For a brief while during my student days in London I lived at a very desirable address in NW3 – on the Hampstead/Belsize Park borders. Not far from Keats’ beautiful home. Of course my accommodation was a typical student hole with shared facilities, but for a while there I felt I could soar. Here’s another sonnet – I told you I’ve been working hard on poetic form – but some rules are made to be broken…
You called it precarious and spindly, so I stopped
inviting you up dusty stairs,
my isolated bubble-nest at the top
of the world. Forget shared kitchen, bathtub hairs.
Sorry to disappoint you, but I am not going to give you a summary or review or debate about Virginia Woolf’s seminal and polemical essay published in 1929 entitled ‘A Room of One’s Own’. There is a detailed analysis of the book on SparkNotes, but reactions to this proto-feminist essay are usually mixed. When I reread it recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find it much wittier and easy to read than I had remembered, and certainly more accessible than many of her novels.
Anyway, the title of my post today has more to do with that essential element of a writer’s life: the space where they can do the actual writing. I have nothing but admiration for those writers (Jane Austen, for instance) who manage to write in the family room, a constant victim of interruptions and misplaced curiosity. For myself, I completely understand Virginia’s statement:
‘It is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry.’
Except in my case it would probably be a treehouse as far away from friends, family and telephone as possible. And an income that has kept pace with inflation would be nice too.
I have to admit that I suffer from a particularly pernicious form of property porn addiction. I can spend hours, both online and off, visiting writers’ homes and studies, soaking up the atmosphere, touching the desk at which they wrote their masterpieces… As if some detail of that place of creativity, some ritual or talisman that I could replicate in my own abode would make my imagination well up and my writing improve in leaps and bounds? Does genius rub off on those who contemplate it?
Alas, no, it just keeps me away from completing my novel and thus displaying any traces of genius at all. However, if you too are prone to office envy, here are some gorgeous website where you can indulge (the photos are from these websites, thank you and hope I haven’t broken too many copyright issues if I refer you back to them):
The Guardian has a series dedicated to writers’ studies. Here is another favourite I keep handy in the My Pictures folder:
And photographer Michael Mundy has a wonderful series dedicated to writers, artists, designers and other creative people, entitled ‘An Afternoon With…’
After studying these websites in detail (and visiting writer’s memorial homes, reading countless home decoration magazines, oooh, yes, I do my research thoroughly!), I have found my favourite writers’ rooms have the following in common:
1) They are large, airy, light spaces, with lots of windows – which may be inspiring, but also distracting.
2) Large desks, crammed full of laptops, mementoes, writing blocks, pens, stationery – sometimes I wonder if we become writers just because we love stationery so much.
3) Lots of books and bookshelves, sometimes carefully arranged by subject and publisher, sometimes higgledy piggledy. Will the writers of tomorrow have a more minimalistic space with a few choice gadgets e-Readers, iPads?
4) Practicality and functionality trump aesthetics and value – sentimental value seems to matter more than antiques, IKEA rather than design
So now, here is my dilemma in our new rental accommodation.
What can be done with a narrow study leading just off the open-plan kitchen/diner/living room? Width just 1.5 m, length just 3.20m, neutral white, just one window facing south towards the garden (some distraction from next-door neighbours, who are building an extension), no lock on door. My old desk doesn’t fit, the filing cabinet must fit, no bookshelves yet (but IKEA here we come), the study also has to accommodate my business books, training courses and articles collected over many years, my accounting and other paperwork (for me and the family), plus my husband’s endless collection of cables, CDs and other gadgetry.
I know I should be grateful that I have a space of my own at all, and I certainly look forward to actually ‘owning’ it, after two weeks of writing in bed, on the dining table, on my lap on the sofa and so on. In the meantime, I seek solace in those beautiful, inspirational rooms that seem to recede further and further away the more I grow up (and old).