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A Table And Chair

Do writers need their own spaces to work in?

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I recently finished a ten-part adaptation for BBC Radio Four which I did without a specific writing space; just me and my laptop moving about to find the quietest spot to work. Some days this was easier than others. When my children were at school I could work from home; at the kitchen table or at the desk in the corner of the living room. During half term and Christmas school holidays (the deadline was just after New Year) it was trickier to find a quiet and undisturbed room and so I worked in cafés, the library, on trains to and from work and at friends’ dining tables.

This process got me thinking about where writers work and whether we need our own special room, or are we able to simply write from anywhere? Do we just need something to write with and something to write on or is the undisturbed space integral to our writing life?

I discussed this idea of work spaces with some writer friends. Do they have one? Do they need one? They all said they were very grateful to have their own space to work in and it was a total luxury but very necessary. Writer and life coach Sheryl Garratt said she spent ‘years writing in a corner of the bedroom or living room’ and once ‘for a year’ in a freezing cold corridor of a rented flat. Novelist Ann Morgan wrote her first novel in the corner of her living room and says it’s one of the reasons she decided to move out of London. To have more space. Same here. The plan had always been when we moved from London to the seaside town we now live in to turn our dilapidated garage into a work space but the deadline was looming and it was still a garage.

There was no time to find a suitable office space. I needed to get on with it. Work anywhere I could. So, where did I work? Where didn’t I! When the kids were at school I worked at home at my beloved little desk in the corner of the sitting room, I worked at the kitchen table in the early hours of the morning before everyone else woke up, I worked in bed (reading and re-reading and marking the novel I was adapting), I worked at the local library, I worked on the train to and back from Canterbury on my RLF fellowship days, I worked at my friends’ dining table (with their cat as my constant companion), I worked at another friend’s kitchen table when she was away at Christmas (her cat at my feet; mewing for food and strokes) and I worked on the train up to London before script meetings. I worked everywhere and anywhere I could.

I’d always been sceptical about working in cafés; I found working in public spaces really distracting. Many writers share the same feeling. There’s the anxiety about sitting there for hours on end nursing one cup, worrying that someone else might need the table. Ann Morgan says she has never tried to work in a café but she thinks she’d find it hard to zone out other’s people’s conversations. However, Sheryl Garrett writes in a café a couple of mornings a week. She enjoys being around people sometimes; even strangers in a coffee shop. I decided to put my scepticism aside and brave it. I went to a café where I know the owners and who wouldn’t mind me ordering a pot of tea and sitting there for two hours. I decided to work upstairs as it was quieter but the entire top floor was soon taken over by a huge group of friends and their preschool children; spilling drinks, dropping colouring pencils and wailing. This was a little like being at home. The café was a hopeless option. I packed up and went to the library instead.

The library, I discovered, is one of the noisiest places of all to work in. However, it is just about possible to remain anonymous and isolated at the library so it was more preferable to the café where everyone wanted a chat. My local library is more like a community centre than a silent sacred place of books, reading and contemplation. My preferred area to work in was right at the back of the library in the reference section of old books, maps, micro film machines and a row of computers. After a bit of trial and error I got savvy to the library’s timetable of events. Friday morning was baby rhyme time (singing nursery rhymes, shaking tambourines and general crying. I bought ear plugs. They helped a little.

I was starting to understand the need for isolation and quiet. I needed a space. My own space to shut the door from the world and create. I started to understand and appreciate the isolation and quiet that writers need. An allocated writing space is not a luxury, it is a vital part of our working life. Just as a painter desires a studio with fantastic light where he or she may leave half finished work about the place, writers want somewhere they can talk to themselves and not worry about having to tidy up. Silence and isolation makes room in our heads for conjuring up new characters and stories. When adapting prose into a script it is hard to hear the voice of the writing with a background of Paw Patrol.

As the date of the deadline got closer and I had to work later into the evenings I would stay in the library till the very last minute aware that it was shutting up around me.

Never before have I worked on a project in such a short space of time in so many different locations and with so many different new noises to adjust to. It was exhausting but completely exhilarating. During one writing session there was a mouse hunt taking place behind me; my friends’ huge fluffy cat trying to squeeze herself under the tiny gap of the dresser to get to the petrified, hidden mouse. Another time I was adapting a section of the novel that is set in a large open air hall and the grand opulence of the high ceilings and huge draughty windows of my friend’s dining room definitely worked their way into my script, serving as a perfect location backdrop.

I look back with an appreciation and affection for the quirks and rituals of the people I worked alongside. In the library for example, some are quiet when they’re on the hunt for a book; hushed conversations as they search the shelves for something new and exciting while others are incredibly noisy with little regard for the ‘quiet please’ library signs of old. I enjoyed the joyful conversations of parents as they queued to register their newborn babies at the council office in the main reception area. I took delight in discovering my neighbour’s daily ritual of reading the paper cover to cover in the quiet reference section of the library. Minutiae of details and moments I would have otherwise missed, locked away for months with my head deep in a book and eyed fixed on a computer screen. Hot desking in public spaces became a research project of its own. These stolen moments may well form the basis of characters that end up in some future script that I’ll start to work on in my fabulous new writing space.

I wrote most of this piece during lockdown aware that so many have had to reorganize their space to accommodate working from home. Many have set up desks in their bedrooms or those fortunate enough are working from dining rooms. Kitchen tables have been given over to home schooling. My partner (whose touring work has all been cancelled) is now busy in the garage getting it finished to be a work space. In between home schooling I sit at my old desk, with its chipped paintwork and circles of tea stains that has been moved temporarily into our bedroom so whoever needs to have a quiet place to work can use it. This desk has become my writing space; I sit here and in a house filled with children and noise I can lock myself away and work. It is not ideal but it will certainly do for now.

Rhiannon Tise is an award-winning writer for radio, theatre and television. Her ten-part adaptation of George Eliot’s The Mill on The Floss, starring Anna Maxwell Martin, was broadcast on BBC Radio Four in April 2020.

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