Do you need a dedicated writing space?
Where do you get most productive? Is it in a library, wrapped in silence and inhaling the quiet dedication of everyone else who looks far more committed and studious than you are? Or do you have Virginia Woolf’s often-quoted ‘room of one’s own’, your private space where you can escape the tumult of everyday life and focus fully on your writing? Or maybe you’re someone who can write anywhere, however noisy and distracting, when you’re on a roll?
I don’t have a ‘best’ place for writing. Different aspects of the above examples appeal to me in different ways, according to my mood, or what’s available.
When I’m working at the university, for example, I love to take myself to the Silent Study Room. It’s high up, with views over the park on one side and the town on the other – sometimes, I think just being a few levels above ground is a good way to detach from ‘normal’ life. Maybe it’s something to do with being closer to the sky and a more ethereal headspace. But the silence is wonderful, probably because it is so rare to be able to find it in our everyday comings and goings. And the room is usually half-empty, or filled with earnest, slightly frazzled third year students, focusing intently on their dissertations (first and second years tend to prefer the open, group study rooms where they can chat and eat crisps loudly and play on their bloody phones). So there’s a peace that may not exactly pass all understanding but certainly creates a cocoon that feels very nurturing and supportive. And I think that being surrounded by books and journals makes me feel a bit more scholarly, and thus take my work a bit more seriously.
Years ago when I was a researcher, I joined the British Library (back in the days when it was in the Reading Room at the British Museum). That really was the ultimate writing space – a stunning domed room literally creaking with history and moment, breathtaking not just in its beauty but the sheer weight of its past. Writers who worked there include Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Mahatma Gandhi, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, H G Wells and Conan Doyle. Louis MacNeice wrote a poem about it (which you can read here) and in one of my favourite lines describes it as ‘a world which is safe and silent’. I think this is true of all libraries – they don’t have to be as awe-inspiring (and perhaps intimidating) as the British Library, but they provide a rare bolt-hole, a temporary step off the busy walkway of life into an almost balmy quiet and focus.
(Source: Dmgerman at English Wikipedia)
To my eternal sadness, the Reading Room is no longer open to the public – the British Library has moved to new premises further down the Euston Road, still a very exciting and inspiring place to visit, but lacking the almost monumental status of the original room. I’m glad I got to spend some time there briefly, and hope that one day it might re-open in some form (its future is uncertain) that makes it once again available to writers, readers and scholars.
But what if a library isn’t your thing? Too quiet, or hard to get to, or even not open on the days you can get there? Creating your own space at home is a brilliant option if you can do it. Somewhere permanent to keep your work, and all the materials that gather around it. I was once told by someone who wasn’t a writer that I didn’t need ‘writing space’ – all I needed was a notebook and pen, and I could write anywhere. I do think this is true up to a point, but more of how to achieve that later. The fact is, there’s a whole load more to it than just paper and pen. Research, for a start. All those photos, articles, scribbled notes and even books that you need to refer to in order to create the world of your story. That can take up whole walls, and shelf upon shelf – and that’s just for one project. What if you have several on the go at once?! Where do you store your early drafts, the pages and pages of background and story planning and character profiles you’ve created along the way? Yes, some of it can live on a computer hard drive, but writing is a tactile process, I think. You need to see, feel, touch all the elements that are going into your story, and have them ready to hand. And then there’s inspiration – pictures, quotes, vision boards … and perhaps a timetable to keep you on track. So if you’re lucky enough to be able to carve out a space in your home, do it. It’s about so much more than just escaping, finding a bolt-hole – it’s about creating the space for your ideas to breathe.
And finally, that ‘just a notebook and pen’ option. This actually works for me, too. I can remove myself temporarily from the ‘project hub’ of my study and take myself to a café or park, and just the fact that I have only paper and pen makes me more focused on one particular element that needs working on. Stepping away from the rest of the project – and, ideally, from electronics or communication that could interrupt – means I can get really specific. For instance, if I’m feeling overwhelmed by the amount I’ve got to get done, and being at home is just making me worry about the loads of laundry that need to be sorted, and the cat won’t get off the keyboard … those are the moments when the home office isn’t really functioning at its peak. But if I choose one element that I need to work on – a scene that’s not working, for example, or a character arc that doesn’t feel properly resolved – then I can take it, and me, away from all the life-work-home-kids-career-story-clutter and let my head focus on just that one thing. Headphones and innocuous music (or whatever fires your creativity/distracts the least) shut out the surrounding noise, and pen flies across paper in a wonderfully free way, unencumbered by all the other distractions.
These are just three options. There are lots and lots more out there, and my preference changes according to mood, and levels of pressure. The fact is, once there’s a deadline in place and I have to get the work done, I’ll do it anywhere. But we don’t always have the ‘luxury’ of pressure, so I think it’s good to try out a range of different methods. Which works best for you?
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