The incomparable Virginia Woolf had cut right to the heart of the truth when she proclaimed that writers –— she was speaking of mainly female and hence, disadvantaged writers — needed a place to call their own, to be able to mine their creativity and send it out into the world. In short, she was saying that once the security of having a roof over one’s head was established, a writer could settle down to her only business — that of writing. Woolf also said that happiness was another commodity a writer needed, to be in possession of an ability to write, but that view seems to have changed in recent times; these days, they say, unless a writer has suffered and experienced pain, no worthwhile writing could possibly stem from her.
In fact, they say, an unhappy childhood is a great qualification to possess in the world of writing fiction. That perspective can be debated endlessly while the matter of having a room of own’s own seems to have changed little for some and very radically for others.
An absurdly famous children’s writer wrote her now iconic early novels in a coffee shop in Edinburgh; when she scaled the walls of success and stardom, she chose to write in a rented hotel room. Her own home seemed not to feature in the alchemy of her writing. Have Woolf’s assertions become redundant in the modern world? Closer to home, writers, by strength of numbers, reply that they have not. A private space is the first thing a writer seeks out as she begins to write: it could be a room with the door shut or open depending on the mood of the writer; it could be a corner of a room; it could be a seat in a garden. What is essential is that it be private, so nothing and nobody can intrude upon the landscape of the writer’s thoughts. The nobody is the easy part, many writers assert, it is easy enough to keep people out of sight and keep out of sight of other people; what is impossible to achieve is the exclusion of noise.
Noise, that pollutant drifting along on fresh spring breezes and crisp winter ones; the one enemy all writers fear and dread with unanimous passion. The modern world is riddled with noise of all manners: construction noise, the blaring of neighbours’ televisions, the excessively loud cries of children at play, the crackle of loudspeakers at auspicious times, and of course, the daily rumble of traffic. All music, perhaps, to the ears of those not attempting to write the best novel of the century, but anathema to those that are. How does a writer circumvent this wily enemy? That a writer can be endlessly inventive in the pursuit of her craft is clear: the methods are numerous. The simplest strategy is to write at a time the rest of the world is immersed in slumber: the very early mornings and at night, slogging it out until the first birds stir. The larks among writers are the luckier ones, society accepts them as harmless cranks, hard-working souls chasing technicolour dreams. The owls suffer the wrath of a society devoted to the normal Circadian rhythm; people that stay up until unhealthy hours in the night are viewed with suspicion. When they take to their beds as the sun peeps through the windows, they do so at the risk of being labelled lazy, less than industrious individuals.
Another unique way some writers demolish the noise problem is by making some of their own. They play music, mainly instrumental, so it is easy to tuck away into the background of one’s mind, and write. A writer is nothing if not creative.
Once in possession of one’s room, what else does a writer look for? A desk? Many writers today are of a generation that have been brought up to work at a desk and only at a desk, just as they had been brought up to write only cursive longhand and only with fountain pens, preferably Wing Sun or Sheaffer ones with blue ink. Yet, very few are addicted to a desk.
Many prefer a comfortable sofa, a place where one can even sit cross-legged if required. The desk seems to have been abandoned, but not the longhand: painful as it may sound, many writers still write out their first drafts by hand. Can the dedication required to write out seventy, eighty thousand and more words, by hand, be measured? Easier, perhaps to work at a computer and naturally, many of the younger writers cannot do without their laptops or desktops, and sometimes both. Technology has sprung new options for writers and some have used all devices at their disposal; one writer sends text messages to herself when inspiration strikes in unsuitable places such as supermarkets, and another speaks into a dictaphone, capturing the urgent inspiration and transcribing it at leisure later.
Pots of coffee, jugs of tea, even chocolate cake are other necessary props of the struggling writer’s life. Many others smoke, while more motivated individuals grab a walk. Nothing like a walk, preferably a circular one on a track where the feet move to an embedded rhythm and the mind is free to chase details of the novels — elusive characters into dark alleys and twisting plots as they loop themselves into pretzels. And once the blood is pumping and the mind is as clear as the call of the koel from the next mango tree, the writer hurries back into that fiercely guarded space, that room or corner of one’s own and struggles through the waning light until the break of the day. There are magnificent rewards to be had: the unexpected sight of the sun sleepily cresting the rim of the building next door or a clutch of finches balancing on the tree outside the window. Sometimes, if one is lucky, someone even reads the words so painfully put down on paper and writes back to the author with heart touching comments saying she knew exactly what the author meant and felt. So, freshly enthused, the writer then soldiers on, in that space she fiercely calls her own.