I first learned about writers’ retreats — in the sense of where they work, as opposed to going off for a residency — when I met a fellow called Henry, who lived and wrote alone in a modest ten-foot square cabin he built out of pine and hickory in a forest near Concord, Massachusetts, next to a pond called Walden. (Don’t get too impressed, though, with Thoreau and solitude — he also apparently went home every weekend to get his laundry done!)
He wasn’t the first writer to seek eccentric solitude, and writers continue to create in remote, unusual places. According to Random House, fantasy author Philip Pullman writes “in a shed at the bottom of his garden. The shed contains two comfortable chairs (one for writing in, one for sitting at the computer in), several hundred books, a six-foot-long stuffed rat (which took a part in his play Sherlock Holmes and the Limehouse Horror), a guitar, a saxophone, as well as the computer, decorated with dozens of brightly colored artificial flowers attached to it by Blu-Tack.”
Pullman’s retreat is luxurious compared to Roald Dahl’s, though he, too, wrote in a shed, one hidden behind his greenhouse. A plastic curtain blocked the view from the shed’s only window while he sat in an old armchair and wrote. For a footstool, he filled an old suitcase with wood and kept it kept tied to the legs of the chair so it was never out of position. Dahl wrote with six yellow pencils (always six, never more, never fewer) kept in a jar beside him, a legal pad, a Thermos of coffee, heaters to keep his hands warm, and a pencil sharpener. I expect you could call them the necessities.
While most other writers use their sheds for lawn and gardening equipment, there are a lot of other places — some quite bizarre — where they feel most comfortable writing. Fulltime writers usually set up shop in a home office of some sort, though it isn’t a prerequisite: the take-along convenience of laptops, smartphones, and wireless technology make places like coffee shops and libraries into popular spots for writers who want a retreat away from home.
Do writers need a retreat? It depends on the writer. Some writers seem unable to function unless, like Pullman and Dahl, they write in complete isolation (and, apparently, in an OCD-arranged milieu!). Sitting in a crowded café with a hundred conversations buzzing around your head doesn’t seem like a terrific work atmosphere to me, but I know a lot of writers who say they do their best work under those conditions. I’ve watched others sign into writer chatrooms where they pop in and out while working, talk about writing and cheer each other on, and they seem equally productive.
If you like cafés, you’re in good company: The Elephant House café in Edinburgh is just one of the cafes in which JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel, and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met regularly at the Eagle & Child in Oxford to go over their manuscripts.
A lot of very successful writers have been — shall we say eccentric? — in their choice of work environments, some out of necessity, others out of choice.
- Charles Dickens felt he did his best work at his beloved desk, and would often have it shipped with him when he knew he would be away from home.
- Virginia Woolf often worked in a basement storage room where she sat in a beloved cozy old armchair.
- Edith Wharton preferred to stay in bed to write by hand, her dog on one side and an ink bottle on the other.
- Stephen King started out in a laundry room, his makeshift desk sandwiched between the washing machine and the dryer. Now he writes in an office and recommends that writers “put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
- Maya Angelou isolated herself in a hotel room from which all distractions — even wall-art — had been removed. She brought her tools with her: yellow pads, a dictionary, a thesaurus, a Bible, sherry, and an ashtray.
- Marcel Proust worked in bed at night, lining his walls with cork so as not to hear the noises of the Parisian nightlife drifting up to his room.
- Harper Lee wrote the manuscript for To Kill A Mockingbird in her father’s law office in Alabama.
- Neil Gaiman — a literary god, in my opinion — writes in a gazebo on a desk “scarcely bigger than a TV tray” and just out of reach of his home wifi.
- Wallace Stevens composed his poetry on slips of paper while walking.
- James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat, and composed most of Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard.
- E.B. White worked in his living room as the bustle of life went on around him. “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work,” he said, “will die without putting a word on paper.”
- Gertrude Stein discovered that the driver’s seat of her Model T Ford was a perfect place to write; she often took Alice B. Toklas shopping and stayed in the parked car to write.
- George Bernard Shaw worked for the last 20 years of his life in a hut on his property equipped with electricity, a telephone, and a buzzer system, and built on a turntable, enabling Shaw to move it to follow the sun.
I think it’s great fun (and a lovely time-waster, for those of us prone to procrastination) to imagine all these writers and their choices of workspaces. Truly, no matter what you choose as your ideal environment, there’s someone who’s been there ahead of you!
If you’re 100% happy with your writing environment, then you’ve already found the perfect retreat. If you’re not, or you find you’re not writing well, look around you. Is there something getting between you and the work? Pay attention to what you do as you write. What do you find yourself staring at and listening to when you’re not writing? Is it keeping you from concentrating? What distractions can you can remove from your workspace?
I’ve never had a separate writing building, except when I’ve been on the occasional residency. In fact, the cottage where I live probably qualifies in some people’s minds as a shed! I work best when at my desk, surrounded by objects that may not actually inspire me, but that make me feel relaxed and ready to work.
Making your own writing space — or writing “retreat” — can be tough for a person with a day job, kids, a spouse, partner, pets, etc. Because space and time are usually a premium, you have to work harder to make some for yourself. The most important thing about creating your own retreat is first to ask for it. Those who share your life should always know when and where you write, and respect both.
Whether you write alone in an attic corner or in the middle of the biggest coffee shop in town on Ladies’ Free Latte Night, make sure your retreat is a comfortable fit for you — even if you need a six-foot-long stuffed rat to make it that way!
I’d love to see or hear about your writing spaces and retreats! Please leave me comments — where do you write, and how is that environment important to you?