Some reflections on needing space to write, written before lockdown…
Published by Aurora Metro
By Anne Sebba
Sitting, standing, working or simply being alone is a necessary condition for any writer. At least relatively alone. Some journalists are able to block out the background noises of a hectic newsroom and be alone in their heads to find the stillness and stimulation necessary to create. Luckily I trained in such a noisy, frenetic newsroom in the days when Fleet Street was synonymous with such places. I worked alongside reporters, often called firemen, never firewomen, who really did wear trench coats and dangled cigarettes as if they had just emerged from the set of a Hollywood detective movie. There were no remotely female friendly shops or cafes, just smoky pubs, where ‘a lead’ or ‘a scoop’ was discussed. It was the early 1970’s, less than 30 years after the end of World War 2. Yet I failed to realise how close it was to that War until I had to do nightshifts and would park just below St Paul’s in a bomb crater repurposed as a large open car park. On those occasions, the graveyard shift, the news floor was truly silent. But the rest of the time the shouting and bustle, fury and adrenaline (or was it testosterone?) trained me not to be precious about needing silence. But silence is precisely that: precious.
My first full length book after I left Reuters (or, more correctly, after they asked me to leave when they learned I was pregnant) was a biography of the novelist and playwright Enid Bagnold, a Sussex neighbour of Virginia Woolf who longed for Woolf’s admiration. I learnt from Bagnold as much about the art of writing itself as about carving out the time to write. If I could only have imbibed by osmosis the way she eschewed clichés. Her own birth she described as ‘sperm shot across two centuries to arrive at me.’ Such an earthy – and original – simile was typical of her prose, which she once described as ‘beautiful vomit’. But she also gave practical advice to mothers trying to write with children at home in the days before going to a coffee shop to set up your laptop was the norm. Go into your study, she advised, assuming every woman had such a room, and close the door whether you are writing or not. Find something to work at even if just a letter. Today social media makes this all too easy but of course is usually little more than a distraction, displacement activity.
And yet recently (with age?) I have started to think differently about needing absolute silence. Now that I have so much of it, I am not sure I am so keen on it. After all I am often the one to speak out loud while writing recognising that sometimes I need to hear how the cadence works. Let’s agree for the moment, ninety years after Virginia Woolf herself wrote her ground breaking text, about the inviolable principle of a room of one’s own, especially for a woman who may be able to write only in the snatched interstices of a day caring for children. But when we emerge from that room just how much interaction is useful with readers?
What about another room in which to share what you have written? Although nobody else but you is going to create the book, article or short story, many writers find some measure of collaborative effort and discussion (or just plain editing) a necessary spur or corrective. Most writers strike a balance; do the initial creating alone but have a first reader – a spouse, partner, professional editor or grown child with whom to discuss what you’ve written. (Although perhaps it’s not such a good idea to be in the same room when this first reader reads. Shouldn’t you let them undertake this poisoned chalice of a task alone, out of earshot of any grimaces or groans? )
How do I manage this balance of solitariness versus the rest of life? I invent small treats or rewards for myself, as insignificant as going to the local supermarket. Sometimes I go for walks in Richmond either along the river or through the park and since I live within a stone’s throw of where Virginia herself lived and worked – Hogarth House in the for her not so aptly named Paradise Road – it is hard not to wonder if the source of my peace of mind and inspiration was ever a source for her? Since she produced some of her finest work during the decade she was here I cannot believe that Richmond was wholly inimical to her creativity. Other times, I give lectures around the country and travel to research information which may well be extraneous to my overall subject simply to make sure I have some interaction with the rest of the world. I like it when other people say to me: ‘Have you read this book? Have you thought of that approach? Have you considered interviewing X?’ Sometimes I might even take my laptop to work on in bed … it’s a temporary room of my own but I like to feel the vibrations of life elsewhere in the household.
But there is of course alone and total isolation and most of my writer friends dislike total isolation but crave alone in short bursts.
All of this has been brought into sharp focus for me by my current preoccupation: I am writing a biography of Ethel Rosenberg, a woman sent to prison in 1951, living in solitary confinement for the last two years of her life, who wrote to her husband in another part of the prison regular letters of powerful emotional depth, insight and (in my view) some literary ability. Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been condemned to death for conspiracy to commit espionage and could see each other only occasionally when he was brought to sit in a cage next to her cell. They could not touch. Yet, when the letters were published, some anti-communist critics criticised Ethel’s style as ‘petit bourgeois’ or ‘full of bathos’ or complained that she tried too hard because she used a dictionary to find a more unusual word and a notebook to store phrases. It’s a salutary reminder for me that what I may consider being alone is a far cry from this; total isolation. I find it extraordinary that she wrote at all, that she (mostly) kept her spirits above the lowest depression level and functioned as a dignified human being with fire in her belly and integrity. Pretentious? Striving for effect? What writer doesn’t strive for that, male or female, whether in a room of one’s own, a prison cell or a crowded noisy café? We may need a room of our own most of the time but we need to feel the vibrations of life as well. Some of us need that more than others.
Ethel Rosenberg : An American Tragedy will be published in UK and US in June 2021