The habit of living in two places (France and America) has some curious side-effects. There is a perpetual sense of expectation, a permanent state of “Are we there yet?” It always feels like the day before leaving, because we are always thinking about packing, travel arrangements, cat care, and so on. At the same time we are always arriving, unpacking, and opening up a new house. There have to be two of everything, from toothbrushes to internet connections. My life is consumed by lists, and by things that need fixing here or there.
On the other hand every list is an optimistic statement, a talisman for the future. If I have a list then I must be around to complete it, in spite of the hazards of travel. A good, long list of things to be done confers an illusion of immortality.
On the other hand some stability is important, so my study in a three hundred year old French village house is arranged exactly the same way as it is in our modern house in New York. There are limits to my adaptability: I can change my culture, my language, my food and my politics, but the arrangement of my work space is more or less sacred.
Writing should be the ultimately portable activity. The stereotype of the author, reinforced by numerous advertisements for writing courses, is of the creative spirit freed from the constraints of time and space. One writing school that advertised for years in Writers’ Digest used a picture of a woman half-reclining on a beach with her laptop, gazing into space. She was obviously just about to produce a great novel or poem, regardless of sun glare blotting out the screen, sand getting into the keyboard, and all the other distractions that a beach offers.
I envy people who can write anywhere. I’ve met a few of them, and they are very annoying. It doesn’t matter where they are – on a train rumbling through Turkey, on a Boeing 747 flying over the North Pole, at a counter top in somebody’s kitchen, or at a truck stop diner in Iowa – they can always produce a yellow pad or a laptop and start writing. This gives them an enormous competitive advantage over people like me, who can only write in type of environment, namely our own room. The geographically promiscuous writer is inevitably more productive, because no potential writing time is wasted.
This may be a problem that nobody else shares, but I suspect that they do. I can and do take notes anywhere, but I can only concentrate on writing in one of the two the familiar places where I always write.
The room I call my study in France is really a kind of lobby between two floors, but it is very pleasant. It overlooks the narrow main street of the village (just eight feet wide) where a lively social scene unfolds from morning till night. One big window creates slanting bars of sunshine, so I can imagine that I’m writing on a tropical island like Graham Greene. All my stuff is conveniently arranged, though rather cramped. When we first moved into this house, I found myself mute in this nice room, completely unable to write for about two weeks. The same thing has happened before. Rooms that I wrote in for years became almost an essential part of my equipment. When I had to leave them it was like death or divorce. It induced a kind of mental paralysis.
Now my French study is delightfully familiar, and I think I can see why familiarity is so essential, at least for me. It’s a question of blanking out everything else, of reducing distractions to the absolute minimum. When I have my space properly organized the routine stuff becomes automatic. When I need a stapler or a paper clip or a notebook my hand knows exactly where to find it. Order has been achieved. There are no distractions. I can write. If this sounds like a bad case of obsessive-compulsive disorder then so be it. But I think it makes some psychological and even physiological sense.
Virginia Woolf, in a much-quoted sentence, wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
My responses to that are: what does being a woman have to do with it, and what does fiction have to do with it? We all need money and a room of our own if we are to write anything.
At least, I have a nice room.
Saint Quentin la Poterie