Charles Taylor Prize: J.J. Lee on his writing desk


With past recipients including Richard Gwyn, Carol Shields, Ian Brown and Charles Foran, the annual Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction is one of the country's most prestigious awards. The winner of the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize will be announced on March 5. 

From February 27 to March 2, each of the five 2012 nominees are sharing part of their writing experience with CBC Books. We are publishing one essay each day. First up: J.J. Lee, author of The Measure of a Man.


J.J. Lee is a fashion columnist for the Vancouver Sun and former producer and current fashion contributor for CBC Radio. The Measure of a Man explores Lee's relationship with his father as he goes through the process of altering his father's last remaining suit for himself. The Measure of a Man was published by McClelland & Stewart in 2011 and is Lee's first book.

I wrote the memoir, The Measure of a Man, on a laptop placed on a foot-powered Singer sewing machine table. While apropos, it provided lousy ergonomics. Heavy. Too tall and too narrow, it left nowhere to rest my arms. Books, papers, pencils, pens and early drafts would frequently crash to the floor. Poor floor. The Singer had cast iron legs and I worried it would make eviction-level gouges in the hardwood. When I submitted the final-final draft, I rolled the Victorian contraption down the hill on its stiff, tiny casters to the Salvation Army.


Lee's writing desk. Photo courtesy of the author

A drafting table serves as my current desk. It's a loaner and belongs to the niece of Margaret Laurence, Robin Laurence. She lent it to me a decade ago so I could finish my graduate degree in architecture.

The tabletop's honey gold colour pleases the eye — when you can see it. Piled on are baseballs, cameras, lenses, flashes, friendship bracelets (by my son Emmet), bottled sand from the rocky beaches of the Sunshine Coast gathered last summer, spools of thread, an ancient Norwegian audio speaker (the kind found mounted on classroom walls), a Radio Shack amplifier, and guitar plectrums and capos. All the stuff could slide off, as the table is designed to tilt vertically.

Where and with what people create their work has always intrigued me. I hold to the seductive superstition if only I had the right instruments nothing could impede me. Jill Krementz has a wonderful book of photographs called The Writer's Desk. In its introduction, John Updike writes, "Our task as we sit (or stand or lie) is to rise above the setting, with its comforts and distractions, into a relationship with our ideal reader, who wishes from us nothing but the fruit of our best instincts, most honest inklings, and firmest persuasions."

Krementz documents Jean Piaget holding a match, on the verge of lighting a pipe, surrounded by piles of books and file folders. Susan Sontag sits behind a long colonial dining-table with uncomfortable narrow benches on either side. The furniture's Puritanism contrasts nicely with Sontag's full, sensual hair. A large poster advertising the Olivetti La Rapidissima typewriter hangs behind her. Ironic, as one can see what appears to be hand-scrawled foolscap strewn about.

Another great workplace can be found in Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schultz. The end paper shows the board on which Schultz drew decades' worth of daily comic strips. The stain and varnish have worn through to reveal raw wood. Graphite dust and eraser rubbings seem to fill the grain. It reminds me of Willie Nelson's battered Martin N-20 classical guitar, Trigger. The guitar top, which luthiers also call a table, has big holes. Nelson once said it sounds like a "road grader." No matter. Both Schultz's and Nelson's rigs have admirable, well-earned patinas where the work behind the oeuvre has been made apparent.

My desk features mountain ranges of clutter. The most significant peak being the laptop, slightly off to the right. The keyboard is broken; one can't type directly on it. To work around the problem, an original iMac keyboard has been plugged in. Behind and around, more foothills of stuff: Pokemon and Justice League figurines requiring repair (Emmet, again — he ripped magician Zatanna's head off, why???), a hockey card signed by Trevor Linden, a Louis Armstrong LP, and a New Pence coin from some Commonwealth nation, a trio of paperbacks by Asimov, Gaiman and Leiber, respectively.

On my desk I've been searching for a set of buttons from a peaked-lapel tuxedo jacket I am altering. I have to be careful. In "the general rubble," as my wife says, I often leave needles, nails, pins and open utility blades.

Sometimes, I have to get away from it all when I'm trying to solve a difficult problem. I grab a notebook and a pen and hop on the Skytrain and ride in circles around town. One clear thought can be enough to bring me back to the desk. Then I'll bang for an hour or two to make up for lost time.

Currently, at this desk, I am writing a novel. Baseballs, blades, guitars, friendship bracelets, a town called Sunshine and things ancient and Norwegian (but not speakers) have snuck their way into the story. It all suggests I have yet to rise above the setting and, perhaps, never will.

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