It's not about the desk
There are enough barriers to writing a book. Most of us doing it for the first time will have a job, maybe a family, certainly some responsibilities outside of sitting at a computer or with a notepad, waiting for divine inspiration to hit. One of the reasons to not write I hear quite a lot (and have certainly indulged in myself) is to do with space.
Some writers worry that without quiet, without a dedicated area, without a comfortable chair, aesthetically-pleasing lamp, correctly-positioned laptop and at least one houseplant they won’t be able to relax into it and work. They’ll be too distracted by the lack of the right conditions to find the correct words.
It’s as if the whole thing has become performative; by playing the part of the writer, you become the writer. But today perhaps more than ever, the idea of a space to write is a difficult ask. Most of us don’t have it, or if we do have it other responsibilities make it hard to use it all the time as a work space. And the more it’s thought of as a thing we must have in order to work, the more likely aspiring writers are to use their lack of dedicated space as a reason to avoid working on what could be a brilliant idea.
There’s a lot of fetishising about desks, for example. You see people take photos of their desks to share on Instagram (I’ve done this). Or hear stories about people who spend their writing time rearranging their desk instead of writing (done that too). The things we put around our desks are some sort of symbol of who we are (me: football team mugs, plant, nice lamp).
I’m fortunate to have a nice desk, in a nice room. But the truth is that I do less than ten percent of my book writing there. Because I also have a full-time job, a family, and I am tired. So it’s rare that I get a lot of time to sit there and work on my books.
Instead, most of my writing is done during stolen lunch hours at café tables around Gray's Inn Road, at kitchen tables when I’ve a few minutes to spare, and – mostly – on trains. It means I don’t have the space to create time-lined plots made out of post-it notes, or mood boards (well, I could, but my fellow passengers might have a thing to say about it). Instead, I use digital equivalents, which are less tactile perhaps, but more realistic for most writers. My laptop screen is covered with virtual Stickies. I’ve used a free timeline creator from an education company called ReadWriteThink (super useful for Our Life in a Day). All my planning is done using the many tools included with Scrivener. And for location stuff I tend to jog my memory with Google Street View, taking a walk around settings I’m writing about.
Now, I might not be an example to follow – while a curated creative space is not essential, the 7:58 to Euston is equally not ideal. But I do think there are benefits to be found in removing the notion that writing requires writing space, and in writing fiction around ongoing human life.
When I write on the train or in a public space I’m surrounded by people and conversations and overheard music. Sure, all that can be annoying at times. However, it also immerses you into the every day – you hear what people say and how they say it, which is beneficial for any writer looking to make their characters and dialogue real and believable. You also learn to write anywhere, which means you can then use the rare spare moments you have to work on your WIP to actually work on it (rather than staring at the wall like I often do when I have a few dedicated hours). If anything, it can focus the mind and be a help to have to find your writer’s room out in the world.
I think it took me too long to realise that I didn’t need space or conditions to work. But once I did, I found that I was more productive, less distracted and motivated to make the most of my time.
Just as a group of kids with jumpers and a tennis ball can turn any bit of grass, sand or tarmac into Wembley Stadium, determined writers can create a writing room out of wherever we find ourselves with a spare half hour.
Jamie Fewery is the author of Our Life in a Day, out now! He's also a copywriter and a journalist and has written for The Daily Telegraph and Wired. You can follow him here.