Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Writing in outer space

A comment made by Doris Lessing in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech refers to the concept of "space" and how that affects writers:

Writers are often asked, How do you write? With a processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand? But the essential question is, "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?" Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas – inspiration.

If this writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn.

When writers talk to each other, what they ask each other is always to do with this space, this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"

One of the facts that are often reported about my fellow Scot, J K Rowling, is the fact that she did a great deal of writing in numerous cafés (e.g. Nicolson's Café and Elephant House Café). Now, of course, she has all that Virginia Wolfe says a woman needs to be able to write: "money and a room of her own." I even heard a rumour that she had a room in her home converted to look like a coffee shop so that it would be more conducive to writing. I have no idea if that is true and I really can't be bothered checking but it does make me wonder about where people write when they have a choice.

Roald Dahl (pictured above) wrote in his garden hut. I've read that Salinger also has a hut but I take everything I read about him with a pinch of salt. He can't be long for this world. Maybe then we'll find out. Of all the writers in the world he is the one who is most obsessed with his "space" so much so that he regards publication as an intrusion into it.

Having a space to write is of such importance to writers that, seeing there is a market for it; businesses have started renting out writers' rooms. You can read an article about this at

The Guardian has an interesting web page which displays photographs of the rooms where a variety of professional writers work including the likes of Martin Amis, A L Kennedy (probably my favourite strangely enough), Alan Sillitoe and Seamus Heaney. Each author also talks a bit about their particular space. An even more detailed invasion of Will Self's room can be found here, 360º in 71 photos by Phil Grey.

I've thought back on the places I have written and what's clear to me is that I don't need much to be able to write. I've written on the backs of receipts, on brown bags, in the margins of newspapers, never on my skin (not even a phone number). I always carry a notebook with me. They used to be cheap things but, people started buying me them as presents; my last four in fact were all gifts. I've written on two different manual typewriters, an electric typewriter, a ZX Spectrum, an Atari ST, a selection of PCs, a laptop and even a palmtop; I've written at home, at work, on buses, trains, cars, in the middle of the street, on the loo, during my History O-Level (honest); I've gotten out of bed to write; I've tried talking into a microphone while out walking in the countryside, but what I always wanted was an office, a real office and, for the past four years, I've had one.

For all that I'm not sure an outer space is particularly important to me. The office is a luxury not a necessity. The space I worry about constantly is my inner space. Once I'm there all I really ask for is privacy and a bit of shush so that I can explore it. This is something I have in common with Julie Myerson whose room is one of those featured on the Guardian site:

Once I start writing, I'm inside my own head and nothing else exists and it makes no difference at all what's in front of me. When I write, I go somewhere else entirely.

Beryl Bainbridge agrees:

I don't mind working in a bit of clutter. It's your head that has to be clear.

as does Sue Townsend:

Most of the stuff you see in the photograph is redundant: the books go unread, the files are never opened, and the posters are unseen. The only tools I need to work with are the broad black ink Berol pen and the lined A4 notepad, with a margin.

I particularly like Siri Hustvedt's perspective:

A room to write in isn't like other rooms, because most of the time the person in it doesn't see it. My attention is on the page in front of me, on what the people in the book are doing or saying, and my awareness of the things near me is muted, part of the vague sensual information that comes and goes as I mull over the next sentence.

Anyway, I'll leave you with a photo of my space. Both my wife and I have our own offices. It was the one thing we were determined to get when we moved this time. They are very different places but we are very different people. The desk hasn't been tidied up for the picture. Clutter is a distraction. The room is an orderly place. It has an internet connection but only my private e-mail comes through there, all my writer stuff comes through the laptop at which I'm sitting now in the living room where it's warm; this is Scotland and it is winter remember.

The photo on the bookcase is of Beckett. I have a photo of Woody Allen on the other bookcase, the one where I'm sitting to take the photo. The fish is a fantail. He lives with a snail. He used to live with two but he ate one. Either that or the snail rapture came and only one was worthy.


Dave King said...

Hi Jim,
I find this subject quite fascinating. It was The Guardian that turned the interest on: each Saturday it features a photograph of the writing space of an author, together with the author's commentary. It has proved to be more interesting than I would have imagined, although years ago I did pay a visit to the Dylan Thomas boat house... now that
was something else!
I, usually begin to write on old envelopes, bills, round the margins of newspapers. Anywhere. I take it to the computer when it begins to take shape - if I can find all the bits of paper!

NigelBeale said...

Thanks for turning me on to this Jim. Several years ago my brother gave me a book called At Home with Books. It's beautiful. Filled with fabulous photographs, including one of Keith Richards with his guitar in his coconut-free study/library.

Conda Douglas said...

George Bernard Shaw also had a writing "hut," a teeny tiny house that was on a pole pivot so that the whole room could be swung to catch the sun. Or was it H.G. Wells who had the swinging hut?

Your space is so organized, Jim. I admire that. And this subject is of a lot of interest to me as well. When I moved from a one-bedroom house where my writing space was part of the living room into a bigger house where I had my own office, I noticed an increase in output. Space to expand and grow.

Sara said...

I've only had the good fortune to have a room to write in once--the rest of the time, my desk has been in a corner of my bedroom or living room. But I think I'm most productive outside, when the weather is right.

Maryanne Stahl said...

I love this topic--always have. I am a voyeur of living and especially creative space. as a little girl, I loved glancing into the windows of the lighted houses we passed at night, imagining the people who inhabited them and the lives they led.

I had a calendar once illustrated with photos of writers' desks.

and I have assigned my students to find a 'sacred space' in which to write over the holidays.

my own writing space reflects me, but is not really conducive to the creative mind. I need to work on that.

thanks for this post.

Jim Murdoch said...

Maryanne - show me a writer who's not a voyeur!

Unknown said...

Though I have a writing space the place I find the most creative as a writer is on a long drive, alone, at night or very early morning in the dark with no radio, and no pencil or paper at hand. It is a place where not much else can be done. It is difficult to get away from oneself. I remain convinced that in time religious movements will rise out of the experience of the solitary commute, just as in the past they have often risen up out of prisons.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

The snail's story. Which book of Left Behind is it in?

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorry Glenn that one went way over my head.


I am so jealous! As much as I try to present myself as someone who can wait patiently for a room of my own, I WANT IT NOW!

And now, thanks to you, I want a goldfish and a snail.

Karen Harrington said...

Very interesting to see these different spaces.


Jim Murdoch said...

Scobberlotcher, (what a great user name!), thanks for dropping by. I love your cupboard lined with bookshelves by the way. I did toy with the idea when I first set up my office of having full doors on all the bookcases but I like to see the books and CDs and they really don't distract me one bit.

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