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November 19, 2006

'If we wait until we're ready, we'll never get started' — Eleanor Roosevelt


Though it dates from the mid-twentieth century, the above quotation still rings true.

Julie Myerson's column in yesterday's (November 18, 2006) Financial Times about how waiting for "a room of one's own" is a prescription for — in the end — accomplishing nothing, is superb, and follows.

    My 'writing room' is in my head

    I wrote my first novel in the (then) spare room at the top of our house in Clapham, south London. Actually it was more of an everything-else room — a big, dusty, chaotic space crammed with all the things we hadn't used for years but couldn't quite bring ourselves to get rid of. My "desk" was an old wooden door supported on two stacks of cardboard boxes and wedged between suitcases and piles of old tennis racquets and Wellington boots. To get to my chair I had to ease myself in sideways and then I was pretty much there for the duration.

    In some ways it felt right having to squeeze myself in like that. I wasn't yet a real writer and hadn't earned the right to anything more. I was still doing a full-time day job, had two noisy children under three and, for almost half the time I was working, was pregnant with our third. But all my life, for as long as I could remember, I had talked about the novel I wanted to write. So now here I was — wedged between the second and the third baby, wedged between stacks of junk — finally shutting up and having a go.

    The novel took 18 long months of evenings and weekends, all in that room, so maybe it's not surprising that I still have raw, sharp memories of the space. I can still see the (firmly shut) pine door with its tarnished brass Victorian knob and, turning my head, the grey view of the houses opposite, telegraph wires, purple slate roofs, red chimney pots, fast-moving clouds.

    The house across the road was a refugee hostel and, as dusk fell, I'd watch the unknown, transient people moving in their separate, dimly lit spaces. I'd gaze as they walked in and out of rooms, disappeared from view, then re-emerged. What were they doing? Where were they going? Probably just a trip to the kitchen for a cup of milk but watching them lead their lives a few yards away made a change from staring at the blank screen of my basic Amstrad computer (this was 1991) and wondering how I would ever find the confidence and staying power to create a whole novel.

    I didn't always get the peace I desired either. Some days three-year-old Jacob would come and stand outside my door and just breathe. "Mummy?"


    "Are you doing your nobble?"

    "Yes sweetheart, and now can you go back downstairs and leave me in peace to work?"


    No movement.



    "Darling, you have to go downstairs now and leave me in peace."

    "I'm not doing anything. I'm just being here till you've finished."

    Did Virginia Woolf struggle to finish The Waves with a small dungareed person breathing outside her door? I don't think so. Not that it mattered. As I somehow wrote my way through two long winters and out the other side into spring, I realised with elation that I was getting there. I was actually close to typing "The End". Never in my life had I made such a life-changing journey in a single room.

    When I sold that novel, I was ecstatic. This was all I had ever dreamed of. Actually, it was more than I'd dreamed of: my advance was just enough to allow me to give up the day job and write full time. But did this mean I was going to spend every day from now on in the spare room among the junk? Rather haughtily, I took a leaf out of my literary heroine's book and claimed "a room of my own". The spare room was cleared out to accommodate all three of our babies (who were happy to sleep hugger-mugger in those days) and the tiny, bright sunshine-yellow room on the landing, which had until recently been the baby's room, became my study. I was a proper novelist now, after all.

    But space and inspiration are strange things. Though I took enormous pleasure in my wroom, though I enjoyed filling its shelves with the books I loved, in having a proper desk, a proper chair, in surrounding myself with my stuff and not being wedged in by junk any more, still it changed nothing. My head was still the place where I spent all my time, the place I pulled the words from. And while I did that the room dissolved around me. As I began my second novel, I had no idea whether I was surrounded by Wellington boots or pristine bookshelves. I could have been anywhere or nowhere.

    So these days when aspiring writers tell me they want to write a novel but they're just waiting to find the right working space, or get a new computer, or take some time off work, or for everything in their lives to be just so, I'm afraid I tell them the truth: that they'll wait for ever.

    Because though I am very happy to have my four white walls and my glass-topped desk, I know I was never more inspired than stuck in that room between those piles of junk, with a toddler breathing outside the door and another baby kicking inside me.

    A room of one's own isn't a thing you can buy or rent. It's a place inside your head and once you own it, no one can take it from you. It's yours to go to as often and for as long as you choose.

November 19, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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