation about writing in the bathroom,” she says, referring to the chalkboard hanging across from the sink upon which writers scrawl random literary thoughts. She still recalls a chalk-written note she saw a few years ago that read “The Muses dwell here.”
To gain the Muses’ company, prospective members must submit an application. Although the Writers’ Room welcomes writers of all experience and skill levels, they are required to show seriousness and drive. Every year, four of the most serious and driven receive a fellowship entitling them to a year’s access free of charge. Fellowships are given in the genres of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. The final fellowship, for emerging writers, was named after Cambridge novelist and advisory board member Gish Jen, who donated proceeds from sales of her last book, “Tiger Writing,” a work of nonfiction, to help further the Writers’ Room’s cause.
“The fellowship is very competitive,” Colson says. “This year, somewhere between 10 and 11 percent of those who applied got it. That’s as tough as Harvard.”
Colson started her tenure at the Writers’ Room as a fiction fellow herself. “I had been in the nonprofit world for many, many years. During the economic downturn, I was laid off,” she explains, a blow she took as a sign she should focus on her writing. “I had three kids. I was a single mom. I applied to be a fellow, and when I got it, I was so grateful. It gave me a community, a space, a sense that I could make it. . . . It was a great year. I had a lot of things published. I won an honorary mention in an anthology. I was a finalist in a fiction contest. My successes were a direct result of winning that fellowship.”
As are many others. An incomplete list of books written in the Writers’ Room would include “Salt & Storm” by Kendall Kulper, “The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams” by Darcy Frey, “My Father’s Eyes” by Mary Bonina, “Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan . . . and the World” by Courtney Humphries, “Sams in a Dry Season” by Ivan Gold, “The Mushroom Man” by Sophie Powell, “Blue Land” by C.D. Collins, and “Find Me” by Laura Van Den Berg.
Jen understands the Writers’ Room’s formula for productivity and success. “We writers need our solitude, but we don’t need isolation, and one very quickly turns into the other,” she says. “When you work in a building where everyone else is working, it’s perfect. The sound of people going up the stairs and the sound of typing is enough to make you feel like you haven’t dropped off the end of the earth.”
Correction: Because of inaccurate information provided by the Writers’ Room of Boston, the cost of accessing the room was listed incorrectly in an earlier version of this story. The correct monthly fee is $100.