It’s Not Where You Write, Or If You Write, But How.

Covid -19 has affected many people’s writing habits. Last Sunday I wrote about those so affected they couldn’t write at all. Every week the Royal Society of Literature sends me a link to a recording or video of a celebrated writer or group of writers talking about their work. It’s a different writer each time who chooses what is to be aired and they are asked to include a photo of where they themselves do their work. Last time, this was a bench in the garden, but usually the writer involved sends a photo of a suspiciously neat desk with artfully arranged books, a lamp, and an open laptop. Which is all a tad dispiriting for those of us who tend to write in a muddle of post-it notes, books, and cushions, while being squashed into the corner of a chair by one or more furry distractions.

Sometimes it’s worth going back in history, or looking more tangentially, for suggestions as to where and how to write. Jane Austen used to write with pen and inkpot on a little side table in the living room, covering her papers with a cloth when visitors – remember those? – arrived. I have seen this little table in her old home, Chawton Cottage, which is now a museum.

Eliot’s portable writing desk.

I’ve not seen the ornate portable desk used by George Eliot as it was stolen from her collection at the Nuneaton Museum in 2012. I have, though, seen the desk the French author Georges Sands used. It was in her bedroom and, it is said, many a startled lover would wake to find her scribbling away, her work-in-progress often inspired by the activities, or pillow talk, of the night before.

Another early morning writer was Anthony Trollope, who would get up a 5.30am and write solidly for three hours, at the rate of 1,000 words an hour, before going off to his job as a Post Office inspector – a job which allowed him to dip into the ‘lost letter’ collection when he was short of ideas. If he finished one novel in a morning session, but hadn’t done his full 3,000 words, he would get cracking on his next novel. It’s not surprising therefore that he managed to produce 49 novels in 35 years.

Some writers require certain rituals to help them. Philip Pullman can only write on lined A4 paper with a ball point pen. Maggie O’Farrell runs ideas past a cast of teeth on her desk. Dylan Thomas required a certain quantity of alcohol to get going (opinion is divided as to how much – he reckoned he was a slow drinker).

Others find sitting deters the creative muse: Mark Twain wrote lying down, Virginia Wolf wrote standing up, William Wordsworth composed his poems while walking around (wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’ he famously put it), as did his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Some go to even greater lengths – when Dan Brown (Da Vinci Code) is stuck by a lack of inspiration, he is reported to hang upside down using a pair of gravity boots. Which must give an unusual perspective on issues, but it seems to work for him.

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