“Do you have an ideal creative environment? Also do you believe the physical space influences your creativity?”

This is a question Manuel Moreale regularly asks his guests on the People and Blogs newsletter. The answers are always fascinating and well worth a read.
This got me thinking about my own working environment and maybe I overthought it. It looks like I’ve totally ignored Barry Hess’s reminder that you’re a blogger not an essayist.1 Anyway, here goes.

Note: This post is part of the Indieweb Carnival on creative environments.

A painting by Pierre Bonnard entitled Young Woman Writing. It shows a young woman leaning over a large table with a red cloth, on which are spread several small paper notes.

My notes are a miniature working environment

I’ve long seen my collection of notes as a miniature working environment, where I can create and develop my thoughts into finished pieces of writing. But what does it mean to view your notes as a place for thinking, a creative environment?
To start, it really matters what kind of writing tools you use.
It matters because an assemblage of such tools is more than just a particular software application or service - it’s an entire space to work in. And when I say ‘space’, I mean the whole environment your entire body is in as you work. This space includes the room, the desk, the light source, the ambient temperature, the background noise, the computer screen and the computer powering it, the writing software, the keyboard and mouse, or mobile phone microphone; or alternatively, the card index, the individual card, the pen or pencil, the writing surface, and so on. These factors taken together all add up to a carefully constructed space in which thinking, and writing, and writing-as-thinking can take place.
If you have a bad space, there’s probably quite a lot you can do to fix it. A few small tweeks could make a big difference. There’s plenty to learn about improving your workspace to optimise creativity from Donald Rattner’s book, My Creative Space: How to Design Your Home to Stimulate Ideas and Spark Innovation.
But the space inside your notes also really matters. According to media theorist Walter Ong,

“technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness”. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Routledge, London, 1995, p. 82.2

You may be writing in Microsoft Word, or in a cheap notebook, or on scraps of reused paper, or in a code editor, or on WhatsApp on your phone standing on the train. However you write, that’s part of your creative environment. And there’s a connection between what surrounds you and what’s happening within you.

Writing is an aesthetic experience

The writing environment makes itself known first and foremost as a collection of sense impressions of various kinds. So the process of writing concerns aesthetics, which literally means ‘to take in the world through the senses’ (Reid, 2019:35), or ‘of or pertaining to things perceptible by the senses’ (Boal, 1995: 18).

Writing is about the senses

I don’t mean this in the usual way, that you should write about the senses to make your sentences more vivid. I mean that the physical experience of writing really matters. Aesthetics is about the senses - what you feel, perceive, sense in your surroundings and in your body. Note, as well, the converse: that the word anaesthesia refers to a state of being rendered insensitive - numb or even unconscious. So to the extent that you are unaware of your sense impressions, or otherwise numb to them, then your cognition is accordingly impaired. And therefore, cognition is fundamentally aesthetic.

It’s been argued that “to know intellectually is to discover what one already knows unconsciously and tacitly at the perception of the body” (Gagliardi 1996, p. 574)

Nathalie Tasler’s blog post about time-management introduced me to the German philosopher of aesthetics, Wolfgang Wesch. She writes:

“Welsch (1995) even states: there is no cognition without aesthetic—I refer to the origins of aesthetic here: aisthēsis, which is visceral experiences, it is the collaboration of cognition, senses, emotion.”

So it’s worth paying attention to the way writing your notes makes you feel, physically.

Writing is also a kind of theatre

The activist theatre director Augusto Boal has a deep history of exploring the spaces in which theatre takes place. His book The Rainbow of Desire devotes its second chapter to the concept of the aesthetic space.
He takes as a starting point Lope de Vega’s wonderfully minimalist definition of theatre:

“two human beings, a passion and a platform” (1996: 16).

But Boal makes it clear that for him, a physical platform is not in itself necessary.

“All that is required is that, within the bounds of a certain space, spectators and actors designate a more restricted space as ‘stage’: and aesthetic space… The interpenetration of these two spaces is the aesthetic space.” (1996: 18)

Although for Boal the theatre is the aesthetic space par excellence, he is clear that he takes a broad view of what the theatre can be:

“With the actor is born the theatre. The actor is theatre. We are all actors: we are theatre!” (1996:19)

“Anyone can designate and thereby create such a space, in their own front room, a space which occupies part or all of the room and immediately becomes, ‘aesthetically’, a stage: the ‘platform’. The creator of such a space can then play for herself, without an audience - or with an imaginary audience - like an actor rehearsing alone in an empty theatre: in front of the future audience, absent at that moment, but present in the imagination.” (1996: 19)

“The aesthetic space possesses gnoseological properties, that is, properties which stimulate knowledge and discovery, cognition and recognition: properties which stimulate the process of learning by experience. Theatre is a form of knowledge.” (1996: 20)

Pay attention to arrangements

It doesn’t always go well. The author Virginia Woolf famously claimed that in order to write, a woman needs money and a room of one’s own. Yet scholar Evija Trofimova found that the room in itself wasn’t enough. It mattered how it was arranged:

“Look at my surroundings. My office is crammed with stuff. So many thoughts buried under piles of paper, insisting on their place in the work in which they so obviously do not belong. I also can’t help but feel the magnetic pull of others’ ideas from all the books around me. Each thought, each reference, fights for its place in my work. What an unbearable intertextual mess…” Trofimova, Evija, and Sophie Nicholls. 2018. “On Walking and Thinking: Two Walks across the Page”. M/C Journal 21 (4). doi.org/10.5204/m…

The exterior arrangements of your writing practice really matter, but so do the interior arrangements of your computer. They too are part of the environment in which your notes take shape. We can rearrange the room in which we sit, sometimes. We can make it tidier or messier. We can close the curtains at the window, or open them. We can repaint, or just put up a poster. We can play music of many different kinds. But it’s harder to re-design the writing tools we use. Dark theme or light theme? This ‘wallpaper’ or that ‘background’? But is that really our only choice? Our digital writing tools allow some customisation, but not much.

Don’t let your technology dictate your aesthetic experience

Why does any of this matter to me as I sit writing my notes?

It matters because I’ve spent a long time, too long, having my precious aesthetic space more or less dictated to me by a series of technological decisions that were made without my input or approval. If you use any of the standard apps and operating systems, perhaps you have too.
Take the personal computer. It was a revolution, to be sure, but the aesthetic space it circumscribes - keyboard, mouse and small screen on a desktop - was never designed for me to be creative in. PCs took off from the late 1980s onwards because middle managers in large organisations could purchase one with the small budget under their own control ($1,000, always $1,000!) thereby getting around the domination then imposed by the company’s IT department.
Or think of the smartphone. It took over the world from 2007 onwards not because it was easier for me to work creatively with (ha ha) but because it could deliver ads more effectively, and especially games and video. The smartphone, for all its technical wizardry, was always a consumption-delivery vehicle before ever it was a creative production tool. In fact, creating things is anathema to the dominant business models because the attention economy requires us to be forever paying attention to someone else’s creation, which exists to sell us stuff. I can create sentences using my phone, sure, but in doing so I always feel as though I’m fighting the interface. That’s the aesthetic space I now find myself living in.
So it’s time to take back my aesthetic space. Time to stop passively accepting what I’m given and to make active decisions about the kind of technological environments that are conducive to my own creative focus.

note cards arranged on a table next to a book

You can make choices!

“The only hat worth wearing was the one you made for yourself, not one you bought, not one you were given. Your own hat, for your own head. Your own future, not someone else’s.” ― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky (2004)3

You can’t change the whole world, but you can change your little piece of it, and that has a ripple effect throughout the universe.4 Everyone’s decisions about their aesthetic space will be different. Here’s what I need, and what you might consider:

  • A desk with a window in front of me, opening out onto some kind of view and some kind of green life. Currently, I’m looking out of a side window onto the jasmine hedge between us and the neighbours. Just enough view to be useful. At work, I can look out over the street through the treetop foliage. If I couldn’t see outside I think I’d probably go mad. Writing on the train works well. There’s a good view and it’s always changing.
  • A keyboard and mouse that work for me, that don’t get in my way. I have a Logitech MX Vertical ergonomic mouse, which lets me rest my hand vertically , with my thumb at the top, to avoid repetitive strain injury. I also have a Keychron K3 mechanical keyboard, which I really love - unreasonably so, since it’s just a keyboard. But the feel of the keys really makes a difference to my overall sense of how it feels to write.
  • A writing app that lets me customise it as much as possible. I prefer to write in plain text Markdown syntax, and I really dislike apps that stand in the way of this. Sublime Text works well for me and Notepad++ is acceptable. I’ve tried others. VSCode just didn’t do it for me. This aesthetic space matter is subtle.
  • I really like the way one of my favourite apps TiddlyWiki allows me to slice up and recombine small pieces of writing. But TiddlyWiki has limitations I’m not really keen on. I’ve customised my version quite radically.
  • Sometimes, writing by hand feels better and other times writing by keyboard feels better - and occasionally, voice dictation feels better. I haven’t resolved this, but try to stay flexible. Sometimes when I’m stuck I switch modes. This often gets me unstuck.
  • Two human beings, a passion and a platform. You the reader and me the writer. Perhaps we could swap places. I’d like to know how you feel about your writing space. Reply on micro.blog, or Mastodon, or best of all, write your own blog post and let me know.



Boal, A. (1995). The Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy. Abingdon, UK and New York, NY: Routledge.

Dědinová, T. (2022). Embodying the Permaculture Story: Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching Series. In M. Oziewicz, B. Attebery, & T. Dědinová (Eds.), Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene: Imagining Futures and Dreaming Hope in Literature and Media (pp. 74–87). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Gagliardi, P. (1996). Exploring the aesthetic side of organisational life. In S. R. H. C. Clegg, C. Hardy, & W. R. Nord (Eds.), Handbook of organization studies (pp. 565-580). London: Sage. Cited in Keenan, T. M. (2016). The use of aesthetic knowledge in decision making processes in mega projects (PhD thesis). Queensland University of Technology. https://eprints.qut.edu.au/97979/1/Thomas_Keenan_Thesis.pdf

Popen, S. (2006). AESTHETIC SPACE Aesthetic spaces/imaginative geographies. In A Boal Companion (pp. 135-142). Routledge. https://smartmove.co.in/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/A-Boal-Companion.pdf#page=136

Rattner, D. M. (2019). My Creative Space: How to Design Your Home to Stimulate Ideas and Spark Innovation. United States: Skyhorse.

Reid, J. (2019). Towards an Aesthetic Space: A Comparative Study. Journal of Deafblind Studies on Communication, 5(1). https://jdbsc.rug.nl/article/download/32573/29968

Trofimova, E., & Nicholls, S. (2018). On Walking and Thinking: Two Walks across the Page. M/C Journal, 21(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1450

Wilken, R. (2014). Peter Carey’s Laptop. Cultural Studies Review, 20(1), 100-120.

  1. He’s the creator of the [Pika]blogging platform](https://pika.page/) by the way. Actually, an essay is just an attempt and so is a blog post. ↩︎

  2. Quoted in Wilken, Rowan. “Peter Carey’s Laptop.” Cultural Studies Review 20, no. 1 (03, 2014): 100-120. ↩︎

  3. I found this quotation via Tereza Dědinová’s excellent chapter about embodying the permaculture story in Fantasy and Myth in the Anthropocene: Imagining Futures and Dreaming Hope in Literature and Media. London: Bloomsbury, 2022. DOI: 10.5040/9781350203372 ↩︎

  4. OK, this might not be real physics, but I still like it. ↩︎

  5. I know, you’re a blog-reader not an essay-reader, but whatever. ↩︎