Not long ago I found myself in northern France, along the border with Belgium, atop one of the few hills in that part of the world that the Jacques Brel calls “le plat pays” – our flat country. When the fog and clouds lifted, which happened very rarely, the view over the surrounding countryside was inspiring. And inspiration, a word writers usually shy away from, was on the menu. I was there with a group of authors who have been invited to enjoy a residency in this isolated spot sometime in the coming year.
A residency is a kind of turbo-charged version of “a room of one’s own,” the much-quoted comment by Virginia Woolf, according to whom women, if they were to write, needed a room of their own, which was a rather revolutionary idea at the time Miss Woolf said it. Nowadays, we recognize that everyone, male, female or other, needs a space of their own if they are going to get anything done. I know about heroic stories of writers – especially first-time ones – penning their masterpieces on a spare bit of the kitchen table after the kids were put to bed and the dishes done. I’m sure that’s happened. But in general, free time and peace and quiet are the prerequisites for writing to happen, especially for those of us who work in the long form.
Here is where the idea of the residency enters. Writers are lured to isolated spots where there is generally nothing, or not very much, to do but write. Their material needs are looked after: someone else is going to the market, cooking the dinner, taking out the trash and doing the thousands of other little chores that make life worth living, and that provide small moments for meditation. Writers engaged in a residency sit in their rooms and write. This is either heaven or hell, depending. One thing is for sure: such arrangements never last longer than a month or two.
The writers who were on this trip, with an invitation in their pocket, had one subject of conversation that united them all, and it was this: how the heck do we get out of here? Where’s the nearest gym? Does this place have any functional bicycles? What time do the taverns close in the next town, and how far away is that town? What’s the number of the cab company? When you’re on top of the Magic Mountain, when everything is provided for you, when you have nothing to do but the thing that you’re always complaining you don’t have enough time to do – that is, write your next masterpiece – the first impulse is to head for the exit.
Such is human nature.
But there’s more to it than that. I’m not sure the writing life should be led in isolation. Yes, we need rooms of our own, but we also need the random encounters that take place when we leave our rooms. Those encounters break the isolation that we inhabit when we work.
Ideally, we would be able to design our own private residencies. We would be able to have all the hours we wanted on any given day to write, but once we’d exhausted ourselves, we would have whatever amusements we require to recharge our batteries for the next day, and feel good about ourselves, and be eager to take up where we left off. Ideal? Definitely! But why not?
I think the key to creating the ideal residency in our own houses, or wherever we happen to write, is to define what we need in order to work at an optimum level. It’s different for everyone. How many hours in a day can we really write (this includes time spent staring out the window into middle distance)? Four, maybe five? Some of us like the buzz of cafés; we feed off the energy that comes from having other people around, and a soundtrack in the background. Others of us have to perform certain small tasks before getting down to work (think of Hemingway and pencil sharpening). In order to build the ideal residency, to quote Joe Jackson, you can’t get what you want till you know what you want.
Welcome to the room of your own… It just might be the one you see in the photo.