Where do you write? Its one of the most popular questions posed whenever a bunch of aspiring authors get to meet the real thing. The answers quickly dispel any romantic ideas that the forging of a masterpiece requires a sparsely furnished garret or purpose built shed in some enchanted corner of the garden.
Sheds do have their uses it seems. George Bernard Shaw built one as a special writing hut in the garden of his home in Hertfordshire, England. The hut was built on a revolving mechanism which enabled him to follow the sun throughout the day as he wrote. In a case of literary one-upmanship, Michael Morpugo built what he calls “a storyteller’s house.” Designed by his wife based on an Anglo-Saxon chapel in Essex, it boasts a Devon thatched roof, a Japanese garden and an uninterrupted view of the countryside, looking towards Dartmoor. Virginia Woolf had a converted toolshed but found it so impossibly cold in the winter she couldn’t hold her pen. My fellow national Dylan Thomas also had a writing shed. It’s absolutely nothing special to look at from the outside but from the rear window underneath which Thomas had his desk, he could look out onto the wide expanse of Cardigan Bay and watch the light playing on the water as the tide swept in.
Other writers prefer the humdrum normality of domesticity when creating the “room of one’s own”. Penelope Lively simply sits in an armchair with an “ancient electronic typewriter” on her lap; Ray Bradbury used the living room and bedrooms of his parent’s house in his early years. Jane Austen carved out a small space near the seldom-used front door as a secret writing corner. A creaking swing door gave her warning when anyone was coming, and she refused to have the creak remedied. Michael Morpugo apparently writes in bed though this is a rather special contraption
That oddity apart, there are a whole host of writers whose creative juices are unleashed far away from the domestic sphere. Bradbury presumably found his parents’ home too restrictive since he took himself off the the UCLA library to write Fahrenheit 451. Libraries too were the locations of choice for George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and G.B Shaw (all of whom were regular users of the Reading Roomat the British Museum in London). For Herman Melville and Willa Cather the New York Society Library was one of their favourite haunts. Maya Angelou used to escape from her home to a hotel on days when she wanted to write. In a 2013 interview with The Daily Beast, she explained how she kept a hotel room in her hometown and paid for it by the month.
I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles.
Angelou had all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room and banned all the hotel staff from entering it “just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded”.
By now of course we all know the story of how J.K Rowling produced the phenomenally successful Harry Potter series while sitting in an Edinburgh cafe. Although Rowling has said the idea of the boy wizard was conceived on a train journey, much of the writing was done in the back room of the Elephant House cafe overlooking the castle. It’s now one of the spots in the city that tourists love to visit. (Nearby Nicholson’s cafe where she also wrote is now a Chinese restaurant). For Rowling, a single mother struggling to make ends meet on state benefits, it was cheaper to buy a few coffees in these cafes than to heat her apartment.
It seems she’s not the only writer to find a stint in a cafe more productive than a few hours in their own home no matter how comfortable their study/workshop/writer’s den. In the Literary Hub just recently crime fiction supremo Jo Nesbø revealed that he although he has what he calls “the perfect writing room” constructed in the attic of his apartment and with a view of the hills of Oslo, he actually prefers to write in the corridor of a coffee shop. He goes there early each day to try and make sure to snaffle one of the two tables in the corridor since those are the only ones he finds conducive to writing. He will share a table if necessary but much prefers it if his companion moves off when they finish their coffee rather than engaging him in conversation.
I’m astonished he can concentrate enough to be creative. Most coffee shops I frequent these days are horribly noisy joints full of squawking infants (some places look more like a crèche than a cafe), and people from nearby offices trying to look terribly important when talking very loudly on their phones. Mix that in with the thumps as the barista tamps the coffee thingy on the counter to release the grounds before the next customer’s order; the hissing of the steam to create cappucchino foam, the pulverising of yet more beans and the grinding of ice for smoothies and you have one hell of a racket. I often can’t get out of the door fast enough but next time I’ll go looking in the darker recesses. I might just spot a writer in hot pursuit of a prize winning novel.