“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” - so declared Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. While this seminal essay addresses the consequences of poverty on female creativity, Woolf’s memorable maxim definitely has wider resonance. Firstly, contrary to the romanticised notion of writers having to struggle to create great art (typically in a grubby garret), poverty is hardly conducive to anyone’s well-being - writer, or otherwise. And secondly, having a workspace that inspires, brings comfort, or provides the freedom to wrestle creative demons in peace certainly helps all writers find (and maintain) their mojo.
Read on to discover where five world-class wordsmiths did just that - from beautiful boathouse, to hired hotel rooms - beginning with Virginia herself.
After Virginia Woolf and husband Leonard bought Monk’s House in 1919 - a stunning sixteenth-century cottage in deep in the Sussex Downs - she had a wooden tool shed converted into a writing lodge. Though beautifully situated, distractions came courtesy of clanging church bells, children being children in the school next door, and the din of Leonard sorting apples in the loft. As a result, Virginia’s lodge was moved to a quieter spot at the end of the garden, where she wrote many of her major novels - and her suicide note to Leonard.
Now a National Trust property, Monk’s House is steeped in creative connections, with TS Elliot and EM Forster among the Woolfs’ illustrious literary guests. Both the house and writing lodge feature fascinating artefacts, among them the complete works of Shakespeare hand-covered by Virginia herself, and artwork by her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell.
Isabel Allende’s writing space and habits sound as sublimely stylish as her writing. In a recent interview in which she discusses her foundation and The Soul of a Woman, an inspirational account of her lifelong commitment to feminism, Allende describes her typical working day: “I get up every morning around six. First I have a cup of coffee, then a shower and then I put on full makeup as if I was going out to the opera. I get dressed and put on high heels, and then I climb the stairs to this attic where I work. I won’t see anyone, not even the mailman, yet I dress up for myself.”
This sounds about as far from the impoverished garret writer cliché as you can get - a self-made woman writer with an attic room in her very own Californian mansion. Virginia Woolf would surely approve.
While many writers choose to create a writing space within their homes (or at the end of their gardens), Maya Angelou took a different tack, preferring to head out to work. But rather than hire conventional office space, Maya would rent a hotel room in whichever town she lived and stick to her tried and tested writing routine. She’d rise at 5.30, head to her hotel room for 7am and write until the mid-afternoon. “I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room,” Maya said of her writing space. “It’s lonely, and it’s marvellous,” and it certainly worked. In a remarkable career spanning fifty years, Angelou authored over thirty books (many of them award-winning), received over fifty honorary doctoral degrees, and in 2010 President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom - America’s highest civilian honour.
Dylan Thomas’s Boathouse in Laugharne, West Wales, provided the Welsh writer not only with a room of his own - it was also a room with a view. Several, in fact, and it’s easy to see why he enjoyed a period of creative rejuvenation while writing in the iconic hut located on a craggy outcrop above the Boathouse. Converted from a humble garage, it overlooks three stunning estuaries, a view celebrated in his poem “Over Sir John’s Hill” which is right across the bay: “Over Sir John’s Hill/The hawk on fire hangs still; In a hoisted cloud, at drop of dusk, he pulls to his claws.”
On 20th October 1953 Thomas left Laugharne for New York to embark on a poetry-reading tour. Already in ill health, his condition deteriorated rapidly, with New York’s noxious air pollution undoubtedly a contributing factor (along with his continued heavy drinking). Following his death on 9th November 1953, he was returned to the Land of his Fathers and buried in Laugharne’s St Martin’s churchyard.
“When I am up in here I see only the paper I am writing on, and my mind is far away with Willy Wonka or James or Mr Fox or Danny or whatever else I am trying to cook up. The room itself is of no consequence. It is out of focus, a place for dreaming and floating and whistling in the wind, as soft and silent and murky as a womb…” Here Dahl is referring to the brick hut he had built in the garden of his Great Missenden house after an inspirational trip to Dylan Thomas’ writing pad. Fascinating fact - the hut was built by Dahl’s handyman friend who inspired none other than the BFG.
Now home to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, Dahl’s house and hut are open to visitors, with tools of his trade and intriguing personal paraphernalia (including his hipbone) displayed as they were when he wrote here, always following the same routine. After eating breakfast in bed, he’d head to his shed to write until noon, when he’d return to the house for lunch - typically prawns and mayonnaise, washed down with a G&T. After enjoying a restorative afternoon nap, he’d return to his hut and write from four until six, when it was time to leave his “dreaming and floating” refuge - and time for tea.
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