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Anywhere But a Room of One’s Own

Searching for the perfect place to write

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I am a writer looking to be re-homed. All I need is a laptop, a table and a chair, and preferably silence or at least, banal noise, nothing too exciting. Lately I have been associating my usual writing space with all sorts of bad karma — a play which didn’t work no matter what I tried, and my neighbours are gutting their house. The noise is driving me into a sort of very British teeth-gritted polite frenzy and the walls are actually shaking. I am writing a play about women being faced with a series of torturous challenges, being constantly unsettled, and I thought I’d try and mimic that through where and how I wrote. It’s good to shake things up and change the view, literally and metaphorically, or that’s the plan. But mostly, I just have to get the hell out of here NOW.

Also, I think I’m getting stale, sat in the same old seat facing the same view of the same sky from my loft window, and whenever I ascend the ladder to that room, a sinking feeling slinks up there alongside me. That can’t be good. So I’m following in the footsteps of some great writers who created masterpieces from the bath, sheds, buses and fields, and there’s plenty of inspiration if I run out of ideas of where to go.

This morning I began gently by writing at the dining table, with the doors and windows open onto the garden, which seemed like a nice idea. But pretty soon, the builders had begun their day’s renovations, and the air vibrated with drilling, sawing and the builder’s hacking cough, which he fuelled by lighting a series of cigarettes while simultaneously spitting and shouting at his phone. I sighed, tried to concentrate; I thought You can do it, you’ve got a deadline, you’re hardly down a pit so put those headphones on and get on with it.

The doorbell. Could I take a parcel in? The deadline. Start again. The drilling changed to a jackhammer, and my teeth vibrated. Headphones. The cat despairs of making me hear her loud miaows and bares her teeth in my face, hot cat-breath inches away from me. I’ll be able to start when the noise stops, or when the neighbours move house, the cat starts flossing or when the seasons change.

However, E. B. White of Charlotte’s Web famously advised that ‘A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper’.

Good point. I try writing outdoors of an evening but the sky is too beautiful, which is a rubbish excuse but also true. And nights make me drowsy…

Hemingway said, ‘When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write’.

Great advice, and even though I have a love/hate relationship with Hemingway, many writers advocate writing before dawn. I always rise early, but not to write — to get ahead of the day, so now I’m going to see what my writing brain can do before sun up.

I set the alarm for 5am. It’s amazing — the birds are singing, the sun is there but gentle, my brain is wired and even at my usual hotspot in the loft I manage to write a full scene before 6.30. Yay! This is the way to go! I feel like I could write for hours! More coffee! Oh, wait…zzzz…later that day, I’m so exhausted that I fall asleep for a second in a meeting with a producer, so not so good. Hmm…

Maya Angelou kept a hotel room that she never slept in: ‘I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. […] I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and housekeeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be mouldy!”

An anonymous space — that’s a great idea, but I can’t afford to hire a hotel room, so I borrow a friend’s house in an idyllic country village. Immaculate room, peace and quiet, not even birdsong. Laptop open, mind open, enjoying that wonderful, inspiring silence…then it occurs to me to worry that there are no birds singing, because this is a bit Midwich Cuckoos, surely? And the house has a basement, so… It was good to try, though. Being somewhere static clearly isn’t working.

My current favourite quote is from A. J. Jacobs, an American journalist and author, who writes while walking on a treadmill.

‘I started this practice [when I read] all these studies about the dangers of the sedentary life. Sitting is alarmingly bad for you. One doctor told me that “sitting is the new smoking.” So I bought a treadmill and put my computer on top of it. It took me about 1,200 miles to write my book. I kind of love it — it keeps me awake, for one thing.’

Yes! You can measure your writing in miles! I love it. Or laps, because my version of this is swimming, so I go to the pool. After about ten laps, I feel my head clear. Great! This is it! The plot of my play starts to unravel as I swim, but there’s one big drawback. I can’t write anything down because my hands are busy keeping me from drowning. I often think of plot devices or how to solve writing problems while doing laps, but I’m after a place to do the actual physical writing down, not just the mental detangling. Must try harder. Maybe a more unusual place would be better — this is all too ordinary, swimming pools and creepy houses and lofts and so on.

Reputedly, Edith Sitwell used to lie in an open coffin before she began her day’s writing. Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo used to write in the bath – at night – in the company of a parrot. I love this detail — is that what I’m missing? Agatha Christie was also a fan of writing in the bath, often while eating apples, which delights me because one of my favourite fictional heroines, Jo from Little Women, read and then wrote while eating apples, hidden away in an attic rather than a bath. But I digress, exactly because I’m too easily distracted when I should be looking for the perfect place to write.

Transport might help; both Nabokov and Gertrude Stein apparently liked writing in cars, and Tom Wolfe wrote some of his wilder fiction inspired by an LSD-fuelled bus trip across America in 1964. Inspired by this, I try writing on a train from London to Manchester, setting out my laptop, notebook and pen in the quiet coach, only to be massively distracted almost instantly by a family of three small girls who sit opposite me and stare at me for the entire time I try to furtively write a graphic scene about a woman being force fed in prison. It’s disturbing and impossible. Their clearly exhausted mother smiles at me in a desperate way that I recognise only too well from my own journeys with a child, and in the end, I give up and join in their game of iSpy.

Much though I love the metaphor of moving the plot on, the bumpiness of travel is a huge drawback. I must be way fussier than I think. I just want somewhere that I can write, without preconceptions, without too much movement, without other people, without…

That’d be my home, then.

But that isn’t working!

The piece I am trying to write is all about people being somewhere safe if dull, and then sharply and unceremoniously jerked out if it — and dumped, through a peculiar set of confluences, into their worst nightmare: the claustrophobic lands in a prison cell, the acrophobic is forced to rise to dizzying heights, the intrepid traveller must stay put and hide in a cave to avoid war. So maybe I need to do the opposite of what I think I need…

George Bernard Shaw wrote in his Hertfordshire hut — although this is a bit of a ludicrous under-description of the splendid wooden building which could be revolved to follow the course of the sun. Dylan Thomas wrote in a ‘word-splashed hut’ that sat on stilts above the sea at Laugharne, and I myself have a lovely, pale blue shed that we call a summerhouse at the end of my garden. I’ve always fully intended to write in it but never have. I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t call to me. I feel that the house is admonishing me for being outside, which looks and feels like being on holiday rather than at work, and besides there are massive spiders in there that seem to be building a colony.

So maybe the place you write in has to really call you. You have to know exactly what conditions you need to grow yourself in, like mushrooms or something similarly precise and specific. I don’t want the dark but equally I don’t want bright sunlight — the idea of writing outdoors horrifies me, all that…dazzle. How would you see the screen? Too cold and your hands go numb or shake, so my loft is out of bounds in either deepest winter or fullest summer — freezing or like a sauna. Writers surely don’t need to literally sweat while working.

So, next I try a public space. Woolf and George Bernard Shaw wrote for a time in the Reading Room at the British Museum. It’s a well-trodden path to glory, but it intimidates me as a building, with all that history. However, I’m willing to give it a go; I sit at a café table a full thirty minutes making notes before the echoey clatter of people, cups and scraping of chairs defeats me.

On the way home, I drive around aimlessly for a while, deliberately not going straight home because I feel that I have failed in my quest for somewhere amazingly, giddily different to write. I’ve tried transport – well, a train – other people’s houses, different places in my own house, outside, and now in a public space. Dispirited, feeling a slight panic at the even-more-impending deadline and my inability to settle anywhere, I pull in at a well-known coffeeshop chain. This is literally the least inspiring building I’ve ever visited. Tired décor, on a busy commuter A-road, and all the other people in here are truckers or mothers, all knackered and edgy and harassed. The floor and table are sticky, the staff look like they hate customers and the view is hideous. I order something nasty, don’t care less what it is, put on my headphones, open up my laptop and look out of the window. Cars whizz by, it’s one of the dullest vistas I’ve ever looked out upon. I love it! Now this feels like a place to write.

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