I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it, the rest of me is on the draining board.
This is how Dodie Smith began I capture the castle, a journal-style novel about a teenager living in a decaying English castle. It’s a killer opening and we should all be so lucky to write something so immediately attention-grabbing. However what interests me about it today is the notion of a place for writing being important enough to write about.
One of the things I learnt while doing my PhD was that it was important to set up a distinctive routine around writing. I found one that worked for me. I got up at 5 or 6 in the morning, pulled on a pair of track pants, T-shirt and perhaps a cardigan, made a cup of tea, and then went into my office where I wrote solidly for at least three to four hours. After that I could have a shower, get dressed, have breakfast and begin the day proper. During the day I often got myself ready for the next morning’s writing, by assembling various references and bits of data and analysis. I jotted down notes reflecting on what I’d done that morning and ideas for the next. If I was about to start a new chunk of writing, then I’d plan that out so I knew where I was going.
I’m lucky in that I don’t find it hard to write but I also don’t expect the writing to be perfect first time round, so I don’t agonise over it. I just sit down and do it. It was no real bother for me to crank out a couple of thousand potential thesis words a day using this early morning routine. And, writing in the early morning also allowed me to do other things – not only reading, but I could also go to lectures, meet people, go for walks, do bits of paid work including working on other research projects and so on… I had a life as well.
I still write in this way. In fact I am writing this blog early in the morning with a cup of tea, sitting in my office, and wearing track pants, T shirt and cardigan. But what’s important I think is that it’s not only the time but also the place that matters.
My preferred place for writing is my office. It’s a loft separated by a twisted staircase from the rest of the house. It feels cut off. This helps me to maintain a separation of my writing/working space from other parts of my life. I am irritated if my space is invaded during writing time either by my dogs or my partner or the phone. “ If I’m up here I’m not at home” is my refrain for any interruptions.
Christina Nippert-Eng (1996) studied the ways in which people keep (or not) their work and home lives separate. She found that professionals – count researchers in here – as compared to blue and pink collar workers, maintain very blurred separations between the two, with work conversations, phone-calls, email, and work accoutrements spilling into most parts of home life space/time. Nippert-Eng didn’t however study academics and I suspect that we, as a group, might maintain some separations around writing and reading. For example, I keep my work books separate from my fiction collection. I don’t have everyday things in my office. I do maintain an arbitrary and probably illogical division between the two, even though work and home are in the same domestic building.
I also have a preferred way of arranging my work space. There is a skylight above my left shoulder where the generally grey East Midlands daylight seeps in. There’s a silkscreen print of silvereyes and geraniums on the wall just to my right, reminding me of a former life in Australia. My books are behind me, with those that I am using for my current papers heaped in piles on the floor. I have the option of music if I want it but this is not a necessary part of my routine.
Of course I can write in other places and I do. The most recent book was half-written with my co-author in a Singapore apartment and the other half in her Melbourne office. We worked all day writing and managed to churn out a draft chapter every two days. So it is possible for me to write elsewhere – but I just don’t like it as much, and I’m sure that if my co author hadn’t been there I would have found all manner of excuses not to write much at all.
When I did my PhD I wrote everyday. I don’t have that luxury now. However when I do write in the morning, which is generally once or twice a week, I can immediately get into the right frame of mind if I am in my office with everything in its place. Writing has become like riding a bike – an activity which is so strongly habituated that I can simply move myself to the right place at the right time to get going.
It’s for this reason that I’m glad I didn’t start writing with my feet in the kitchen sink, sitting on the draining board. It would be a truly inconvenient place to establish the habit of writing.
Do you have a writing place/time? Where is it and does it work well as a way of supporting writing and if so why and how? And yes, I really do want to know!!
Nippert-Eng, C. (1996). Home and work. Negotiating boundaries through everyday life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Smith, D (1948/2004) I capture the castle. New York:Vintage Classics