I used to love those features they ran in the Sunday papers about writers’ rooms. Creative chaos or forensically tidy? Flowers and photographs, or austere as a monk’s cell? Did they write on a corner of the kitchen table, or rent an office away from home? Somehow, I thought, if I could recreate the perfect writing environment, the writing would come.
Of course, I can write anywhere. I’ve written plenty of news stories in noisy open-plan offices with people shouting down telephones. I rather enjoy writing on long-distance train journeys, assuming you can get a seat with a table. I spent last summer writing on a wobbly dining table in a caravan, sitting cross-legged on the sofa. It’s time and focus you need, rather than any particular room.
But all the same, as I looked around my study this week, I noticed a few things weren’t right. Firstly, it was incredibly dusty. My constant sneezing wasn’t just an incipient cold. When it comes to cleaning the house, the study always seems to get left to last – if it makes it onto the schedule at all. Secondly, it had silted up with stuff. Not writing stuff, the reference books and post-it notes that I use for research, inspiration and planning, but junk. A broken clock radio. Some old cameras from before the digital age. A few unwanted Christmas presents, a bag of clothes to be taken to the charity shop, an old coffee table that’s been displaced from the living room. And thirdly, it was gloomy. The lack of sunshine made the muted wallpaper relentlessly dark.
No wonder I didn’t feel like spending time at my desk, or that I felt uninspired when I did settle down to write. This is the space where I do most of my creative work. Why had I let it become a grubby, gloomy dumping ground? The room represented the muddled, hopeless feeling that sometimes comes over me when I think about the work I still have to do on the novel.
A couple of hours later, I’d hoovered up a foot of dust. Junk had been thrown out, recycled or (OK, not ideal) stuffed out of sight into a wardrobe . My writing mascots (wedding photo, toy car, model skull and rattlesnake’s rattle) were dusted and back on the windowsill, along with a bright bunch of cheerful yellow daffodils.
I sat at my desk and stared at the dog-eared post-it notes, each one representing a scene from the novel. For the first time in months, I took them down, chucked out the scenes I no longer wanted, wrote notes for the new scenes I needed, played with the order until it started to make sense. I gleefully put a big red tick over the scenes I’d already written. Then I fired up the laptop and started in on the first of the new scenes I needed.
Call it displacement activity, but decluttering my study did seem to help me declutter my mind.