A Room of one’s own… or not?

Some reflections on needing space to write, written before lockdown…

Published by Aurora Metro

By Anne Sebba

A Room of one’s own… or not?

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.

A Room of one’s own… or not?

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

Ten Reasons to be cheerful in the time of Coronavirus

Blog about Ten Reasons to be cheerful in the time of Coronavirus

Because we humans are (mostly) a perverse bunch, being told I can undertake only one form of exercise a day makes me want to spend the whole day running, jumping, skipping, cycling. It’s not as if I ever did that but, just because I can’t, I want to!  In this weird new world where the government is not simply telling me how to live my life but actually ordering me how to do it, it would be so easy to collapse under a pile of negativity or anxiety or to rebel  – How do they know whether or not I have already been out once?  But actually it’s not difficult to play the game and do what I am told because I know all our lives depend on it, mine included. I have in any case spent the past two years in semi isolation, desperately trying to write a book in the immediate aftermath of my husband’s sudden death and deal with probate, a situation guaranteed to lure anyone into depths of depression even without associated grief. What kept me going was my mantra ‘once the book is done’ I shall be free …. free to spend a week at a spa, free to travel wherever I wanted, free to meet all the friends I have had to shun so rudely over the past two years. Even free to behave badly.

But then, within days of delivering my manuscript, this. And my car was broken into. Desperate times I know. And what’s the worst?  I can’t even see my gorgeous growing grandchildren.

So I am taking a deep breath and thinking about some of the things that really matter. Staying alive is number one. Looking after elderly relatives and making sure they (and I) are fit for when we eventually emerge and can say ‘I used the time to do something I never would otherwise have done.’ No wonder sales from DIY shops are booming. We all have an urge to prove, through creativity, we are still alive. And for me that’s the best way to stave off anxiety and depression.

So here are Ten Reasons to be Cheerful in the time of Coronavirus, with the big caveat that I do know I am the luckiest person because I have always worked from home. It’s a necessary condition for any writer to produce anything, although I can’t pretend I like being solitary. I have just had to get used to it over the years, which has been a useful preparation for widowhood. I have delivered a new book after almost five years and soon will have to edit that. I need to be at home, alone, to do this. I have spent all my working life working from home. In a sense there is nothing new about this. On the other hand as a freelancer who gives talks, ten of which have been cancelled, I have lost an important income stream as well as a chance to get out and meet my readers.

Here are the TEN

  1. The pear tree has dozens of blossoms. I bought this tree as a birthday present for my husband and it never produced any fruit in his lifetime. Last year I had four pears and this year I think there will be dozens.
  2. I did some gardening and actually enjoyed it. I love looking out of my study window onto the garden, watching to see if the birds are eating their fat balls from the new feeder and straining to see what has started to bloom. My small London garden gives me more pleasure and sense of peace than I could possibly imagine, an inspiration for anyone, and just the right level of minor distraction for a writer.
  3. I am exercising in different ways. Today I went for a solitary cycle ride along the towpath using my husband’s very old bike. I could hear the birdsong. I even have an old rowing machine, something I thought I was desperate to give away as it was always my husband’s toy. No longer. I’ve discovered I can row and watch television at the same time.
  4. I have cleared up some cupboards (and found my wedding dress wrapped up in a bag). Lots of other things have found their way into the rubbish bin where they should have been years ago.
  5. I am learning how to make sourdough thanks to a writer friend I barely knew who kindly sent me my first starter. I shall get very fat but what a lovely way to put on the pounds with homemade sourdough bread.
  6. I am reading books that have been sitting on my shelves for years. ‘Just give me five minutes to read’ has been my (much mocked) Cri de Coeur ever since I can remember. Suddenly I have fifty five of those minutes. I shan’t read worthy books. I shall just read for pleasure and information.
  7. I am listening to other books thanks to Audible on big headphones when I walk or from my iphone speaker when I cook or take a bath
  8. The kindness of strangers. Lots of communities have set up deliveries for the elderly but it isn’t just the old who are in difficulty. My younger daughter is being looked after by her boyfriend’s parents in the country where she is happy and well, working from home to set up a new website for her company remotely.
  9. I have plenty to eat. I am cooking for the freezer as if it is another person. As a non-meat eater, I depend on fresh fruit and vegetables and keep making enormous vats of vegetable curries, vegetable stews, soups even vegetable tagines. Far more than I can possibly consume myself.
  10. Think of all the money I am saving… no nail bar visits, no hairdressers, no clothes to buy and even the odd refund from train journeys not taken (although actually that is a battle I am still fighting)
  11. One more for luck and because I never could count … I was excited to be asked to write an article for Aitken Alexander, the agency who have wonderfully represented me for more than twenty years, as part of a series they have created where authors respond to isolation. Here is what I wrote for them about the calming effects of knitting!

Can we make any of these changes permanent? Being more accepting of what we have is one I certainly intend to keep in my personal armoury. And learning to let go of some things I can really learn to live without.

Here is a piece I wrote a few years ago which I am reposting to mark this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR holds the hand of his granddaughter during the annual ‘March of the Living’ at Auschwitz in May 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)

A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR holds the hand of his granddaughter during the annual ‘March of the Living’ at Auschwitz in May 2019

What makes two people with identical backgrounds turn in completely opposite directions?  I have just finished a fascinating book called The Horror of Love by Lisa Hilton about the relationship between Nancy Mitford and her French lover, Gaston Palewski. I thought I knew all I ever needed to know about the Mitford sisters (and perhaps I did) but reading it made me struggle with this question once again? Of course with the Mitfords – Unity and Diana, the Hitler worshippers and Jessica, the communist – the problem is writ larger than in most families. Nancy vehemently opposed both extremes and devoted herself to writing (Love in a Cold Climate) not politics (Palewski was one of General de Gaulle’s closest advisers). Read More

Women’s Voices Reporting D Day

If like me you’ve been enjoying hearing the deep and clipped tones of the 1940’s reporters telling us about the progress of D Day (I know it’s radio but you can definitely see that they are wearing suits and ties or possibly even dinner jackets) have you also wondered where are the women’s voices? Answer is, of course, there weren’t any. Not only were there no women announcers or presenters but British women were not allowed to be accredited war reporters. The only way around this disbarment was for reporters like Clare Hollingworth to join an American news organisation if they wanted to report the biggest story of the day.

Image result for picture of martha gellhorn

Even Martha Gellhorn, the veteran American journalist who had been reporting the War for Collier’s Magazine since 1937, suffered from this attitude as the US Army’s public relations officers objected to a woman being a correspondent with combat troops. But she was determined not to be relegated to reporting behind the lines or what was demeaningly called ‘the women’s angle’ and came up with a brilliant ruse. Read More

Let’s hear it for Typewriters

Let’s hear it for Typewriters

Typewriters are having a bit of a moment. When I was eight my parents bought me a toy typewriter and I spent a part of everyday writing up the local news. Not that there was any news in our sleepy suburban village. Nobody talked about fake news in those days so I suppose I concluded that what happened at the tennis club mattered? It did to me. I had the story telling bug. For my 21st birthday, my sister and brother in law gave me a real portable typewriter as a birthday present, one that I loved and took with me to Italy when I worked there for Reuters. I still have it but it too now looks rather like a plastic toy. I can’t possibly give this typewriter away, even though it has been useless for the last thirty years! I’m sentimentally attached to it and it, in turn is irrevocably linked to my youth. I can remember how important I felt using it to write my first story on assignment: the Aga Khan’s One Ton Cup Yacht race in Costa Smeralda, Sardinia, a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing. But I quickly discovered the great joy of journalism was that if you worked hard enough and asked enough people the right questions, you could suddenly become an expert. Read More