Wednesday 16 May 2012

Sheds - Celia Rees

I recently visited the Boathouse in Laugharne. I'd been there before, and peered into Dylan Thomas' Writing Shed, but this time I was with my friend, the artist Julia Griffiths Jones, and she'd been inside! She had been allowed to go into the shed to draw. When she showed me the drawings that she had made there, and the photographs that she had taken, I must admit to being gripped by a strange excitement and considerable envy. There is something about the place where a writer works that exerts a peculiar fascination. Just to see what he or she had on the desk by way of distraction or because a particular object was special in some way; to see the pictures pinned up on the wall; the view, or lack of it from the window. These things serve to bring alive some of the process of mind that produced the work that one admires.

In Dylan Thomas' writing shed - Julia Griffiths-Jones

What I found especially wonderful here was the sheet of paper, stained and wrinkled, crisped by time, that was covered in lists and lists of words. Dylan Thomas is famous for the lyrical precision of his poetry,  the startling originality of his images, the sheer exuberance of the words he chooses. He once said that his first introduction to poetry was through nursery rhymes:

I had come to love the words of them. The words alone. What the words stood for was of a very secondary importance.

But this list showed that his poems were hard won. He had to prepare, work at them, think about what appeared on the page. What seems natural, effortless is supremely crafted and writing is a hard and lonely process, as he describes it in My Craft or Sullen Art.

word splashed hut - Julia Griffiths- Jones
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Here, on his table, was a little bit of that crafting.  I don't know where he wrote the poem but from his shed window he would certainly have had an unimpeded view of the moon over the Taf estuary and the wide sweep of Carmarthen Bay. Just seeing these things brought the poet nearer, as though time and space were collapsing and death, indeed, had no dominion.  

I can't claim a shed myself, my garden just isn't big enough, but I will admit to shed envy. There are quite a few writers who work in a shed, or have worked in a shed. Philip Pullman famously wrote his Northern Lights Trilogy in a shed at the bottom of his garden in Oxford. 

Philip Pullman's Shed
Roald Dahl's Shed

Roald Dahl was another famous shed man. Again, I can feel the pull, the fascination of the table carpeted in objects, collected bits and pieces: fossils, model aeoroplanes, and the tools of a writer's trade: pens, pencils, scissors. The walls are covered in pictures, photographs, postcards pinned up, curling and interleaved - put up as aide memoire or inspiration. The touch telephone, so modern once, so dated now, gives a feeling of time stopped at the moment when Dahl left, never to return, the point when the building ceased to be a vibrant creative space and returned to being just a shed. A trace of him remains, though, caught and contained in the things he gathered about him. 

Writers are often elusive creatures, rarely showing their true nature, wanting their writing to speak for them, but these glimpses into their private place allow us a rare insight into who they were. There is an eloquence to the space, it speaks to us of the writers' true nature. 

Sheds are not just a male preserve. There are shed women, too. Virginia Woolf is perhaps the most notable example, although hers is, perhaps, more of a summer house.

Virginia's Shed


And there is, of course, our own Linda Newbery who used to work in this elegant little number, complete with a Virginia style verandah, although she tells me that she is shed-less at the moment. 

Linda's Shed

Linda also warned that having a shed comes with certain risks. The writer and journalist, Francis Wheen, recently lost his archive, his book collection and the novel he was working on in a disastrous shed fire. Even with that warning, I still feel the pangs of Shed Envy. Maybe, one day, until then I'll have to make do with a study. The important thing is to have, as Virginia Woolf says, a room of one's own. 

My non-shed
Shed or shed-less? Where do you write? What do you have around you? I'd love to know....


Susan Price said...

I have a shed - brick built, with a flat, leaking concrete roof, full of spiders and junk. I shan't be cleaning it out. And I have a room of my own - so full of clutter I'm resistant to tidying that I've been forced out. I only use it when I need the printer. I write on my laptop in a corner of the sofa. I don't have any shed-envy - but then, I don't have to share my house. I can imagine there would be trouble and strife if I did.

julia jones said...

What an enjoyable and beautifully illustrated piece. Francis is now left with a completely bare concrete base - a tabula rasa if eve I saw one. Meanwhile we have discovered (or been discovered by) the website shedworking which you may well wish to visit yourself - eye-candy for shedfreaks. Personally I plan to return to my attic, as soon as F vacates.

catdownunder said...

Oh I would love a shed - or even just a real space of my own. I actually have a whole working life in a corner of my bedroom. It is NOT a good idea but there is nowhere else.
I do think though that one should keep a copy of things in a safe and separate place.

Nicola Morgan said...

This is going to fuel your shed-envy, Celia, but.... This very apt for me at the moment, since at this VERY minute I am waiting for an electrician to arrive to connect electricity to my glorious shed which was installed last week. It's hyper-insulated, incredibly light (east and south facing walls are glass) and all i can see from it are trees and plants (currently rhodies and azaleas in full flower) and I can't wait to write in it! Mostly I am looking for to actually *going* to work, like a proper person.

adele said...

This is a wonderful post and it was lovely to see all those sheds. Dylan's is superb and I love your artist pal's pictures of it. I have no shed envy whatsoever, though they are super! Happy to work in my study at home. A back bedroom looking out on to the garden. My desk faces the wall, not the window and I have bookshelves all around me and knick nacks of various kinds on the desk. I sometimes move my laptop to the kitchen but not often. Particularly sad to think of poor Francis Wheen, whom I know a little. That is a disaster of huge proportions and I can't begin to think how I'd feel if all my books etc went up in smoke. YOUR space, Celia, looks very good to me! And the main thing is: it produces your work, so you have no complaints! Nor should any other Sassie...if it ain't broke, etc.

Unknown said...

Yes, I try to visit every time I am in Wales, I love the crumpled pieces of paper on the floor as though he has just left.

Jon Tregenna said...

Excellent piece of writing. I have added it to the Dylan Thomas Boathouse facebook page, linked below. Hope that's ok! Good to meet you the other week. Jon

Emma Barnes said...

Loved this! Wonderful all those pictures of sheds. I am now suffering from a serious case of shed envy... a condition probably suffered only by writers and gardeners.

Emma Barnes said...
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Linda Newbery said...

A lovely post - and I do like Julia Griffitht-Jones' drawings! All this has made me nostalgic for my own rather lovely ex-shed. I would like to think that someone else will use it for writing one day. Though I must say there are advantages to being in the house - especially in freezing weather!

Celia Rees said...

Nicola has fuelled my shed envy and I'm sorry if I triggered a bout of nostalgia, Linda. I'm so excited about the Boathouse having it's own Facebook Page - I've gone off and liked it straight away, I'm glad you liked the piece, Jon. Thanks for the inspiration and the bara brith. Everyone who has heard of Francis' shed disaster, Julia, is full of sorrow and sympathy. Only writers, or artists can know what a loss it must have been. I know it doesn't really matter where we write, but to lose ones things, one's books, above all, one's work must be devastating.

Stroppy Author said...
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Stroppy Author said...

I must be very greedy because I now have shed envy even though I have a delightful study with an extensive attached roof garden overlooking garden and field for working on sunny days. Table and wifi on the roof, too. But I'd still like a Dahlesque shed.

I once saw a wonderful gypsy-style caravan with wood-burning stove that you could have installed in the garden as an office and wanted it desperately, but it was £10,000 and really very unnecessary...

Louise said...

I have a shed/summerhouse which I use sometimes, but will be able to use much more once all my children are at school... just isn't possible to lock myself away in there with 3 and 2 year olds in tow :)

Linda Strachan said...

Lovely post, Celia.
It is fascinating to see other people's sheds and the things they keep in them to surround them when they are writing.
I love my shed. It's called 'Tuscany' and it is amazing how different it feels being inside the shed rather than writing anywhere else. There is a sense of quiet that makes it easy to write, even when the writing is being difficult!

You can see it on a previous ABBA blog here

Liz Kessler said...

Bit late - but this is such a lovely post, Celia. I love all the shed pics, and love thinking of Dylan Thomas's shed filled with lists of his words. WOW!

I do suffer a little bit from shed envy. There's something so romantic about the idea. However, I have a beautiful attic room with views of the sea for my study, and I adore it so probably wouldn't swap!

Celia Rees said...

Oh, no! I've got attic envy now! Thanks to everyone who responded to this post. It's fascinating to hear about where others write and impossible not to envy some people, but ultimately it's what gets written that matters.