A room of one’s own? It’s the dream of every writer. I have such a place. I spent years designing it, and it is perfect.
Let me show you around. It’s up a flight of stairs. Mind the pile of books on the landing. They’re waiting for me to put them in neat rows on the shelves.
And here it is – a perfect small square room lined with books from the floor to the ceiling. This shelf holds all my notebooks containing my jottings – ideas that have come to me on the bus or the train that I’ve quickly written down before I forget them. Over there is the side table full of photographs of the people I love and the places that have moved me. The rug? It’s old with lots of holes. It belonged to my mother.
Everything in the room is old, except the computer. It sits on the desk, which also belonged to my mother, and there are bits and pieces arranged on it to prompt my imagination and help the words flow. There is a window as well, looking out over trees or fields. Virginia Woolf would have approved.
This room of mine is an absolute dream – literally – and it will never become a reality for two reasons. It is highly unlikely that I’ll ever be able to afford the luxury of a spare room, and I always write at the kitchen table.
I suspect that even if I did have my own study, I wouldn’t use it. I think I would feel a bit of a fraud and also a bit lonely on my own up there, like an actor on an empty stage. The kitchen is a much less lonely place.
When my children were little and I was working as a journalist and television producer, I wrote my articles and scripts in the kitchen. I could cook the children’s supper, keep an eye on the progress of their homework and still manage to jot down the odd sentence or two.
Over the years, I began to feel odd if I was writing anywhere else. Besides, the kitchen contained pretty much everything I needed – the kettle for coffee and tea and the refrigerator for snacks. When I got stuck on something, I could put a load of washing on, or go outside and pull some weeds out of the garden, then return to the kitchen table to continue writing.
It also helped that I’ve always been able to concentrate on my work, no matter what was going on around me. It’s something I learned when I joined a busy newsroom straight after university. I had to shut out the noise of telephone conversations and office jokes for hours at a time. It was an invaluable lesson and one I hope never to forget.
I’ve been writing for decades, either as a journalist or for myself and I never thought that I would see a book with my name on its cover. Now that I’m lucky enough to be published, my best writing times are still at the kitchen table. It’s where I feel most comfortable. This is vital, as writing is anything but comfortable most of the time. It is hard work and involves an on-going struggle to overcome self- doubt and keep getting those words onto the page.
Sometimes there are these glorious sentences and scenes that wander around in your head, but when you try to write them down, they appear dull and pedestrian, fit only for the bin. Doggedly you keep on, hoping that something will emerge that isn’t too fake or too wordy. As the playwright Samuel Beckett once said, writing is a business of trying harder and failing better.
The kitchen is a good place for this kind of work. It keeps me grounded and connected to the outside world. It would be too isolating up there in that perfect room of one’s own. I would feel that I should be writing perfect sentences and perfect scenes and, as we all know, perfection is an impossible dream. It’s easier for me to think my messy and imperfect thoughts downstairs.
These days, I live on the River Thames in London and often walk along the towpaths. One walk took me past Hanwell and the site of the first purpose built hospital for mentally ill people in England and Wales. That hospital, along with the towpath itself, found its way into the story I told in The Housekeeper. So did the intriguing Three Bridges, designed by the great English engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to enable boats, cars and trains to cross the Great Union Canal at the same time. I would never have thought of writing about these things if I’d been closeted away upstairs in my perfect room. I would never have seen them.
It’s not that I write about my life. If I did, people would fall asleep from boredom. But what I see around me feeds into my imagination and helps create my fiction. And while I enjoy the fantasy of a room of one’s own, upstairs away from everything and everyone, I have come to realise that I see things far more clearly from my downstairs seat at the kitchen table.
Suellen Dainty is a journalist turned B&B owner turned author of the novel AFTER EVERYTHING. Her sophomore suspense novel, THE HOUSEKEEPER (Atria; February 28, 2017) follows Anne Morgan who’s in search of a fresh start after her boyfriend, and boss, leaves her for another woman. She decides to take a job as a housekeeper for her celebrity idol, Emma Helmsley (England’s answer to Martha Stewart). On the outside Emma and her family are picture perfect, but inside the house, the dirty laundry is piling up. Everyone has a secret to hide, including the housekeeper, and it’s only a matter of time before everything falls apart. Find out more at suellendainty.com.