I have been thinking a lot lately about Virginia Woolf’s ‘room of one’s own’. The actual quotation is, ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ It strikes me as peculiar that when quoting her people often go straight for the essay title and leave out the money bit. Woolf goes on, ‘In the first place, to have a room of her own was out of the question unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble.’ Thankfully that class nonsense isn’t so much of an issue these days but, as any impoverished writer knows if you don’t have enough cash you’ll have to share your space.
Just a desk of my own would suit me. At present I share mine (in the far corner of the lounge) with my husband, two kids and the cat. It is the favoured location for homework, photographic editing, Ben 10 games and the preferred sleeping spot of the cat (high up and under a nice warm desk lamp. This week I have a particularly bad case of desk envy. At the weekend we moved the youngest from cot bed to grown-up bunk bed, the bottom shelf of which is made up entirely of desk space and a yard long bookcase (sigh!). Baby boy loves his new desk and has lined up his felt tips and sticker books ready for action. The oldest has a similar arrangement in his room but and clear space is hidden under boy stuff and sweet wrappers so he can’t actually use it. He uses mine instead. Come 3.30 and any access to the family desk is blocked by a ten-year-old (sometimes with several friends) frantically clicking at the mouse to try and get to the next level. After he’s gone to bed my husband takes possession to tinker with pixels. I shouldn’t complain; I’ve got it all day haven’t I? And it’s not as if I’ve anything else to do.
Twitter isn’t helping. There’s always some super-successful author moaning about how cold it is in their Roald Dahl style writing shed. Are you having a laugh? A whole shed? Buy an electric heater and shut up about it. Next you’ll be winging about how humid it is and how annoying the glare of the sun is through your leaden windows! I bet your cat doesn’t keep closing down your masterpiece as it stretches out on the keyboard, knocking over precarious piles of books, magazines and games. I really should give it spring clean but I don’t really have the time. I take heart from this picture of Einstein’s desk – look at the state of that!
I have been looking at a lot of pictures of famous writer’s desks, just out of curiosity. There are loads to choose from – just Google it and marvel at the variety. Some are neat and tidy. I’m a bit suspicious of those; I can’t work if there’s too much order and wonder where these authors put their ‘research’ and how much time they spend colour-coding their pen collection. I’m fascinated by the writing space of really famous authors, to go to the former home of Dickens or The Brontes and have a nose around is heavenly. I love to touch the grain of an ancient wooden desk and think about all the creativity that was born there, the toiling of an author long dead over a work still read decades later. It’s inspiring just looking at the pictures and interesting too, the neatness, the size. Jane Austen wrote on a tiny little table by the window with a quill pen, Hemmingway (in Key West at least) wrote in the middle of the room over-looked by the heads of animals he had shot, the Brontes sat together at an enormous dining table like an early writing co-operative (mind you there wasn’t much else to do was there?). Sharing my desk with the cat doesn’t really help me much; apart from the occasional yawn he’s not great on feedback.
Of course I have a laptop so I can just head out and find a bohemian café to agonise in. The thing is I’m not that keen. The words don’t really flow in public cafes. For a start off I usually bump into someone I know and then there’s the hovering waiting staff asking if I want a refill, or babies crying and if I drink too much coffee it costs a fortune and I keep needing the loo. The café has to be just right, it has to be big enough to hide in from friends and waiters, with tall ceilings and no piped music, and I prefer diverting decoration and real-fire cosiness. As you can see I am quite hard to please, especially for someone whose own writing space isn’t up to much, but I think if I’ve made the effort to go out to write it should be worth going out for. I have found my perfect writing café but I’ve only been there once about 15 years ago, it’s on the ground floor of a hotel in Brussels and I have no idea what the hotel is called or where it is in the city. It’s a beautiful place with no literary pretensions whatsoever (unlike all those French tourist-trap cafes where Scott Fitzgerald partied until dawn) the ceilings are high and chandeliered, the walls are mirrored, the tables hidden behind marble pillars. I sat there for hours one day undisturbed. I only wish I knew what it was called (but my memory isn’t as good as it was!) then I could try and persuade the owners to transport it here brick by brick and re-build it just down the road.