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[Guest Post] ‘Insert photo of author, relaxing at home in their study’ by Vaughan Simons.

February 27, 2012 \pm\29 1:13 pm

I’m writing this at a messy desk in my bedroom. It’s where I usually work, type and, all too rarely these days, write. The desk occasionally wobbles slightly from side to side because the screws need tightening. Self-assembly IKEA furniture isn’t meant to last ten years or endure two house moves, and this desk is definitely on its last legs. Instead of gazing out on a panoramic view, if I look straight ahead all I see is an uninspiring wall painted in a shade that will be familiar to many: Slapdash-Cheap-Interior-Decorating-of-Rental-Property Magnolia. As working spaces go, it’s not what you’d call memorable.

I’ve sometimes claimed that I can’t write because my working space isn’t conducive to coming up with thoughts, ideas and words. Where a more fortunately-accommodated writer might gaze out on a street scene, see a woman looking annoyed as she walks her dog and suddenly come up with the seed of a story in which she’s about to go home and smash her cheating partner’s face in with an anvil (work with me here, maybe she’s a part-time blacksmith or something), I look at my grubby wall of Rental Property Magnolia and think that my landlords are taking the piss at these prices and it’s about time they redecorated. This, unsurprisingly, does not lead to many compelling ideas for fiction.

It’s just an excuse, of course. If I had an idea which grabbed hold of my imagination, refused to let go and made me bash away at my keyboard late into the night, then I’d be able to get the words down just as well in my current surroundings as I would anywhere else. On a few occasions, that’s even happened. While I’m prepared to concede that the environment in which a writer works might sometimes assist their creativity, I think it’s only a minor factor at best.

That’s why I despise this ever-increasing fetishisation of “writers’ rooms”. It’s everywhere now, from writers posting tastefully filtered Instagram images of their working space on Twitter along with the almost obligatory #amwriting hashtag (yes, we know you’re a writer, you don’t need to tell us again in such a supercilious manner), through to literary blogs devoting entire posts to galleries of their favoured indie writers’ studies. But it all started – and continues to this day – in the back pages of newspaper colour supplements:

“In this week’s At Home With My Words, [upper-middle-class author] invites us into his beautiful family residence in one of London’s most exclusive postcodes, to show us the Regency-style study in which he’s written twenty-seven bestselling thrillers and to tell us about a typical day penning his latest masterpiece.

‘Well, once the children – Tarquin, Florenza and De Quincey – have departed to their respective private tutors, I take Ethelred, our faithful Old English Sheepdog, for a run on the heath. When I return home, I make myself some freshly ground coffee and cut a few slices of fruit – or if I’m feeling really wicked, help myself to a small croissant – then I lock myself away in my study. This place (I hardly know how to describe it, it’s so much more than just a simple room) is my bolthole, my hideaway, it’s where I can really be myself and let the magic happen. Gazing out on the wild expanse of the heath gives me such inspiration, as do the photos on my desk of my dear children and my darling wife, Cynthia, who is about to unveil her new exhibition of experimental clay art. After a few calming minutes spent cross-legged on the floor, chanting and cleansing my chakras, I approach my desk, the temple of creativity, and sit in my leather and mahogany chair – it was originally owned by Charles Dickens when he wrote David Copperfield, and I do feel it passes on some of his genius to me, though of course I would never compare myself, absolutely not. Finally I open up my 1950s Remington typewriter – I only use the MacBook Pro for the final draft, because I prefer the very physical connection, the innate bond, the visceral sensation of the clattering typewriter keys – and write for two hours before breaking for a spot of elevenses, during which I might chat to our live-in gardener about the herbaceous borders or settle the bill for our weekly organic vegetable delivery.’”

With this desire to document the details of writers’ rooms spreading to sites and publications covering the latest generation of authors, it seems that no matter how ‘independent’, how fearsomely ‘alternative’ or how apparently ‘cutting edge’ a writer is, they’re just as willing to invite inquisitive photographers and journalists into their home. The only things that change are the signifiers of location and background: so the Regency-style study in an exclusive postcode becomes a tastefully-lit corner of a city loft apartment, the family photographs become torn black and white posters of Beckett, Bukowski and Burroughs, and the typewriter becomes a desktop Mac with a huge monitor. (“Though, hey, sometimes I just lie on the sofa, right, and scribble everything in my Moleskine. Cos, like, if it worked for Hemingway it’s surely gonna work for me, know what I mean?”)

This is how the myth continues: that the place one writes is something special, beyond the comprehension of mere non-writers, and only to be discussed in hushed, almost reverential tones.

The rooms inhabited by these writers, whether their owners are part of the old or the fashionable new guard, are always immaculate, pristine, with nothing out of place. What I want to know is: who the hell spends hours writing without managing to make a mess? No writer I know, that’s for sure. I’ll admit to being a bit of a neatness freak, yet even my desk is piled high with papers, books and other junk. The only difference is that all of it is tidily stacked and scrupulously straightened.

I’m much more interested in seeing a writer’s room recorded for posterity without warning: send the photographer and the journalist around after the author has emerged from a 48-hour, caffeine-fuelled binge of frenzied typing, after a disturbed and fitful 2-hour sleep, pulling their hair out and not changing their clothes in an effort to get a book finished for a deadline. Photograph the room at that precise moment. Let’s see it looking lived in, used and abused. If we must fetishise writers’ rooms, don’t make them look like gleaming examples of interior design perfection straight out of a lifestyle magazine; no, give us some reality. The photos on this page were kindly supplied by writer Louis Barfe (also on Twitter as LFBarfe) and they show his writing environment. While Louis’s room might be an extreme example – even he admits that he’s “ashamed of the floor” – it’s probably closer to the reality of a typical writing space for many people reading this.

The final problem with the artistic property porn involved in showing off writers’ rooms? We only get to see them when the writers have achieved moderate success. Obvious, really. No one’s going to be knocking on the door of a dingy bedsit in a rundown part of town, where a minimum wage shop-worker who’s had an idea for a story is trying to battle through tiredness each evening so they can tentatively type a little more of it on their cheap laptop, while their TV dinner heats up in the oven and the neighbours on each side argue or play loud music. Again, though, I’d much prefer to have that scene preserved in a photograph, to get an idea of the environment where the writer started, what inspired them about it, what they hated about it, and how the hell they managed to do anything creative while stuck there.

Take out your phone and snap a quick photo of where you write. Don’t send it to me – I’m not that interested, if I’m honest. Don’t send it to We Who Are About To Die either. Just store it to be used for compare and contrast purposes with your future At Home With My Words feature, when you’ve made it to the big time.

Vaughan Simons is not afraid of the future. He is also not afraid to call a spade an implement with which to facilitate the act of gardening. He often grabs a bull by the horns and shouts “Sorry, wrong bull!” Find him here, there and everywhere.

  1. February 27, 2012 \pm\29 2:09 pm 2:09 pm

    Wherever laptop will sit. Ashtrays. Mugs. If have been writing for a while, many and manky with things growing in them. If am smoking cigarettes instead of roll ups there is more mess. If I write in bed, I can turn my bed into a burrow over the period of about 10 hours. 9 of which will have been spent on twitter or dossing on the net laughing at things I wouldn’t dare admit searching for. If people turn up at house, or my daughter returns from her dads, I have to make the house not look like a squat. This is not always successful in the time allowed. When she is here, my writing ‘room’ is whatever time I can get to the laptop without demands for scooby bloody do. MY routine then is to fret that I won;’t ever get time to concentrate on writing this. I generally don’t snaffle healthy and luxurious foods, my corner shop does a nice line in immediately edible foodstuffs. Opal fruit wrappers, crisp bags and sandwich crusts accumulate with the ashtrays. I want a writers room, but it would look like a squat after I had been writing in it for a day. That’s if I ever got over the pressure of having a specified area in which to spew out my creative genius…

  2. February 28, 2012 \pm\29 2:24 pm 2:24 pm

    WONDERFUL! You can’t imagine where I began writing one year ago. I said enuf and began. I lived in a 3 story victorian with storefront, leaky roof with kiddie swimming pools to catch it, a few apace heaters, lots of hot baths in the winter. rescue dogs and cats, no kitchen to cook in and I said so what. And began huddled over my computer. It was the most productive time of my life.

  3. March 5, 2012 \pm\31 9:54 pm 9:54 pm

    There is no place or time to write, just the inspiration that touches your soul… Keep up the good work.

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