Writing Secrets: How to find, or make, that room of your own
So here we are in Venice, for our annual All About Writing retreat. Everywhere we turn, there is another vista: the quiet canal, which runs down one side of our palazzo. The cobbled square into which the nuns bring children to play. The rooftops and bell towers of Venice. The view out to the giant cruise ships, advancing menacingly on the harbour.
What could provide a more romantic place to write?
Stephen King would probably find it all rather distracting: “It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Geoff Dyer would see our Venice venue not so much as a romantic place to write as a romantic place to imagine himself writing – to conjure an image of his writing self, drinking in the light on the canals to produce prose that is deathless in Venice. Here’s his cynical rumination on the perfect place to write:
What they all had in common, these ideal places for working, was that I never got any work done in them. I would sit down at my desk and think to myself What perfect conditions for working, then I would look out at the sun smouldering over the wheat, or at the trees gathering the Tuscan light around themselves, or at the Parisians walking through the twilight and traffic of Rue de la Roquette, and I would write a few lines like ‘If I look up from my desk I can see the sun smouldering over the wheat’; or ‘Through my window: crowded twilight on the Rue de la Roquette’; and then, in order to make sure that what I was writing was capturing exactly the moment and mood, I would look up again at the sun smouldering over the flame-red wheat or the crowds moving through the neon twilight of Rue de la Roquette and add a few more words like ‘flame-red’ or ‘neon’, and then, in order to give myself over totally to the scene, would lay down my pen and simply gaze out at the scene…
All this got me thinking about places to write. Most of my books were written in a converted garage, gazing at a peeling wall. It was freezing in winter, sweltering in summer. (Stephen King would have approved.)
But at least I live in an age where I could have Virginia Woolf’s essential: a room of my own. Woolf, of course, was talking not simply of the physical room, but the space and encouragement in the world to work creatively.
Women of past generations, she said, were denied a quiet space, their own money, and they were barred from material support for the creative life, such as separate lodgings and travel.
The immaterial discouragement, though, was far worse.
”The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing? … For surely it is time that the effect of discouragement upon the mind of the artist should be measured…”
Things are different now, particularly for women. But we do, all of us, men and women, face different constraints. The demands on our time are enormous. The quiet space in which to write? Hmm. Who gets that? (When I started writing my first book, two small faces were constantly pressed against the cottage panes of my door. I could feel their eyes boring into my back.)
That’s where a retreat such as we provide can be so valuable. It offers just that: time out of your life, just to write. It provides a room of one’s own – and the company of other creative souls, when one is ready to emerge.
And I think Woolf was right to see travel as an aid to creativity. The truth is, we take our normal context for granted. We allow it to pass before our eyes, ears and noses, without actively observing. An exotic locale does inspire, in that it wakes up the senses. We notice the smell of damp and gelato, the tolling of the bells, feel the cobbles beneath our feet, and watch the sunrise over the water.
It offers a surfeit of sensory experience, which forces us back into the creative space of actively observing, and finding the words to describe what we’re experiencing.
The moral of the story? A retreat offers everything you need to write. But if you aren’t lucky enough to be with us? Of course you can be creative without travelling.
Carve out a little time each week and ring-fence it. Find a spot, even if it’s in the corner of a room used by others, where you can be out of the hurly-burly of family life.
Train yourself to see your familiar surroundings differently. Observe them as a stranger would: notice the specific details around you and find the words to put those across.
Thanks Virginia. You made valid points and you paved the way. We women have taken our place in the world. Yet, somehow, the space and time and money to write are still at a premium, and creative endeavour is not whole-heartedly encouraged, for men or for women. We need to snatch at our opportunities and sally forth in creative defiance.
Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Instructions for writing a winning manuscript‘
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