A few weeks ago, I started an argument with myself over at my blog, One Night Stanzas. It was about whether or not I ought to turn the tiny spare room of the sunny fifth-floor flat I share with my boyfriend into my own private “writing room.” The slightly angsty resulting blogpost is a fairly accurate representation of the issues that buzzed around in my head as I began to tidy out the non-writing-related junk and haul all my academic books into their new space. Do I really need a writing room? Isn’t it a bit privileged and hipsterish of me to want one? Is this what Virginia Woolf really meant when she talked about A Room Of One’s Own? And perhaps most importantly, will it actually make any difference at all to my writing?
Two months on, I’m here to report back. I was initially cheered by the comments that appeared at the bottom of the blogpost, and in answer to my posting it on Facebook. Some fellow writers chimed in to say that they, too, had managed to purpose-build spaces to devote to writing, and many reported positive results. Still others warned me that I’d find a “home office” set-up too clinical for creative work, and end up moving all my junk and half-dried laundry back into the spare room in no time. However, they assured me, if I did jack it all in and go back to writing on public transport, it wouldn’t matter. The important thing is to keep writing, and never mind where was the overwhelming message.
However, I’ve been really surprised by just how much devoting a space to work in has changed how I approach the creative process. Previously, I’ve always thought of writing as something instinctive, spontaneous — though I sometimes envied them, I’d never been able to understand the writers I know who get up early and write solidly for three hours every single day, without fail. It used to be my genuine belief that writing came via — and yes, it’s a cliché — flashes of inspiration. The logic went something like, well, if I’m going to have to sit around and wait for the Muse to appear, I might as well get on with other stuff at the same time. As a result, my creative output was always patchy, and I spent my time turning green over fellow writers who blithely threw around words like ‘prolific’.
Now, things are changing. I’m starting to understand what makes me write, what facilitates my particularly good writing, and what holds me back. Now, I go into the spare room (I still can’t bring myself to call it “the writing room”, or “the office”), sit down, and make it happen. No more waiting for the elusive Muse, and no more going off to clean my skirting boards or make a cup of tea because “I’m just not in the right mood at the moment”. Sometimes I have to eyeball a terrible clean page or blank screen for a good hour before anything really starts to happen, which can be incredibly intimidating, and frustrating. Sometimes, I admit, I give up. But usually — more often than not — something will eventually appear. A phrase, a sentence. And then I’m in business.
I’ve learned that writing is rather like meditation. Unless you’ve spent a lot of time and become really expert at it, you can’t just do it anywhere. You really do need to go into a space that facilitates clear thought, feels safe and promotes inner calm (funnily enough, for some people this place can be a train, or a park bench, or a busy cafe). Even when you’re in the right space, getting into the right mindset can take a little time. It can feel deeply annoying, not being able to just do it, straight away. But it does come, eventually, with patience. I genuinely never knew writing could be like that.
I’ve learned that I need the spare room to be tidy. I literally cannot sit among a mess, even if I can’t see any of it, and write well. So I when I’ve finished each writing day, I make sure things are relatively well organised and neat for when I start again the next day. I’ve found that I can work at any time of day, if I’m in the spare room — previously, I used to tell myself that I couldn’t work in the evening because I was tired and wouldn’t be able to think straight. I’ve learned that once I get started I can work solidly, with frequent short breaks, the way my novelist friends do. And I’ve found that now, when flashes of inspiration strike, I prefer to go into the spare room before I start working on them. Basically, I’ve started to think about writing the way I’d think about A Proper Job, and my behaviours and thought processes have followed suit. The spare room is my workplace, and when I’m in it, I get on with my work. It makes stark, obvious sense, but I’d just never thought about it that way before. Before, when I snatched at the odd half-hour here and there to scribble down my supposedly Muse-delivered ideas, I wasn’t really giving the process the time, space and respect it deserved.
I think the space that’s undergone the most radical change is the space inside my head. The spare room doesn’t look all that different — it still houses the drying-racks with their damp socks, and there’s still a bed in there in case anyone wants to come and visit. There are more books, some writing-related bits and pieces pinned on the walls, and less junk, but that’s about it. However, by going into the spare room, clearing it out a bit and giving the space a proper, serious purpose, I’ve unwittingly done the same thing to my brain. It’s only been two months, and already I’ve felt a significant shift in the way I feel about my own writing. I think that until now, even though I outwardly railed against the very suggestion, a part of me still thought of writing (and poetry in particular) as just footering — just messing about, a hobby. Now I’m more in control of it, I respect it for what it really is: sometimes hard, always meaningful work. It was worth winning the argument for that realisation alone.