Soul sanctuaries

Photography by Nisakorn Keanmepol

Photograph by Nisakorn Keanmepol

Walls teaming with scribbled-on post-its, maps, photos and postcards. The floor carpet-bombed with clutter through which you have to wade to approach the desk. And the desk, dominated by towers of books ready to come crashing down around your head, a paperweight reformed from the bomb that fell on this very spot in early 1941 and a scattering of tactile ornaments, each with its attendant history and memories.

Or a minimalist cell. A study free from distraction. White walls, a clear desk, a lamp and a laptop.

Chances are, if you’re a writer, one of these two visions has you breaking out in a cold sweat and the other fuels a warm glow that makes you want to settle into that chair at the desk, reach for your notebook and start scribbling.

I have spent much of the last month developing an approach to creating writing spaces in schools with Kernow Education Arts Partnership’s Story Republic. During this time, I was inspired while running sessions at two conferences recently, during which teachers investigated their own preferences for writing spaces in order to understand how best to create with young people, spaces in which they will want to write independently.

We discussed the decisions that take place in the creation of a space designed to feed the flow of words, a space that will inspire and foster creativity, yet help the writer avoid temptations to procrastinate. What came out, above all the other insights these activities gave me, was everyone’s idea of the perfect writing space is different and personal, and the negotiations that take place in order to develop shared writing places are delicate and subtle. And it seemed only right if I was asking others to investigate and develop their relationship with their writing spaces, I should do the same with my own.

After these experiences it made sense entirely when I read Joyce Carol Oates describing the writer’s room as a “sanctuary of the soul” and it was only when I delved into my own preferences, I realised quite how minimal my writing room is. I wondered what Oates would make of the state of my soul if she peered round the door, to see (aside from a rather stunning view of a creek and a boatyard from the window) my writing room is bare. The walls, the desk, the floor, all clear. When I arrive in the morning I add to a desk occupied only by a lamp, a laptop and a mug of coffee and when I leave, it returns to its pristine state.

Wyl's minimalist writing space

It might sound a bit brutal, but that’s how I’ve worked since I started using this space, situated above a garage on a small Cornish creek, in September last year. And the reason I’ve kept it like that? If I can be distracted I will be. By anything and everything. It’s the same reason I avoid music when I’m writing and have a programme which shuts off the internet when I need to get words down but lack the self-control. The same reason I find it hard to write in Central London – too much stimulus, too many people to see, too much noise and bustle for my easily distracted mind to settle to the task.

However, truth told, there’s an element of laziness in there too. I’ve haven’t put any great thought into the room nor considered I would need anything other than my laptop and a mug of coffee to write at my best.

So could I improve it? And could I improve my writing by developing my writing space? I don’t want my room to end up like Will Self’s, but after reflecting on Oates’s statement, I decided I wanted it to show a little more soul.

As I moved a few reference books in – my beloved copy of Harold Evans’s Essential English for Writers, Journalists and Editors, my OEDs – and pinned up a few postcards, it struck me as something akin to the point in a relationship when you start to move clothes into a girlfriend’s wardrobe. I added to my previously pristine desk, a Chinese calligraphy set and a soapstone elephant from Copenhagen (ready to re-banish them at a moment’s notice to their storage box).

It was just a few small steps, but when I really thought about it, after hours of trying to to find the best place for my elephantine paperweight, I realised I missed the clean lines of the desk. And the more I added, the more it detracted, from both the view and my concentration. I banished the elephant and the calligraphy set back to their boxes, the postcards to a drawer (noting as I did, the contrast between this hidden space teeming with clutter and the clear workspace), and shifted the reference books to the shelves further back in the room. I felt ready to write again.

I reflected perhaps my writing soul needs minimal to spread itself out over the blank canvas, and perhaps my relationship with my writer’s room is fine the way it was. The hideous clutter in the drawers is another matter.

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