Room to Write
Agatha Christie did it in the bathtub.
Truman Capote preferred the bed. Edith Sitwell liked to lie in a coffin for a while before beginning. It’s
been done outdoors, in cars, in basements and in attics. Writers across the globe and throughout the centuries have
solved the question of where to write in thousands of creative ways. Just like what we write, where we write is part
of our identity: unique, self-selected, and necessary to the process as a whole.
Those of us who try to move a few words from
brain to paper on a regular basis know that the writing process itself is a constantly shifting challenge. There are
days when inspiration decides to bless you until you run out of ink, and you end up scrabbling through drawers searching desperately
for a functional pen. And there are days when the computer screen stares at you like an evil eye, and you can’t
remember a synonym for “red,” let alone compose a sonnet. For most writers, translating a thought into the
right words is enough of a battle. Having your own ideal place to in which to undertake that battle can provide stability,
inspiration, and sanctuary. It can even be the magic charm that summons your muse when you need her most.
Virginia Woolf wrote passionately about a
writer’s need for a room of her own. As Woolf knew, having a room devoted to the work of writing not only gives
the writer a refuge in which to put pen on paper, but it validates the work itself. Many writers share Woolf’s
philosophy, and set up home offices or studios in which they can work in privacy, surrounded by their favorite scenes and
Ernest Hemingway wrote in a spacious studio
above the garage on his Key West estate.
Anne of Green Gables creator L.M. Montgomery
claimed an upstairs room with an inspiring view in the manse that she shared with her husband and sons.
Horror novelist Stephen King works in a rather
cluttered room where he knows that the same chair, the same stacks of paper, and the same tools are always ready and waiting.
Of course, not every writer has the luxury
of an entire room. Many writers who eventually achieved great acclaim started out in cramped and awkward spots.
Some even describe these first work spaces with a touch of pride, like your grandparents did when recalling the twelve mile
walk to school, through wolf-infested forests, over unpaved roads that slanted uphill, miraculously, in both directions.
Living in a small London apartment after the birth
of his first child with fellow poet Sylvia Plath, future Poet Laureate Ted Hughes wrote in a tiny entryway just large enough
for a card table and chair, and found the space incredibly productive.
Long before she won a Pulitzer, American poet
Anne Sexton claimed a corner of the family dining room for her table and typewriter.
Southern novelist Michael Lee West once set
up camp in a closet in order to develop her craft in the early morning before her children woke.
Louisa May Alcott, like her heroine Jo March,
wrote in the family garret, where she could hear rain pattering on the roof.
Some writers’ preferences are even more
space-specific. The list of writers who frequently – or always – wrote in bed includes Capote, Proust, Edith
Wharton, and insomniacs like Vladimir Nabokov, who kept index cards beneath his pillow. Others, like Agatha Christie,
have been inspired by the bathtub; Edmond Rostand and Benjamin Franklin both liked to write surrounded by suds.
Then there are those who have to get out of
the house to write. You only need to glance around your neighborhood coffee shop (even better if it’s a bookstore-slash-coffee
shop) for proof that the café is still the locale of choice for writers, pretentious and unpretentious alike. For this,
we may have history to blame: an entire subgenre of poetry was born in the Viennese coffeehouses of the 19th century, and
the cafés of Paris were iconic nests of literature before the days when Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and a young Hemingway scribbled
J.K. Rowling famously wrote the foundations
of the Harry Potter series in Edinburgh ’s coffee shops and still likes to work in cafes (although she now finds frequent recognition
by fans to be a distraction).
Other writers require different non-domestic
settings. Gertrude Stein discovered that she needed to go no farther than the front seat of her Ford, “Godiva,”
parked at the curb in front of her home.
Maya Angelou declares that she cannot write
at home, and goes to a nearby hotel room where she can enclose herself in concentration.
And for those who need complete immersion
in the work, a shack provides the ultimate solution.
It is no coincidence that many writers’
colonies feature small, separate studios where privacy and a sense of focus are the goals. Thoreau’s ten-foot-square
cabin at Walden Pond
may have been the prototype for all of the writing cabins and studios that were to come.
George Bernard Shaw worked in a hut constructed
on a rotating platform so that it could follow the sun.
Mark Twain wrote, lying down, from the refuge
of the octagonal one-room studio built especially for him by his sister-in-law.
Annie Dillard, who often writes from the isolation
of a small cabin, prefers working in a space where there is nothing to interrupt the energy of the work.
Think of the rooms in your own home.
There are rooms devoted to food, to family, to sleep – and perhaps to the television. Maybe you have an office
where your supposedly nine-to-five job has wormed its way into your evening hours. You may have an exercise room, a
music room, a sewing room, a guest room, or even a billiard room, if you live in a Clue-style mansion. Your personal
priorities are revealed in this list. If you want to make writing a priority in your life, give it some space.
Whether it is an office, a favorite café,
a bathtub, or a corner in your kitchen, discover a place that works for you. Making room to write will remove one of
the many challenges of the writing process. If you’re lucky, it may even be your inspiration.
West is a full-time writer living and working in Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in journals including The Pedestal
Magazine, Inkwell Journal, Barnwood, flashquake, and St. Ann's Review, and she has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Her novel for young readers, The First Book of Elsewhere: Olive and the Shadows, is
forthcoming from Dial in 2010. More about her work can be found at www.jacquelinewest.net.