James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat – and composed Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. Conrad Aiken worked at a refectory table in the dining room; Robert Graves wrote in a room furnished only with objects made by hand. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up; D. H. Lawrence under a tree. Nathalie Sarraute chose to write in a neighborhood café, at the same time, and same table, every morning. “It is a neutral place,” she said, “and no one disturbs me – there is no telephone.”
The variety of spaces within which writers choose to practice their art is as infinite as the different styles they write in and plots they pen. Some writers prefer company and background noise, while others need isolation – even seeking out loneliness to better enhance their work. Some need the magical monotony of sameness, and others the inspiration of variety.
But are there any qualities that these ‘creative safe spaces’ have in common, beyond the superficial differences of location or appearance?
Just as certain spaces seem to lend themselves to the art of reading, providing a near perfect sanctuary for doing so, so too, perhaps, do some places seem ideally suited to the act of writing. Or, at least, perhaps there are shared characteristics of places that provide necessary elements conducive to the act of writing and creative expression.
This is the subject of a fascinating hypothesis from Ted Hughes, one of the true giants of 20th century British poetry, which he discusses during an interview with the Paris Review.
Asked whether he has a favourite place to write, Hughes embarks on a wonderfully enlightening and thoughtful off-the-cuff verbal essay on writing spaces, and whether it is possible for writers to write anywhere, or if there are certain elements that are required to make a place suitable to practice one’s chosen art. He says:
“Hotel rooms are good. Railway compartments are good. I’ve had several huts of one sort or another. Ever since I began to write with a purpose I’ve been looking for the ideal place. I think most writers go through it. I’ve known several who liked to treat it as a job—writing in some office well away from home, going there regular hours. Sylvia had a friend, a novelist, who used to leave her grand house and go into downtown Boston to a tiny room with a table and chair where she wrote facing a blank wall. Didn’t Somerset Maugham also write facing a blank wall?
Subtle distraction is the enemy—a big beautiful view, the tide going in and out. Of course, you think it oughtn’t to matter, and sometimes it doesn’t. Several of my favourite pieces in my book Crow I wrote travelling up and down Germany with a woman and small child—I just went on writing wherever we were.”
Musing on the idea that solitude is crucial for writing, Hughes considers whether loneliness is something writers are drawn to, or if this is something writers can con themselves into thinking:
“Goethe couldn’t write a line if there was another person anywhere in the same house, or so he said at some point. I’ve tried to test it on myself, and my feeling is that your sense of being concentrated can deceive you. Writing in what seems to be a happy concentrated way, in a room in your own house with books and everything necessary to your life around you, produces something noticeably different, I think, from writing in some empty silent place far away from all that. Because however we concentrate, we remain aware at some level of everything around us. Fast asleep, we keep track of the time to the second. The person conversing at one end of a long table quite unconsciously uses the same unusual words, within a second or two, as the person conversing with somebody else at the other end—though they’re amazed to learn they’ve done it.”
Intriguingly, Hughes suggests that the content we are writing, and the form and style in which we write, may be intrinsically linked to the location base ourselves when we come to begin writing. Different places provide for different atmospheres, which lend themselves to different feelings and different levels of concentration. He says:
“Different kinds of writing need different kinds of concentration. Goethe, picking up a transmission from the other side of his mind, from beyond his usual mind, needs different tuning than Enoch Powell when he writes a speech. Brain rhythms would show us what’s going on, I expect. But for me successful writing has usually been a case of having found good conditions for real, effortless concentration. When I was living in Boston, in my late twenties, I was so conscious of this that at one point I covered the windows with brown paper to blank out any view and wore earplugs—simply to isolate myself from distraction. That’s how I worked for a year. When I came back to England, I think the best place I found in that first year or two was a tiny cubicle at the top of the stairs that was no bigger than a table really. But it was a wonderful place to write. I mean, I can see now, by what I wrote there, that it was a good place. At the time it just seemed like a convenient place.”
Of course, finding a suitable creative space to write is only part of the struggle. Indeed, the challenges facing writers today mean that, to a very real extent, all books are written against impossible odds. Yet it seems undeniable that certain writers need certain spaces in which to write. So, what spaces do you require? Do you choose coffee shops and public spaces, or secluded spaces and secrecy? Can you write wherever you feel relaxed, or do you need specific conditions, with everything adjusted just so – following the style of Virginia Woolf, for instance, who spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-a-half foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to work both up close and from afar?
In short: where do you write, and why do you write there? Share your ideas for the ideal places for writing in the comments below!