I wrote this post a while ago, but it seems appropriate to publish now given that, at this very moment, I am meant to be in Milan eating gelato and relaxing by Lake Como. But then Boyfriend got flu. At 3am, two hours before we were due to get up and after hours of vomit and shivering, we decided that now was not a good time to travel. It’s actually given me more time to write because I never get anything done away from home – which is what this post is about.
My parents briefly lived in a 450 year-old house in the middle of the countryside in Yorkshire. I loved that house. It bent with age, its low-ceilinged rooms were cosy and inviting, and I was enchanted with the thought of how many people had passed through during all that time – including Oliver Cromwell, according to estate agent legend.
They weren’t there for long, but long enough that I got to spend one Christmas there in front of an actual open fire. It was, as one visitor said, a proper ‘writer’s retreat’. Whatever that is.
Wordsworth had the Lake District to plod around while he wittered on about daffodils; Dickens had the gritty smog of Victorian London to draw his inspiration from; James Joyce was inspired by his hometown of Dublin.
I live in a basement in north London, in a no-man’s-land equidistant from one of the borough’s most deprived areas and the one awash with champagne socialists. Unsurprisingly, I think the notion of a ‘writer’s retreat’ is bollocks.
Most of my writing these days is at home, with the curtains drawn (there’s a chronic draught otherwise), and this is the place where I plan, plot, and put the words to paper (or, less poetically, computer screen). Last month, I went to Ilfracombe with a friend for five days. You’d think, surrounded by the wild Devon coast and away from the stresses of London, I’d have written buckets. I managed a measly 500 words the whole time I was there, squeezed in one morning while my pal went for a run.
When I manage to get above ground and out of London, I never seem to breathe in the inspiration or incentive that I would expect to. Instead, I become overwhelmed at how awesome, in the truest sense of the word, the world really is – vast open spaces are not something I come across too often; even some the parks here have walls.
Sometimes I’ll climb some summit or other in the city but the skyline stretches up, all too eager to let you know it’s there. The countryside simply sits there, and my head is filled with the empty space and endless sky around me. It makes me dizzy, but I don’t mind. I quite like it.
I’m not entirely sure I believe in inspiration, either. I believe in observing, noticing, and thinking. The place I find the most adaptable material is on public transport, especially at peak commuter hours. Trains, especially, seem to scramble most people’s ideas of social convention, resulting in some thoroughly bizarre behaviour that has made its way into of my writing.
The stereotype of a writer at a candlelit mahogany desk, face contorted in concentration and emotional pain as s/he struggles for inspiration, before the aha lightbulb moment; or a quiet French villa with a view of the sea, daylight streaking across the pages that are covered in scribbles and inkblots; or the MacBook Air owner sitting in Starbucks pondering the complexities of the modern world…
Every writer I know writes in their pyjamas, hunched on a sofa or in a bed at any hour of the day or night, with stimulant of choice at their side and a desperation to reach that day’s writing goal. Hell, that’s what I’m doing right now (this post is brought to you by a glass of Diet Coke because I’ve already had several cups of tea today).
Waiting for inspiration is a lazy way to approach it, and searching for a ‘writer’s retreat’ is dressing up a holiday. Your writer’s retreat is wherever you write well and often. For me, that’s my bed. For you… well, you can tell me in the comments. Or you can tell me that I’m completely wrong and that you can only write in a teepee in the Scottish Highlands with the squawk of native birds as your soundtrack, in which case I hope you can make a damn good fire.