Sara Marcus.

Girls to the Front: A Story in Desks.

“In February 2008, I was fortunate enough to go to the MacDowell Colony for the first time. Marooned in a one-room studio in the snow-heaped woods, I spread out my book-in-pieces across an enormous desk and the entire floor as well. I scissored chapters into shards and taped them in and out of order with stark black masking tape. I had been writing Girls to the Front for three years at this point–or, perhaps more accurately, I had been writing toward it–but it was here, in what I later affectionately referred to as my padded cell, that the book as a whole finally began to cohere and take shape.

In April, when MacDowell expectorated me into the cruel world, I wasn’t ready to return to my chaotic Brooklyn life of freelance hustling and social bustling. Instead I bounced my way up the Hudson to the small city of Troy, New York, where I became the housemate of two marvelous documentary filmmaker-gardener-home renovators, one of whom is also a bicycle recycler and all-around daredevil. A bit later, a black lab-pit bull mix named Shae Rae joined the crew. I had a tiny, icy bedroom upstairs off the kitchen, furnished only with a lumpy futon on the floor and a steamer trunk for a bedside table, and I worked in a perfect yellow studio downstairs, looking out over the garden. This photo is from my first month in Troy; the wall became much more clotted with outlines, thought processes, ardent admonitions, timetables, etc., as time went on.

The following summer, MacDowell took me back into its luxuriant embrace. On the form where the colony asked what sorts of qualities I was looking for in a studio, I wrote only that I would appreciate as much wall space as possible: at that point I was plotting out the whole book in modular outlines and I wanted to be able to see the whole book at a glance. When I arrived and they took me to the studio that would be my home for the next six weeks, and I saw the wall-on-wheels, I started laughing and crying all at once.

Omicron may be the most perfect workspace I have ever inhabited. You can’t see it in the photo, but there’s a grand piano in the back corner. The desk on the right was for piling up my research materials, and the narrower one at a right angle I tried to keep clean-ish to serve as a writing surface.

Then I went home to Brooklyn.

I’ve been boundlessly fortunate to have roommates who are tolerant of my keeping my workspace–and such a messy one at that–in the living room. But when viewed in the context of the other desks I have known, this setup’s shortcomings become painfully evident. Ideally, a desk would be big enough for a laptop, a file rack, a pile of mail and papers that haven’t been organized yet, AND space to write, and this desk–a sorry, sagging little Office Depot thing that I bought from some guy on Craigslist five years ago–lacks that crucial final element. Thus for the past year and a half, since my return to Brooklyn, my true workspace has been the living room sofa.

I do all my writing and editing by hand, and the easiest way to keep unnecessary tension out of the body while writing by hand, I’ve found, is to recline on a couch and write on a lap desk. So that’s what I do.

I’m searching for a new apartment now, and when I move I’m going to construct the perfect workspace–a little bit of Omicron, a little bit of Troy. It’s going to be glorious.”

Sara Marcus is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn. Her book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution was published by Harper Perennial in October 2010. Marcus’s prose and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, Slate, Salon, Bookforum,, Time Out New York, The Advocate, EOAGH, Encyclopedia, Tantalum, The Art of Touring, and Heeb, where she was the politics editor for five years. She is a cofounder of New Herring Press, a collectively run micropress focusing on prose chapbooks. She received an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University.

FROM YOUR DESKS: Are you organized in the chaos?
SARA MARCUS: To an extent. The file boxes on the shelf are incredibly organized; they contain the research materials for my book, slotted into clearly labeled file folders. The books on top of the desk are books that I’m working with in some way, whether that means reading them, reviewing them, or taking inspiration from them. The cardboard boxes contain copies of my book and totebags to sell at events. The CDs on top of the desk don’t really belong there. I have no excuse to make for those. Also, the nice burnt-color tapestry is usually hanging down over the shelves, making them look much neater; I just pulled it back to show the innards for this photo.
FYD: Where did you research your book?
SM: My research process consisted largely of interviewing people and photocopying their zine collections, so I did it all over: San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Olympia, Seattle, Vancouver, Maine, DC, London… I spent a week researching NOW and other established feminist organizations at the Schlesinger Library for Research on Women at Radcliffe, which is an incredible resource, and I also dug into the Smithsonian Institution’s archives, the Evergreen State College’s archives, and the Fales Library at NYU (their amazing Riot Grrrl collection didn’t exist yet, but they do happen to house the most complete run of Sassy magazines of any library in New York City).
Recognize the crucial role logistical intelligence plays in actually creating things, and become a logistical wizard.

FYD: How do you write and do you keep a routine?

SM: My favorite thing to do is to spend all day working on a project: wake up at 6 AM, shower and stretch, have a half a grapefruit and some toast, turn off the Internet in my house, and sit on my sofa and work until 8 or 9 PM, with brief breaks every three hours or so for emails and meals, and a trip to the pool in the afternoon. That was how I worked in the final months of finishing the book, and it was nothing short of exhilarating.

FYD: Do you mentally unplug the internet?

SM: There’s a little switch on the side of my laptop that I can flip to disable the wireless, and I write on my to-do list what time I’m next allowed to turn it back on. Sometimes, if the temptation is really strong, I’ll write “NEXT EMAIL 2 PM” on a Post-It and stick it to my laptop screen. Alas, my work situation these days is so frequently dependent on my getting email that I haven’t had the delicious luxury of several Internet-free hours in quite some time. Yet another reason I’m looking forward to getting to work on the next book as soon as possible.FYD: How important is it for others to edit or read your work?

SM: I’m fortunate to have a few friends who are truly brilliant editors and also were the perfect readers for this particular book, and they read the whole book through before I turned it in. In earlier phases of the project, a friend who was also finishing a book would send me her new chapters every weekend, and I would send her mine, and we would talk on Monday morning about our game plans for the coming week and the progress we’d made in the past week. That was essential in helping me develop good work habits, and I recommend the buddy system to anybody who’s trying to get more serious about a creative practice.

Prioritize your creative work, demand the time and space to make the best thing you can possibly make, and get real about your budget.
FYD: How can young girls still hold onto the rock dream without selling out or do you take a soul-sucking job just to pay the bills?
SM: Don’t take a soul-sucking job unless you have to. If the soul-sucking option is the only option, take it, but give yourself a deadline for quitting, don’t get complacent, never spend your whole paycheck (you’ll get too attached to the lifestyle the job makes possible and it’ll be harder to cut yourself loose), and work like hell to find something that fits your life better. Prioritize your creative work, demand the time and space to make the best thing you can possibly make, and get real about your budget. Bills must be paid, but they are inevitably higher in big cities; sometimes going somewhere smaller and cheaper, even temporarily, is the right thing to do for your work. Apply for grants and residencies: nobody gets everything they apply for, but all it takes is one vote of confidence from the outside to give you a little rocket boost. Recognize the crucial role logistical intelligence plays in actually creating things, and become a logistical wizard.

Amy Klein of Titus Andronicus has a band called Hilly Eye that is pretty effing Riot Grrrl…

FYD: What current bands represent the current generation of Riot Girrrls? It seems as if everyone is going so “chill.”
SM: Amy Klein of Titus Andronicus has a band called Hilly Eye that is pretty effing Riot Grrrl, and I think Amy would be ok with my saying that, since she is spearheading a new RG-type feminist phenomenon called Permanant Wave. I’m in love with the music of Grass Widow and Moutain Man (two different bands, although perhaps they should marry each other!), who are inspired by Riot Grrrl stuff among many other influences and are just doing their own thing.

FYD: What will it take to rile women up again or will the next Riot Girrrl not work off music and create something different?

SM: H.R.3 is riling up women and feminists, and we should all be involved in fighting it; it’s the newly Republican Congress’s attempt to roll back reproductive freedom for women still further. Even if the “forcible rape” language has been removed, it’s still a terrible law that we need to all be up in arms about. I’m sure the GOP has plenty of other horrors up its sleeves, and we should pay attention and seek out ways to make our views known.

Follow Sara on Twitter @thesaramarcus and the blog @here.

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