Are money and comfort necessary for the writing process?

An Essay based on A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf 

I first met Virginia Woolf at Mrs Dalloway’s party. She was a stranger – an aloof, sharp, beautiful woman with whom I didn’t feel an immediate connection. Relationships with books and authors are the same as relationships with people. With some, it’s an instant connection, recognition of a kindred spirit. But with others, it takes time. Virginia and I are still growing. The more I learn about her, the more she fascinates me. 

 A Room of One’s Own seems an apt place to start, with its focus on what a writer needs to be able to write. Woolf comments upon various interconnected issues, but the undercurrent running throughout the whole book is the importance of money that provides for one’s basic needs so that one can focus on writing. That is as relevant today as it was in 1928. Except that today, this is no longer an issue for just women.

We have come far enough in gender equality that this issue applies to both sexes. If there are any fortunes to be inherited, it is no longer only men who inherit them. When Woolf said,

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

[Kindle Location 37, Chapter 1]

she wasn’t talking about the importance of money for its own sake. She didn’t say a woman must have thousands of pounds, a big house and a bunch of servants if she is to write fiction. It’s about what money gives you. A sense of comfort and security of knowing you have a roof over your head, bills are paid, and you have somewhere to write.

The physical comforts cannot be overrated. Whatever lofty heights your soul may aspire to, it is framed in a corporal body. As such, it has basic human needs like every other person.

Woolf was right when she said,

The human frame being what it is, heart, body, and brain all mixed together and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

[Kindle Location 237, Chapter 1]

We have not yet gotten to a stage where science can separate heart, body and brain in different compartments. However inconvenient it may be, it’s probably a good thing for our writing, enabling us to tap into not just intellectual but also our emotional capacity. However, attempting to tap into your inner muse when you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from is rarely successful. The image of a starving artist may sound romantic, but in reality, it has no more romance than the lives of millions of other starving people.

Woolf asks,

What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?

[Kindle Location 329, Chapter 2]

Necessity is too definitive, for it would change from person to person. Some people are able to bear discomforts more than others. Yet, it would be logical to say that comfortable conditions of living would be more conducive to the creation of works of art, and the availability of that comfort is dependent upon having money. Even if the impact of gaining some money is not as momentous as it was in Woolf’s times.

The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women…of the two – the vote and the money – the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important.

[Kindle Location 486, Chapter 2]

Woolf was an intelligent, socially conscientious woman. She knew the importance of being able to vote, the tide of change it represented for women, yet it was the £500 per year that she found more valuable. For it was the money that bought her independence, without which, political rights mean very little.

Food, house, and clothing are mine for ever.

[Kindle Location 503, Chapter 2]

These basic needs were her security. They gave her the freedom to be a writer. These are the very basic needs that prevent people today from blossoming into their inner artist.

Woolf raises this in a reflection about women who lived during Shakespeare’s time. 

For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.

[Kindle Location 541, Chapter 3]

It wasn’t a puzzle. Woolf knew the answer to that too.

What were the conditions in which women lived, I asked myself; for fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached  to life at all four corners…But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.

[Kindle Location 543, Chapter 3]

That is the same concern we face today. The environment nurtures creativity, but it can also distract. There is a reason people pay small fortunes to attend writers’ retreats. The reality that was true then and is true now.

Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them.

[Kindle Location 676, Chapter 3]

Art available in abundance is not perceived as a necessity, and yet take it away – every book, every film, every painting, and every play – and the world will mourn its loss, and be changed forever. However, until that happens, complain about being a struggling writer, and people will tell you to get a real job.

The very people, who look down upon and give “practical” advice to the struggling artists, hero-worship successful ones. Just think about a mile long queue for book-signings, midnight book releases, and intensity of fans for success stories such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or Eat Pray Love. As Woolf said,

Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.

[Kindle Location 845, Chapter 3]

She is not the only one who’s being honest about the importance of money and comfort in a writer’s life. She references Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who said,

The poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance…a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.

[Kindle Location 1406, Chapter 3]

In today’s society, we are not absolutely ruled by the circumstances of our birth. Education is available to people of all backgrounds. With the long reach of the Internet, more and more opportunities are available for those with a vision and a drive. While a poor child in England today does not have as hopeless existence as a child of an Athenian slave, he also does not have the ease with which opportunities are available for the rich child. Intellectual freedom is still difficult to achieve, for it requires time to study and to reflect. One can only find that time once the bills are paid, and there is a place – a room of one’s own – to sit down in.

 

While the world sleeps

This essay is the first in a collection in Ben Okri’s book, A Way of Being Free. The book is seemingly based on creativity, and yet really about life, dreams, authenticity, and so much more.

While the World Sleeps sets the stage for the rest of the book, the very title turning on the imagination. Think about being awake while the world is sleeping, literally and metaphorically. Think about the silence, the aloneness, and the possibilities. This essay uses that metaphor to offer both hope and a reality check.

It uses poets as its vehicles, but the truth of it applies to anyone who is attempting to seek out the truth in the world, and not be limited by the external boundaries. There are plenty of external boundaries. Even if we see the beauty and the limitless potential of what the world could be, the world doesn’t allow us to just retrieve that beauty. It doesn’t allow us to just embrace our vision.

“In the hands of the poet, the world is resistant. It is only with the searching and the moulding that the unyielding world becomes transformed in a new medium of song and metaphor.” [Pg 1]

We must snatch what fragments we can, and then put them back together like a puzzle. We must then continue to work at this puzzle, refining the rough edges, fitting it into a cohesive whole until it resembles our original vision.

To do this, to snatch these fragments of our waking dream, we must remain awake to see the world for what it truly is, in all its glory and hideousness.

“The poet needs to be up at night, when the world sleeps; needs to be up at dawn, before the world wakes; needs to dwell in odd corners, where Tao is said to reside; needs to exist in dark places, where spiders forge their webs in silence; near the gutters, where the underside of our dreams fester. Poets need to live where others don’t care to look, and they need to do this because if they don’t they can’t sing to us of all the secret and public domains of our lives.” [Pg 1]

Only by staying awake to see the true nature of the world, we can also see “the fluid nature of reality.” [Pg 2] We can see what most people are terrified to admit: “each individual reality is different. Laws do not bind our perceptions. There are as many worlds as there are lives.” [Pg 2]

The hope is that if we are courageous enough to acknowledge and accept our dreams, to go after them, then we can extend the boundaries of the world offered to us. We can alter our reality.

But courage is a must because most people are afraid of people who have that kind of courage. By altering our own world, we may also alter theirs, and that frightens them. “…the dreams of the people are beyond them. It is they who have to curb the poet’s vision of reality.” [Pg 4]

If you choose to stay awake while the world sleeps, if you choose to notice the things the world is uncomfortable you noticing, you may be seen as set against the world because you “cannot accept that what there seems to be is all there is.” [Pg 3]

The reality is that we are expected, in this world of rules and regulations and political correction to sing “only of our restricted angles and in restricted terms and in restricted language.” [Pg 4, 5]

To go beyond those restrictions to the limitless means of expression available to us is seen often as sowing dissent. However, you don’t need to be frightened of people who are frightened themselves. You don’t need to submerge yourself in what the world seems to be, because “[the world] carries within it for ever the desire to be transformed into something higher.”[Pg 6] Use your dreams, the truth you see while the world is asleep and keep going where your dreams lead you. 

“The world may seem unyielding but, like invisible forces in the air, it merely awaits imagination and will to unloosen the magic within itself.” [Pg 6]

When you seek the truth while the world sleeps, don’t just look into the outward nooks and crannies. Look for the truth within yourself. Dig deep.

“The deeper poet feel, the deeper is their exploration.” [Pg 7]

If you feel the fire within you, if you feel that what you see and what you get is not enough, then you must go after what you wish the truth to be. Don’t let the “ghost of your possibilities” [Pg 12] hang around your neck. Don’t murder the possibilities of all that you could be. Don’t murder your dreams.

There will be people and institutions and government who don’t like your unconventional ways; who don’t approve of you extending boundaries of their world, but “it’s from the strength of your antagonists that you derive your greater authority. They make it absolutely necessary for you to be more than yourself.” [Pg 15]

Therefore, be more than yourself. The world actually wants you to be authentic, to be unconventional, and to create more realities. The difficulties that come your way are there to test you, that you can stick by your beliefs, that you can see your dreams through the completion.

Towards the end of the essay, Okri offers us hope and a challenge. “Don’t wait till you are dead to know that in reality the whole of life is on your side.” [Pg 15]

We don’t have to be caged in other people’s reality. We can choose our reality. We can tailor it to our dreams; modify it to resemble our vision. However, to do that, we must keep our dreams alive, by not suppressing “the poetic into our waking lives.” [Pg 13]

 

Milford writers conference – a week in north Wales

After a wonderful week at my very first Milford Writers Conference in gorgeous Nantlle valley, at the foot of Snowdon mountain (which continued to play a disappearing act), I am back in London. I wanted to write down impressions of this week before it was too late. While the impact is still fresh, though I am pretty sure the impact of it will stay a while.

You note I said my “first” visit,  and it certainly won’t be the last. Milford has that effect on people. 

By Thursday evening we critiqued altogether 26 pieces. That’s 5 days of intensive afternoon critique sessions. I hadn’t actually realised how taxing it was until Friday morning. I felt completely drained. Most people were pretty knackered on Friday, so just as well that we had the day off. We used that to explore the nearby town of Caernarfon, including the Caernarfon castle. It’s a lovely castle, restored well, and contains quite a bit of Welsh history. Half-a-day’s tour there and then we returned to Trigonos for Cake’O clock. In the evening, Suyi, Vaughan and I went for our last walk to Mordor. It rained on us, and as the evening was falling, we kept it short. But still, it was good to pay another visit to the slate quarry and the lake.

Friday evening was a rather subdued affair, but most of us hung out in the library together. On Saturday morning we all started making our way back out of Trigonos and to our respective homes. It was sad to say goodbye, as in one week, having spent most of our waking hours together, it did feel as if I was saying goodbye to people I’ve known for a long time.

While at Milford, I also created my “Post-Milford Action List” which involves being far more productive and proactive with my writing. On the way back, in the car, Sue and I discussed what we are taking away from Milford.

These are the things I learned/gained from Milford:

  • I really felt rejuvenated with my writing mojo. It’s incredible spending time with other writers who are committed to their craft. We basically spent the week focused entirely on writing. That was incredibly inspiring.
  • I learned more about my critique style and more about everyone else’s critique styles. This is incredibly valuable, not just to keep improving as someone who gives feedback, but also to keep developing my own critique style.
  • I had a fresh perspective on eliminating (unnecessary) busyness from life. During this week, we focused as little as possible on mundane life stuff. While that’s not really practical for a normal life, I think it is possible to waste a little less time thinking about necessary but unimportant life chores. I don’t know how exactly I am going do that just yet, but at least I am thinking about it, and hopefully will be able to implement some changes.
  • I need to make more time for writing, and for thinking about writing.
  • I met incredible people, who I hope will become friends as well as colleagues. Writing community is incredibly small and we all seem to cross paths, so there are many opportunities to work together and support one another as we go forward.

And as if to keep the Milford ties in place, today by a totally freak coincidence I ran into Suyi in Waterstones, Piccadilly. That is just continuation of Milford, not the end. I somehow ended up on the committee to help out with the social media. I look forward to doing my bit to spread awareness about Milford. A few of us have decided to do NaNoWriMo this year to make progress on our particular projects. There are many more plans for Milford in the works, and I believe it will flourish. It’s already got a great history behind it, and it still continues to be a solid place for support, networking, and inspiration for writers. I am really glad I am now a part of this community.

Milford is over. Long live Milford.

 

 

 

Feeling like a writer

It’s a strange thing, being a writer. On the one hand, you just are. I’m always writing something. It’s who I am. I can’t not write. It’s as simple as breathing. 

But you know how sometimes even breathing isn’t simple? You get a cold, and a blocked nose. Or the pollution is so high that your nose gets full of gunk and you can’t breathe properly. Well, sometimes that happens with writing too. You know it’s simple. You know it’s who you are. But sometimes, it just feels complicated.

I’ve been feeling that lately. But more specifically, towards “professional” writing. I can still write. I can still fill pages of my journal, or write beautiful letters and what-not. I can still write stuff that doesn’t need to be finished or stuff that doesn’t need to be judged. But what about all the things that have to be finished, and have to be judged? What about stories that must meet certain criteria, or pass through individual judgement? What about a novel that needs to meet my vision of what it should be? On that side, there have been stumbling blocks. 

And that led me to the conclusion that I need to do more things that make me feel like a writer. 

Life gets in the way. There are jobs to be done for money. There are hobbies and interests. Crazy challenges that take over my life (I’m walking London to Brighton non-stop, 100km/62.5 miles in May). Personal relationships. And after all that if there is actually any time left, my energy level or mental reserves are too low for me to be as productive as I would like with my writing. 

A part of me resists this. A part of me thinks of all the writers who had full lives, woke up at crazy hour every morning and wrote before going to work. A part of me wants to be able to do that no matter what. Another, more realistic part of me is becoming aware that it is not sustainable. I’ve ups and downs with writing, as with most things in life. Sometimes words just flow. Sometimes it’s bloody hard work. Sometimes it fills you with elation. Sometimes it depresses you. That is the inevitable nature of the creative endeavour. But it is also the inevitable nature of pursuing dreams. 

However, there are ways to feel like a writer. I’ve joined a local critique group, a writer’s group, and may even do more of those depending on suitability and availability. That gives me people and accountability so that writing comes with a deadline rather than just something hovering in the background. I like deadlines. I like having something specific to aim for. It also feels more professional somehow. And more “doing” rather than “wishing.”

So today, I had to remind myself again that it’s okay. Sometimes you feel down in the dumps, and question everything. It’s okay. Feel it in the moment. Then get back up, dust off your pants, and start again. Because that’s all it is. One word after another. Sometimes it’s crappy words. Sometimes it’s torturous words. But they come. Because they are in me. Patiently waiting. When I stop obsessing and worrying about being a writer, underneath it, I already am. When I remember why I wanted to do this – for the pleasure of creating my own stories – it suddenly becomes such an achievable thing. It is there, waiting to be unearthed, to be moulded in my voice. Because I am a writer. 

 

Giving time and space to ideas

image credit

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.

– Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs makes it sound so simple, but for anyone who spends most of their time doing creative work, you would know that while Jobs’ quote is accurate, the process is anything but simple. Connecting experiences and synthesizing new things often results in false starts, and roundabout routes.

I’m productivity obsessed. Usually it’s a good thing, but sometimes it’s not. When you are productivity obsessed, you measure things by the end results. It means you achieve goals. However, not everything is measurably instantly by end results. Sometimes, simply going through the process is important. 

This is particularly the case when coming up with an idea for a new novel. A novel is a huge undertaking, and even if you are not an outliner (which I am mostly not) it still requires some thought, some percolation of ideas until you are set on writing that particular story. This requires brainstorming.

Different people do it differently. If you are really really lucky, a story arrives, all set and ready with main framework. However, more often than not, it’s a small germ that grows and grows. Some people may brainstorm while running or walking. Others, like J. K. Rowling, may end up doing it on a train journey. Some people, like me, write things down to figure them out. 

I brainstorm by writing. It’s not a bad thing. But, it does mean that brainstorming session, in which I may end up writing thousands of words, may or may not be of any use. I may think about a story, write whatever comes to my mind, and decide at the end that it’s all actually rubbish. So from the productivity perspective, that’s wasted 3,000 words that I could have written for something far more useful. For something that would have resulted in a finished product.

But there is another way of looking at it, and that is creative perspective. Now, just to be clear, I don’t believe that it is productivity vs. creativity. They are not enemies, nor mutually exclusive. However, one does take priority over the other at times.

When brainstorming a new novel, without a particularly concrete idea in mind, creativity takes priority. That means that yes, there is a risk that what you end up scribbling or thinking about for hours, may not get used at all. But eventually, you will find things that become the foundation for that new novel, or indeed any new project. Even for the material that you may not end up using, it may not be wasted. Some of those ideas may be used later. But even if they are not, it is still an exercise for your brain. You have still spent time tapping into your subconscious, connecting consciously with your muse, and you have learned how to consistently keep mining for good ideas instead of accepting whatever’s on the surface. It is time and space for creativity. 

For anyone really, but particularly for writers, giving this space to idea generation is important. Without that, there is a danger of staleness, or even worse, a creative block. The process of creativity, therefore, is no less important than measurable productivity. 

What do you think? Do you struggle between choosing creativity and productivity? Or how do you manage both?