Tag Archives: A Room of One’s Own

Losing myself amongst the ‘Woolves’

Virginia Woolf as a young woman.  I keep a copy of this portrait on my desk.

Virginia Woolf as a young woman. I keep a copy of this portrait on my desk.

So I spent Monday in London, escorted by my wonderful fangrrrl niece Amelia, at the ‘Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  And it was wonderful.

We saw innumerable portraits and photographs, but I think the personal papers were the most moving.  There were pages from her diary describing the bombing of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Tavistock Square home in October 1940, the original manuscript of ‘A Room of One’s Own’, love letters from Leonard written before their marriage,  and most moving of all, the little note she left for him when she set out to drown herself in the River Ouse in 1941.

One of the things that particularly struck me was that Woolf bound all her own notebooks and manuscripts, having taken bookbinding lessons in her teenage years as some kind of therapy for her mental illness.  The result was that she could make the perfect notebook for her own needs – which is, for a stationery addict like me, absolute nirvana.  Her books are big, too, slightly larger than A4, leaving plenty of space for her to explore her ideas.

Another interesting detail for me was that the page from her diary about the bombing had no crossings out on it at all.  My diary is a veritable Somme of scribblings-out, but she wrote a stream of consciousness with a self-assurance that seems absolute.  She had no doubts about what she was trying to convey.

The original copies of her books, published by the Hogarth Press, which she ran with her husband, still with their book jackets designed by her sister Vanessa Bell, look crisp and radical even now.  Amelia (a bookseller) and I both commented on the fact that the many editions of the novels for sale in the gallery shop had an assortment of different covers, none of which were so attractive, expressive, and frankly Modern-looking, as the originals.

Woolf is my writing hero for so many reasons.  She battled mental and physical illness, misogyny, and childhood sexual abuse to become one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, reinventing the novel form in a way that would be emulated and built upon in succeeding decades.  She was self-educated, too, and could read Greek and Latin, despite the fact that her parents refused to send her to school as they did her brothers, a fact she railed against.

She is often criticised for being classist and racist, but I would argue that she was a product of her time, and it is to her credit that she did so much to counteract the snobbery and distrust of the working classes, which she inherited from her social millieu, through her political work.

Virginia Woolf was a great writer and feminist, a patron of the visual and applied arts, and a creative giant,  as well as a truly great human being who overcame enormous adversity to achieve what she did.  If you cannot get on with her novels, I wouldn’t judge you, but I urge you to dip into her enlightening and often witty diaries for inspiration on how to live a creative life despite so many difficulties.

Happy Creating,

EF

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Finding the Right Place to Write

Roald Dahl in his writing hut.  From the CBBC website.

Roald Dahl in his writing hut. From the CBBC website.

As regular readers will know, me and my study have a kinda love-hate relationship. In recent months, I’ve been trying to do it up a bit, make it a nice place for me to work, somewhere that reflects who I am and what I want. Somewhere I want to inhabit. Because I really do think that it is important to have ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

The problem is that it doesn’t seem to work for me in practise.

I do most of my writing sitting in my comfy armchair in the living room, with my laptop in my lap (strangely enough!), or writing in notebooks resting on a brilliant drawingboard that I bought from The Art Trading Company. And seriously peeps, this drawingboard is brilliant, and I’m going to get another one for my bedroom so I can be comfortable when I write in bed, because I also write there a lot, especially in my journal.

Now, it has lately occurred to me that this habit was set in stone when I was just a little kid. When I was small, I had a tiny bedroom only just big enough for a not-quite-full-size single bed, and certainly not large enough to include something as luxurious as a table. As I got older, and siblings moved out, I moved into their (larger) bedrooms, but there was never really enough room for a table or desk.

Aha! But I had my trusty piece of board!

Yes, I said ‘board’. It was a thin bit of old chip board, about A3 size, and I used it for hours, sitting on my bed, for drawing and writing, as a working surface for sewing and painting and plasticine and homework, as a play area, and for all kinds of other activities. That board was a miracle. I could have it on my lap when I was snuggled up amidst the sheets, and it kept the ink from getting on the cotton as well as giving me a firm surface to work on. I loved it, and I was never without it until I left home. After that, I think my mother threw it away. But who knows, it might still be in her house, under the spare bed, along with my ‘A’ level art portfolio!

The other day, I was thinking about my lovely old piece of board as I sat in my armchair with my lovely new drawingboard on my lap, and I remembered seeing photographs of Roald Dahl’s writing hut, where he sat in an old armchair with a board on his lap, and wrote the great classic of my childhood, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (My husband actually knew the Dahl family and played in that hut at one time, the lucky hound!)

Nicole Kidson as Virginia Woolf inthe film 'The Hours'.

Nicole Kidson as Virginia Woolf inthe film ‘The Hours’.

Then I remembered a scene from the film, ‘The Hours’, in which my heroine, Virginia Woolf, played by Nicole Kidman, sits in an armchair by the window at Hogarth House, with a baize-covered board on her lap, and scratches out the first few lines of ‘Mrs Dalloway’ with her new pen nib. Woolf was actually more inclined to write at a high table, standing up, but the image is potent for me.

It is very nice to have a desk and a study, and sometimes, that is exactly what I need. But I am also fortunate in that I spend a great deal of time having the run of the house to myself, which means that I can write pretty much anywhere I have a suitable work surface, enough light, and where I can get comfortable. I’m not ungrateful to finally have the luxury of my own study, believe me, but having it as made me realise that really, it wasn’t necessary. I was always saying I couldn’t be a proper writer until I had a study of my own, but that just wasn’t true. I have written far more words in my armchair or my bed.

The lesson I have come upon, and the one I wish to communicate to you, Dear Reader, is that actually, once you find the place that suits you, you can write anywhere. You don’t need a study. And if you have one, as I am lucky enough to, you may not end up using it. Don’t beat yourself up about not doing so. Take Woolf’s exhortation to find ‘A Room of One’s Own’ as a wider license to find space of your own. The local Costa Coffee may be your perfect place to write. Or, as for my husband, the comfy chair by the roaring fire of your favourite pub may be just the place. Or you may indeed have your own study and revel in it. The important thing is to get comfortable and have a firm surface to write or type on, so that you are not distracted. It doesn’t matter if its in a caravan or a lorry cab, so long as your imagination can take flight. Because once it flies away to your story world, it doesn’t matter where you are.

Happy Creating,

EF

Books about Writing

 

Bookshelf

My shelves of books about writing.

I’ve made a big decision.

No, not that one.

I’ve decided not to buy any more books about how to write for two months.

Now you may not think that’s such a hard task, but I am the sort of person who likes to buy a book about a subject in lieu of actually doing it. I’m a big one for research. If I’m going to take up some activity, say, crochet for instance, then I am the one who will chug down to the library and take out all known books on crochet, in order to find out everything I need to know about the subject. For two days I read avidly and become an armchair expert, without even touching a ball of wool. And then I lose interest and the books gather dust on the coffee table until they have to be taken back to the library before I get fined, no crochet having ever been done.

I’m the same with books about writing.

Once every three or four months, or so, I resolve ‘to take my work more seriously’. This usually involves going in to work with my husband, who is a University lecturer, and settling down in the campus library to tap away on laptop undisturbed. (Never mind the fact that I really struggle to visualise and write in that library, but there you are!)

To get to the library, I have to walk past a bookshop.

(If you love books, you just know where this is going to end, don’t you?)

Add to this the fact that this University runs one of the first, and still best, courses in Creative Writing in the world, whose alumni include the likes of Dame Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan. You can imagine how good the bookshop’s section of writing is.

Let me tell you, it is hell to walk past.

This is the reason why the bookshelf beside my desk is so crammed with ‘How to Write’ books. I buy a book every time I decide to ‘get serious’, because of course, buying a book is a prerequisite of ‘getting serious’. I’ll read a few chapters. And then I get bored/move on/get ill/realise its shortcomings/decide I want to take up crochet instead etc. So now I have a bookshelf full of books about writing and how to write, many of which are very, very good, dozens of which come highly recommended by friends and in other books about writing, and almost none of which I have ever read cover to cover.

Just call me a butterfly.

Today is another of those ‘I’m going to get serious’ days. Today I am not going to buy a book.

This is partly because I am completely broke, and saving up for a new pair of spectacles because the ones I have got are close to useless and I’m fed up of having to take my glasses off in order to read.

But mostly because its because I need not to read about writing and how to write, but to actually DO it.

You can’t be a writer unless you actually write. And when you write, you learn far more about writing than you ever could from a book.

Books about writing are great. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a lot out of them. But there comes a time when you have to leave them alone and learn by doing.

I’ll let you know whether I stick to my guns or not, though I have to say I don’t think my groaning bookcase can survive even one more purchase!

Happy Creating,

EF

Clear the Decks

If you listen to the elderly, you always find wisdom.  One of the things I learnt this weekend was from my husband’s aunt, who was in her day a deeply respected midwife.  (She delivered Roald Dahl’s children, as well as tennis player Tim Henman.)  She is a very tidy person, and when I asked her about this, she told me that part of her nursing training emphasised the importance of starting with a clear surface at all times, whatever you were doing.  So she tidies up after herself obsessively, even now, when she is so disabled that she can barely move.

I took this idea away with me.  It occurred to me that one of the things I love most about going on a writers’ retreat is arriving in a room with an empty desk, uncluttered, a space to work.  It inspires me hugely.  Obviously, Auntie’s edict on clearing the decks is an excellent one.  It’s not rocket science, either, to make space for your creativity.

But.

And this is a big but.

I went into my study this morning and this is what I saw.

The shelves as you come into the room.  Total dump.

The shelves as you come into the room. Total dump.

My study is the only place we can dry laundry in the winter months.

My study is the only place we can dry laundry in the winter months.

The current state of my desk, complete with pile of unopened post.

The current state of my desk, complete with pile of unopened post.

A bit not good, as Sherlock and John would say.

What does this space say about how I prioritise myself and my creativity?  I think it shows how little I value myself and what I do.  How can I do my best work in this mess?

I long for a clear space in which to work, but this is what I’ve got.  No one but me is responsible for this chaos.  Okay, yes, Husband tends to keep his study clear by dumping stuff in mine, but I let him do that.  I allow these heaps of junk to build up, blocking the energy, my energy.  And after all, who would want to work in this mess?

So I think it is time for another push on making my study work.  I’ve done this before, as you know.  But really, how much have I invested in that process?  I always find an excuse.  I’m always too tired to make it a priority, or too busy.  I can always work downstairs on the sofa, and I usually do.  But then I have to go running up and down to get what I need.  Meanwhile, Husband has a lovely study that is a dedicated space for his business, which is tidy and organised, and which he loves.

If he can have it, so can I.

Its time to clear the decks.

Happy Creating,

EF

Outflow: What the **** am I doing?

new study deskYou may have noticed that yesterday was Wednesday and that it was eerily quiet here at Evenlode’s Friend.  Oops.

Its not that I wasn’t thinking of you, believe me.  Its just that, well, I won’t go into too much sordid detail here, but there are some stomach complaints that leave little room for writing blog posts.  Yes, I was ill. I still am.  I’ve been hit by a particularly nasty bout of IBS, and its going to take some time to settle things down again.

But of course, because I never do anything by halves, my darling husband is having a couple of days off right now and decided, for a whole bunch of really complicated reasons, that it would be a great idea for us to switch offices.  Yes, while I am ill.  No, he did not expect me to help move the furniture.  So now he has the north-facing back room, and I have the sunny, and much larger, front room with the sofabed-futon thingey to lounge on.  I suspect I may have got the best end of the deal, don’t you?

This brilliant wheeze unfortunately has its down side.  Evenlode OPs Centre now looks like a cross between a bad jumble sale and the aftermath of Chernobyl.  Major purge, rethink and planning are urgently required.  (Shame my brain is on illness-induced sabbatical, but there we are.)

new study messThis is not entirely a bad thing, however.  I need to be systematic about everything right now, and the study change is just the external materialisation of the internal mess I am in.  Because it turns out that this blogging thing is much harder than it looks, and I am going to have to be a lot more organised than I thought.  I can’t just fire off a post for this blog in half and hour from a standing start, as I do with my personal blog, because its not that kind of site.  I want my readers to be informed, and that means my research has to be spot on and my posts thorough and thoughtful.  I need to write ahead, and I haven’t worked out how I can do that and juggle my health issues and life at the same time.  I think its good, on the whole, to reassess what you are doing periodically, but I’ve never been one for planning systematically how to do something, as the state of my desk drawers unvariably show.

Yes, its cosmic learning time!

So, today’s Outflow is about two things, redesigning my work area, and planning my work method.  I must be mindful about what I’m going to need and the issues I am going to have to plan for, like not being well enough to write on a posting day.  I’m going to need a workspace that supports me, with all the tools for writing, painting, planning and running this little endeavour within easy reach.  And its got to be easy to keep tidy and organised because I am crap at being neat and perversely, as a Libran, I don’t like working in a messy, ugly space.  In this way, writing a blog isn’t any different from my other creative work, my writing and painting.  It just has to be more systematic and focussed.

If you keep a blog, I would love to know how you organise yourself ahead, and plan your posts.  And if, like me, you are lovingly embarking on making a new creative nest for yourself, I would love to hear about that too.  Please leave a reply (the tag appears at the top of each post for some reason, thats another design issue on my blog To Do list!) and maybe we can do a compendium post of all the shared ideas and wonderful ‘Rooms of Our Own’.

Happy Creating,

EF

On Process: A Room of One’s Own

In this new series of posts, On Process, we will talk a little about discovering your own creativity cycles, and how best to optimise them.  We’ll start with the most basic requirement: space.

Virginia Woolf coined the term ‘A Room of One’s Own’ in her book of the same name, in which she explored creativity and feminism.  Her thesis is that in order to be a serious artist, you have to have dedicated private space in which to work.  While I don’t think this is entirely true – many great books have been written at kitchen tables, for instance – I think it is an important consideration, and it really does help.

These days I am lucky enough to have a room of my own.

My study 1As you can see, its a mess.  Currently, it has a very nasty case of piles. (Piles of paper and junk, that is.)  The fact that it has become such a dumping ground, to the extent that I am now doing most of my writing sitting downstairs on the sofa, and I’m not doing any painting at all, is an important barometer for how much value I am attaching to my own art and writing practise.  In other words, not much.

One of my goals is to revamp my study.  This is because I need a Room of My Own.  Psychologically, I need to recognise my right to my own creative independence, and that is what my study signifies to me.  I need to make a gift to my creative self of a loving and beautiful space in which to make my dreams happen.  Its hard to claim that right, but I’m working on it.

You may not have the luxury of your own space, in which case, I sympathise because I spent many years in the same position, sharing a desk in the corner of our dining room with my husband.  (Even though he had his own office at work – not that I’m bitter, you understand!)  Still, there are ways to mark out some territory that you can call your own, a space where you feel totally free to create as you want.  That may be a corner of a shared room, the luxury of an actual studio, garden shed or study, or if you are not so territorial as I am, maybe a favourite table at a local cafe where you go to write, think or journal.

Where ever you choose, consider this space as not only a private area, safe from others, but also as sacred to your art – whatever form that takes.  When you go there, it should signal to your Artist Brain  that it is time to create.

Light candles, perhaps, and if you are so inclined, make a little altar to attract creative energy.  Surround yourself with pretty, evocative things.  Get some nice stationary and writing instruments.  A few pebbles can be delicious to handle and look at.  Make some inspiring signs to stick up, to remind yourself that you are entitled to this, that your voice is unique and deserves to be heard.  A painting that you like, objects that have emotional value for you, some nice furniture if you can afford it (I would love a comfy armchair to read in for my study), a noticeboard with inspiring images on it, wll all help to make even a small corner your own.

My Study 2In this picture of my study, you can see some of the things I cherish as part of my creative process.  (Sorry for the small lettering, I haven’t quite got the hang of Paint yet!)

I got the lovely chair for my birthday last year.  I’d never had a special, proper chair for my home office before. It still feels like an outrageous luxury!  There are fairy lights in the shape of roses around the window, which are nice when I am writing at night, as I usually prefer to.  There is my collection of books about writing, and books for reference, my Image Box for inspiration, and of course, my much cherished Benedict Cumberbatch calendar, which my adored niece made by hand for me last year.  On my desk, I keep a framed photograph of Virginia Woolf herself, because she is such an inspiration to me, both as a writer and as a person.

Try to carve out some personal space within your home environment to dedicate to your creativity.  Even if you are only able to keep your journals in a favourite tote bag down the side of the sofa to use when you can, it still counts.  It will help to enhance your creative process, and enable you to battle those critical voices that tell you your work isn’t good enough.

I’ll keep you updated on my efforts to reclaim my study from the mess and make it a place to snuggle down in to create.