I always imagined writers worked in sunny, airy offices, green leaves waving beyond the window, a ray of golden light striking the writer’s unfurrowed brow, a teapot and a bunch of jonquils beside them on the desk, a little light Mozart on the stereo, thoughts beaming from the mind onto the screen or page in a fluid, honeyed stream. Occasionally they would pause, pen to chin; a satisfied silent nod, and then the luscious work would recommence. The words lie tidily on the page, each cushioned by a margin of clarity, like jewels on display. The morning passes; the work is done; the writer retires, perhaps to take a bracing walk along the cliffs or swim in a tranquil bay before a jolly dinner with literary friends and bedtime with a notebook blank beside the bed.
Real writers, I imagined, have a writing lifestyle. Johnston and Clift on the island of Hydra, Graham Greene on Capri, Katherine Mansfield in a cottage somewhere in the West Country, D. H. Lawrence in Mexico, Salinger in his forest shack. Real writers wear tweed jackets and flannel trousers, picnic with other writing friends in meadows, sit in salons furiously discussing narrative integrity, stay up all night pounding on a typewriter while smoking with no apparent effect on their health, they drink whiskey, chop their own wood, they have torrid affairs conducted in extraordinary inexhaustible correspondences, they are loaned cottages in seaside villages to stay in (along with a housekeeper so there is no tedious business with groceries to worry about), or have gigantic dysfunctional families that give them plenty of material and the bounty of vengeful biographies later at the hands of their ungrateful progeny. Real writers walk it like they talk it. Their wealth is comfortable, or their poverty is romantic, and it’s nothing for them to turn out a couple of dozen novels, hundreds of articles, several pseudonymous erotic masterpieces, and staggeringly prolific billions of amusing, discursive, passionate and quotable letters to all the other writers they know who are also wearing tweed and writing their heads off all day long.
It is a sad disappointment to me that I do not write on an island, there is no sunshine in my office, my desk is covered in half-drunk glasses of red cordial, unopened envelopes and a tub of cranberries instead of rye whiskey bottles, that I write best with dirty hair and usually in between bouts of washing up, supermarket expeditions and letting in electricians to fix the bathroom fan, and that writing, though it is my main profession, is something fitted in amid a life decidedly banal and dithery. Things have changed since the days of my mid-twentieth century heroes. There is no housekeeper to put dishes of jellied ox-tongue or apple custard on the table every night, for one thing. I am too busy emailing invoices or doing my BAS to start up a revolutionary literary journal. Mostly my fellow writers and I talk about invoices and finding a good tax accountant, and play Words With Friends on our phones rather than sitting up all night with whiskey and breaking a new dawn in the history of letters. We do not summer together on the French coast or confabulate in Paris bars. Our writing is clinical on a computer screen and there is no portentous moment of putting a manuscript in an envelope and posting it off from the 5th Avenue post office before repairing to the Algonquin for a brandy; we just email it through, sigh, and go and do the washing-up.
But writing it still is, and writers we still are. The tweed is non-mandatory. The cottage is a nice dream. It’s not necessary to write with lipstick on (though some do) or have twelve lovers. It’s not about what you wear, where you live, or how your marriage is going. Writing has little to do with romance, after all, except as a source of material, and living on a Greek island might be more distracting than helpful. One thing never changes: the wonderful mystery of thoughts passing from mind to page, from ambition to reality, from one individual to many readers, and every time I sit down to begin some writing, I know I am one of the lucky ones, not the first and not the last, and after all it doesn’t matter what time in history it is, it’s always time for writing.
Kate Holden is the author of In My Skin: A Memoir and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days. Kate is teaching the creative non-fiction course at Writers Victoria, beginning 15 March 2012.