Wednesday, 26 June 2019

A Room Of One's Own? Dream On.

Another article came out this week about writers having no money and being unable to live off being-a-writer. Loads of writers shared the post and all the writers agreed: it was true. I don't know if people who aren't writers care about those articles or it's just writers passing them around to articulate the shared misery. In any case I find them difficult to read because they take me away from writing and my reasons for writing. I don't believe that 'vocation' should be a substitute for getting paid, but I've also never been under the illusion that I could ever live off writing on its own. I do several other jobs for money and I'm struggling for cash, but lots of people are, and at least the jobs I do are things that feel meaningful to me. When I dream about having plenty of money one of the first things I'd do would be to sort out Virginia Woolf's maxim about women needing 'a room of one's own in order to write fiction'. I'd really like that. I'd like an attic-type room with sloping ceilings, a really comfortable sofa to read on, a nice big desk in front of a large window overlooking the sea. Please and thank you. But right now it's fantasy, and I expect that's the case for lots of writers.

I wanted to write this post to detail how I manage to write books without having my own room, then. I don't want anyone to think that I'm having a dreadful time- I'm not. I love writing and I can find spaces when I need to in our house or in nearby cafes. Finding the time is a separate problem, but I don't want to write about that now (mainly because I haven't really figured it out). Here is how I fake having my own space so that I can be alone with the story.

The non-negotiable for me is having uninterrupted time. Therefore, I can't write when my youngest is at home and I'm the only one taking care of him. The others in the house are better at not interrupting and I can at least take a chance on it. It's hard for me to think of a worse irritation when it comes to writing than being interrupted. I know that other writers can write with their kids playing around them and constantly interrupting them, and I know that when I publish this there will be those who say 'Well I have to, I just don't have the choice.' But I physically can't do it. There's something about how my brain works (or doesn't work) when I'm writing that requires the security of knowing that I can start a thought and probably get to the end of it without someone asking for juice or a biscuit or making me go and look for their green PJ Masks vehicle. I'm sure Will Self is probably clever enough to write novels and entertain children and cook dinners and do laundry all at the same time (and I'm sure he does all those things) but I can't do that.

Once I have a guarantee of some minutes I can start thinking about faking the silence. I suppose I am pretty high maintenance really, and not very suited to the writing life. Ideally I'd like complete silence. Maybe a bit of birdsong. And cafe noises are OK as long as they are distant and don't include babies crying or people having loud business conversations. Clearly, I don't have that much control over my environment, so the next best thing, the thing that I've been using since children graced my life, and probably the thing I am most grateful for (and yet have never mentioned in the acknowledgements of any of my books), is headphones. Headphones are the room that you don't have. They are the audio-control you don't have. The good ones are expensive but not as expensive as renting an office or building an extension or moving to a bigger house.

I have several pairs of headphones.

I have cheap in-ear ones which go everywhere with me in case I forget the good ones. They were a fiver out of Tesco and they'll do in an emergency.

I have my excellent Sennheiser HD 202 headphones (about £35) which for some reason have a lead so long you could  probably nip downstairs and make a cup of tea without removing them. They're not noise-cancelling ones but they are the next best thing as they cover your whole ear and the sound is very good and they do block out most external noise.

I have my Jabra Move bluetooth headphones (around £70) which are also very good. Not quite as noise-blocking as the Sennheiser ones (the cans are slightly smaller) and you have to keep them charged up which can be a pain if you're out, but they are pretty great and they're normally the ones I take to cafes because they don't have a lead at all so they're less faffy. Also great for walks or doing the housework.

You can get super duper noise cancelling headphones which are brilliant and expensive, but I find that the above works well for me. I've been using them for a few years.

Obviously by using headphones you don't get complete silence because you have to put something through them in order to block out the other noise. Everyone has their own music that they find good to write-to. I can't have anything with lyrics or I find myself trying to listen to the words. I sometimes play Schubert or Sibelius- classical music that I like but don't know well enough for it to be distracting. Or, more often, ambient or electronic music (The Unknowns was mostly written to the soundtrack of Daniel Avery's Drone Logic). You can get online tracks which play background noises that sound like the ocean, or a coffee shop, or even the TARDIS, but depending on what kind of scene I'm writing I find that music can help energise me a bit.

Maybe it's an obvious solution to the modern problem with Virginia Woolf's idea, but it's one which I don't think gets promoted enough. I'm sure that loads of other people use headphones though, and I'd love to hear what you're all listening to.


Penny Dolan said...

See so many people in cafe's with headphones on and laptops open - now I know they are working writers, not just listening to music. :-)

Having borrowed a pair of head-phones with cans recently, I'd agree that they certainly do create a useful sense of one's own space, and will watch out for other recommendations. Thanks, Shirley-Anne.

Now, when you write your post about interruptions . . . .???

WeeWideWorld said...

This is such good timing! I'm in the market for a pair of headphones. The in-ear ones hurt my ears so I'm thinking cans (? They're called cans? I didn't even know that. That's how clueless I am on this subject).
My priorties are:
I don't want to look like a builder wearing ear defenders,
they have to be small enough to go in my small rucksack,
no lead would be good but if you have to charge them they'd have to last a while,
I don't want people around me to be able to hear what I'm listening to because that's super annoying when other people do it,
and I don't want to have to turn my music up super loud to cancel out what's going on around me.
Which of your selection would you recommend, Shirley? I'll put this on Facebook too in case anyone else has input. Thanks!
Kelly x

Shirley-Anne McMillan said...

Both of these are a bit bulky- the bluetooth ones less so. You can get over-ear headphones which fold up though. I just bought mine using Amazon reviews and they worked out pretty well. They do look a bit 'cyberman' but most bluetooth ones do. However, I carry a small backpack and they fit into it fine so you should be grand. The charge lasts ages and I haven't had any complaints about my music being too loud. Ian and I have experimented with different bluetooth ones and these are the best we've had so far. Good luck!

Shirley-Anne McMillan said...

PS I have no idea if 'cans' are the official term! Possibly not. I'm a terrible person for just picking things up and using them without knowing if it's a widely-used term or something that just one person has said.

WeeWideWorld said...

Ha! Thanks Shirley, I will make it my mission to make 'cans' a thing! I think I'll go to a shop and try a few. They seem expensive enough to warrant a bit of research. Thanks for this, it was helpful!

Alex English said...

I'm not much of one for listening to music while writing, but I love a bit of rain and/or thunder! For some reason I find it really helps concentration.

Damian Harvey said...

Hi Shirley and thanks for that post ... I thought it was just me that blocked out the noise with headphones. I'm lucky in that I do have a quiet place where I can work, however, I do rely on the headphones quite a bit to. I have a Walkman NWA50 - like an ipod but just for music and the only thing with enough memore to hold the ridiculous amount of music that I have. It also has the added bonus of having noise reducing headphones. THey are the small in your ear type but I find them more comfortable than I expected.

I too have to avoid music with singing as it distracts me so tend to listed to Vangelis (Soil Festivities, Antarctica, Rosetta) and other similar stuff.

You might want to take a look/listen to if you like ambient sounds like wind, rain, sea, cafe's. You can set the sound levels to suit your mood and needs. A great distraction activity for a while too - not that any of use really need those.

Shirley-Anne McMillan said...

Thanks Alex and Damian. Yesterday I was in a cafe and put on my bluetooth headphones but as they connected they randomly began playing the sound of the sea. I was so confused before realising that they had connected to my husband's computer. He was sitting opposite me.