It’s often said that writing and publishing a book is like giving birth, but it’s probably worse due to the lengthy and unpredictable gestation period that’s involved.
You’re a woman and you write, so no doubt you have a dedicated writing space and a private income? No, me neither. It’s quite a while since Virginia Woolf stated that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.
When Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was first published in 1929 this was most likely true, but is it still the case? Money has always been an issue for writers, both male and female. How do you make art pay? DJ Taylor’s new book Literary Life in England Since 1918 looks at the ongoing struggle that most writers face in order to pay the bills so that they can write what they really want to write.
Journalism, teaching, a quiet role in publishing: these have traditionally been the jobs that have provided a steady income for writers, but as the workplace becomes ever more competitive and demanding many writers find they are left with little energy for their art, and yet at the same time they cannot survive on writing alone.
The Society of Authors this week issued an open letter to publishers urging them to address the issue of author earnings which it says are “falling fast”. Authors are “the only essential part of the creation of a book” and yet “the percentage of UK writers living solely from writing” has fallen from 40 % in 2005 to 11.5 % today. So, yes, when it comes to money nothing has changed, in fact it’s getting worse, but do we need our own cubby-hole in which to create?
Since moving to London 23 years ago I’ve set up home in 15 different places and while some flats or houses have provided enough space for a completely separate room that I can call my own, many others have not. London property prices being what they are space is at a premium and for me the luxury of a personal, hands-off, me-only writing space became impossible as our family increased from two to four.
Until recently my desk was a family affair, subject to a ridiculous level of hot-decking. The main computer was rarely left alone. This could slow me down, but there was no reason why it should. All my first-drafts are longhand, as are my edits, and that means I can write anywhere: in an armchair, or a coffee shop, waiting in a car and on trains.
Trains are particularly good for writing (as long as you have a seat). Perhaps it’s the steady movement combined with confinement and boredom. I may as well get on with it and go elsewhere in my head because this is the one true room of one’s own – the place in one’s head.
As a skill, craft and discipline writing is completely portable. You can do it almost anywhere. There’s no point waiting for perfect conditions (such as your own clear desk in your own swish room), you the writer must take control, ignore all chores (think Iris Murdoch’s school of housework), as you make space in that room in your head to let your imaginary world grow.
Of course a room of one’s own and money to support oneself would help a woman write fiction, but at the same time the lack of one or both of these criteria should not close the door on literary ambition, although in all likelihood its realisation may well take longer.
Think of Jane Austen writing at that tiny table by the window in the front room at Chawton (listening out for the creak of the door to warn her of interruptions), or the Brontes all together in the dining room at the parsonage in Haworth, and JK Rowling upstairs in an Edinburgh cafe (whilst on benefits). No one said it would be easy. The compulsion to write is strong – it has to be to enable a writer to reach the end whatever their personal circumstances. Lack of sponsorship or a private space to write are hurdles that can be overcome as long as you nurture that one true room of your own – where the magic happens – the place in your head.
This feature was first published on Women Writers, Women’s Books