In the Writers Room you cannot hear a telephone ring. You don't ask your neighbor if you can borrow a pencil. You don't talk at all. You're even careful about crumpling paper.
Someone may be discovering how to give her characters voice. Someone may be on the verge of finding the single verb that enlivens the whole poem. Someone may be napping on one of the exercise mats on the floor after working all night. Quiet, Muse Communion Zone.
"There are codes, folkways," says Jim Sleeper, who's repaired to the lounge (talking allowed) for a break from his book about postfiscal-crisis New York. "Some people actually avoid eye contact."
Writers, of course, are supposed to create in houses among the dunes, or at the very least in attics or spare rooms. In New York, though, no one has attics and few writers can afford spare rooms, let alone picturesque rural retreats.
Chet Flippo insists he wrote his book about the Rolling Stones "in a closet," his wife, also a writer, having commandeered their living room.
Wendy Kaminer, who's just published a book about women and volunteerism, lives in a studio apartment. "I get completely crazy if I have to live and sleep and work in one room," she explains.
Novelist Jerry Oster, 100 pages into a suspense novel called "Brilliant City," admits that he could eke out space at home but is "too easily distracted. I suddenly find it impossible to work with the freezer full of frost, so I defrost it for two hours."
So they all come here, to a loftlike space that used to be a commercial print shop on the fifth floor of a building in Greenwich Village. The Writers Room hardly looks luxurious -- green carpeting underfoot and pipes along the ceiling, a hodgepodge of donated desks and chairs, a few struggling plants -- but it offers a luxury: a quiet room where there is nothing to do but get on with the next chapter, line or act. An urban Yaddo, people have called it. Flippo calls it "salvation."
In its seven years (and four previous locations) the Writers Room has sheltered journalists Timothy Crouse, Lucinda Franks and Nan Robertson, critic Molly Haskell, biographer Nancy Milford ("Zelda"). Richard Price and Lois Gould have worked on novels. Writers still talk about how Judith Rossner practically moved in, wrote 16 hours a day, crashed in a sleeping bag, cried at the typewriter and pounded out her bestselling novel "August."
About 70 writers are currently in residence, paying $100 to $150 a month depending on whether they have permanent use of one of the 30 desks, "float" to any available desk, or only work evenings and weekends. Seven writers, including Flippo, have $200-per-month leases on the small offices surrounding the main sanctum, where they can indulge in phones and beeping printers for their word processors. About 15 others, among them Gabriel Garcia-Marquez's translator, are on the waiting list for desks.
Users' fees make up about a third of the Room's $100,000-a-year budget, according to executive director Dey Gosse; the rest comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council of the Arts, publishing house contributions, and corporate and foundation grants.
The Writers Room began as a much smaller operation. Nancy Milford was one of a dozen writers working in the Frederick Lewis Allen Room at the New York Public Library, a similarly quiet place to research and write, but one with shortcomings. It accepted only nonfiction writers, who could not stay past a year, and it was only open during library hours, which in strapped 1977 were shrinking.
"Instead of being open 85 or 90 hours a week, it was suddenly less than 40," Milford recalls. "If you had any kind of other life -- I have three children -- the time you could work was severely limited. So we thought, 'Why not make our own room?' "
She helped secure state arts council money for the project, a subsidy for literature. "You can only give writers two things," she says. "You can't give them ideas. You can only give them money, to buy time to write. Or a place to work."
The place was, for most of its history, a 20-cubicle room in Times Square. But the rent was escalating, the demand for space increasing and the neighborhood troubling, especially for late-night users. "Our writers like to take a break, walk around," Gosse says. "That's not easy to do at Broadway and 42nd unless you have a strong stomach."
So in February the Writers Room moved to this 3,500-square-foot space in the Village, writers temporarily relinquishing their computer keyboards for hammers and paint brushes. A bank donated some executive-looking desks; a magazine chipped in some chairs. There was enough space to segregate smokers like Sleeper and poet Frances Whyatt in an adjacent room, smoking being the greatest source of controversy in the place, apart from whether there should be an apostrophe in Writers (there isn't).
Theodore H. White contributed the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the lounge; it shares bookshelves with Roget, rhyming dictionaries, a Bible and books that Writers Room writers wrote. There's a tiny lunchroom with a coffee machine, a refrigerator stocked with cottage cheese and Perrier and -- coming soon -- a shower. The place is open for use around the clock. What else could a writer want, except perhaps a house in the dunes?
People use the space differently, of course. Oster's an early bird, arriving at 7 a.m. to put in six or seven hours on his novel before he takes over care of his 3-year-old daughter in the afternoon. He once had an office of his own, "on the fringes of the garment district. It was ideal, in terms of being quiet, but there was absolutely no stimulus from the people around me. I like the energy created by other people working."
Flippo, who's a third of the way through a first novel "about Texas in the '50s and '60s," says he arrives in late morning, gets productive in late afternoon, and stays until 7 or 8. Sleeper holds a couple of part-time jobs, but pulls all-nighters in the Writers Room once or twice a week, "a tribute to my procrastination."
Milford calls herself a nester: "I dig in; make a corner." On her desk, at a window overlooking Village rooftops and gardens, are a stem of orchids, a bowl of fruit and an open volume of Edmund Wilson's letters. Milford has been working on her biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay for 10 years and last winter turned in her first 1,250 pages. "My editor went 'Arghhhh.' "
Once a week, the group breaks silence for late-afternoon glasses of wine in the lounge. Writers talk, says Kaminer, not about their work but about money (generally lack thereof) and word processors. One writer hosted a party at her home in Brooklyn recently; there was a group foray to Central Park for the Shakespeare Festival and there will be an expedition to the Lone Star Cafe in the fall. "These kinds of friendships and associations are very supportive," Milford says appreciatively. "Writing is very solitary."
Previous generations of writers have also sought inspiration and association in the Village, of course. It's one of the things people like about the new Room. Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, Eugene O'Neill and William Carlos Williams worked within blocks of here. Edgar Allan Poe died in the dispensary across the street. Millay herself was a Villager. "Her ghost," Milford says, "is in a little gray building down the street."