On Writing a Novel in an Elementary School Storage Closet

Editor's Note: Applications for the 2022 class of the Book Project are due June 26. To learn more about the two-year intensive for prose writers, please visit this page.

Before my first meeting with my Book Project mentor, Erika Krouse, I had already tried systems for writing discipline. I had tried morning and evening sessions, weekly and daily goals, self-imposed rewards, apps, deadlines, and self-imposed punishments. I had a color-coded spreadsheet that told the story of my inconsistency in a mosaic of green, yellow, and red boxes. 

Erika didn’t ask what I had tried before. Instead she asked about every segment of my day, 5:18 wake-up alarm to bedtime, searching for the minutes we could seize for my project. She cringed at my early morning schedule and seemed to understand the demands of teaching 5th grade when she dismissed the idea that I could write in the evenings. But then, apparently forgetting that validation of my drained energy, she suggested that I could write my novel for fifteen minutes a day at lunchtime. 

“Is there somewhere you can go where you won’t be interrupted?” she asked.

“Um,” I said. “There’s a storage closet. But lunch goes by really—”

“Perfect,” she said, circling the middle of my day in her notebook and launching into ideas for making the most of that time. 

I trusted Erika, so I agreed to try it: fifteen minutes in the closet every weekday and two hours at home on Saturdays. I dragged an unused student desk between the shelves and boxes. I learned to sit down immediately at lunchtime, no email. I learned to generate a few hundred words of any quality and make a note to myself for the next day. I learned that if your boss is looking for you when you’re writing in a closet, it’s better to emerge immediately, not wait an awkwardly long time in case she leaves. And it’s better to either tell the full truth or offer no explanation at all.

The weekly writing time on my spreadsheet turned into a column of solid green. I made my most coherent progress during the Saturday sessions, but Saturdays were often in danger from the rest of the world, while my minutes in the closet were shielded by the rigidity of an elementary school bell schedule. I wrote in the closet during the long days of parent-teacher conferences, the months of planning a wedding, the weeks after the death of my father. No matter what happened, the minutes between 11:35 and 11:50 were still there, the closet was still there, and the book was still there—even if all I could do was open Scrivener and remember that I was a writer. And when I sat down on Saturdays, the book and I still knew each other.

When I returned to clean the classroom after this spring’s quarantine, after my Book Project graduation and completion of my first draft, I sat in the closet for a few minutes, surrounded by old charts from lessons, a random towel on a command hook, a ¡Sí se puede! poster students made five years ago. I wished I could rent that space as my permanent office.

But of course that space was never what I needed. It was Erika’s support in finding a system: another set of eyes on my daily schedule, and accountability to stick to my plan. It was the commitment to the work and the faith that small segments of time add up. It was the belief that it’s about persistence and discipline, not talent or ample time or perfect artistic conditions. 

Maybe perfect artistic conditions are just that: conditions in which you have created time and space, however small, to keep returning to the work. 


Emily Johns-O’Leary completed the Book Project this spring and is working on her novel, These Lesser Sacrifices, set in the era of institutions and eugenics in the late 1920s. Her short fiction has appeared in New Ohio Review. She taught 3rd-5th grade for the last nine years and will be starting a doctoral program in Literacy Studies at CU Boulder in the fall. Find her awkwardly learning to use Twitter: @ejohnsoleary.