Picture the scene. You have decided to write a novel. You take yourself off to a little cottage overlooking the sea. It’s quiet; there are few neighbours. The scenery is beautiful and inspirational. You have weeks, months even, in which to do nothing but immerse yourself in your fictional world and write.
Now picture a different scene. You have decided to write a novel. You have a busy life, with family commitments and a demanding job. You write what you can when you can, often late at night or first thing in the morning, or in stolen moments – on the commute, while stirring the Bolognese sauce on the stove, in a few minutes when you really ought to be doing some domestic or work task.
Which sounds the most appealing? To me, the second scenario seems quite tiring and perhaps frustrating, because focusing is difficult, and the first sounds like a dream – all that space and time.
PG Wodehouse said, ‘I never want to see anyone, and I never want to go anywhere or do anything. I just want to write.’ Full immersion – isolating oneself from all else – is a familiar yearning for a writer. Writing a novel is consuming; it is hard to manage daily life while you write. Thus that little seaside cottage is very attractive.
For some authors, time and space to write make all the difference. Take Harper Lee, who was gifted the time to write To Kill a Mockingbird by a close friend, who funded a year off work for the then-aspiring author (you can read more about this wonderful gift, and how it drove her to write and write, in this article: How a Christmas present gave Harper Lee the time to write To Kill a Mockingbird).
Other authors find that cutting themselves off from the world is essential. Thoreau took himself off to the woods in order to have the knowledge from which to write. JK Rowling checked into a hotel and lived there secretly while finishing her last Harry Potter novel. She later said:
[…] there came a day where the window cleaner came, the kids were at home, the dogs were barking and I could not work and this light bulb went on over my head and I thought, I can throw money at this problem. I can now solve this problem. […] I thought I can go to a quiet place…
But very few authors have the luxury of taking a writing sabbatical. (Just imagine how much that suite at The Balmoral Hotel cost for six months!) Above, I deliberately describe the cottage retreat as a dream, because for most of us it is just that – a fantasy.
Some argue that we should not even aspire to having that kind of space and time for writing. Writing is better when done as part of life, they say, not set apart from life. An idea percolates as you do something other than writing, and then you return to the page fresh and inspired.
Writing in the Guardian, novelist Elena Ferrante argues that we must not postpone writing if we ache to write:
If you feel the need to write, you absolutely should write… We shouldn’t put off writing until… [we] have a desk of our own in a room of our own with a garden overlooking the sea… writing should in no case be postponed to an ‘after’.
There is no perfect answer, I think; no easy approach. I have written all my life, but I did wait until my children had grown up and my business was less demanding of me before I fully committed to writing novels. Now, I do write at a desk overlooking the sea, and I am able to create some time and space to be an author – but I still balance my writing with my family and work commitments. Some months I have a lot of time and space for writing; some months I do not. I accept that. I am just grateful that I can write, and I do.
I keep in mind always: it does not matter how a book is written, or where, or when. Ultimately, all that matters is the book itself. If we keep writing, however we can best do so, then we will someday hold that book in our hands, and every moment of labour will be worthwhile.