I used to rant and rage than I had nowhere in which to write. I wanted a door to close, an inviolable space. Instead I had a small desk in the corner of the living room – a room littered with toys, and a desk littered with domestic admin. My view was of the brick wall of a railway line, against which our little house hunched. Commuters could look out of the train window and clock me as I sat at my desk.
If only the physical conditions were perfect, I knew the words would flow out of me. I began visiting famous writers’ houses to discover their secret. Virginia Woolf had a ‘writing lodge’, as the National Trust calls it today – no shed, this – at the bottom of the rambling garden of Monk’s House, Rodmell. The desk faces out, towards the Downs. It’s a mind-expanding view: far horizons, big sky, light, racing shadows.
Rudyard Kipling had a seriously large study at Bateman’s, Burwash – perhaps the biggest room in the house, right at its heart. It is oak panelled, mullion windowed, the walls insulated by books. The desk is immense; masculine. The polished carver chair is commodious. Antique globes sit on the Turkey rugs. I imagined his unwelcome wife Carrie tiptoeing around him; the maid nervously bringing a tray with tea things.
But who has an oak-panelled study in their home? No writers that I know of. Most of us write on the fringes of ours and of other people’s lives – café tables, on the train, a table at the library, in the kitchen. Holding the thread, keeping the creative magic going can be very hard.
I booked myself onto a course with the Arvon Foundation: ‘Non-Fiction, Work in Progress’. The site was rural Devon, a thatched longhouse. No internet, no mobile phone signal. For one week, this small group of would-be and published writers would actually stop talking about writing and write.
I had, of course, imagined the view I’d look down on from my desk in the eaves: a patchwork of fields, grazing sheep, cobalt skies. And how the sloping floorboards, beamed ceiling and thick, silent walls would all inspire me at my laptop.
I was the last to arrive, and was given a key to a room on the ground floor. The door was hidden under the staircase, and the room looked out onto the gravel car park. It was about the size of a prisoner’s cell – perhaps smaller – and the desk was no bigger than a child’s. I could barely fit my thighs under it. No sun streamed through the window. A bluebottle buzzed helplessly against the small windowpane.
I stormed back into the Arvon office.
‘I’m sorry, but this week means so much to me – I’ve left my children with my husband, saved up for months, I HAVE to be able to write!’
Sorry, they told me; this was my room.
I took home from that week a photograph of that little desk. I wanted a talisman to look at whenever I complained about my writing environment. It was horrible, but I grew to love it. The writing process became – not painless, but strangely easy. So this is how Jeffrey Archer wrote so much in prison, I found myself thinking. Nothing but the four walls, and the inside of one’s head. ‘My imagination came alive,’ the writer Kazuo Ishiguro said recently, ‘when I moved away from the immediate world around me.’
Now that I live in Hastings, I do have a room of my own. I have a sea view over pitched roofs and autumnal sycamores. But – perversely – I find that to write, I have to leave those four familiar walls and find some neutral space. A café, a seaside bench, a random table in the corner of a lending library. Or the train, where I’m writing right now.
Tessa Boase is author of ‘The Housekeeper’s Tale’ (Aurum Press)