Where do writers get their stories?
There are many questions writers ask themselves and the important one, after ‘Why did I bloody start this?’ is ‘Shall I work from home, or the local cafe?’ Cafes have long been presumed to be full of poets, artists and novelists so it’s a non-brainer; until you get there and its rammed with harassed looking mothers, their screaming pre-school offspring and architects working from ‘home’.
So, how much work actually gets done at home? I’m not even sure that much homework gets done at home anymore. I’ve talked before about how working from home mainly involves high-level pottering achieving little more than moving stuff that may or may not need to be moved from one room to another, and often then back again. And lots of pacing. I once walked five miles without opening the front door. Homes are best suited for lounging in waiting for vinyl to be delivered, and to escape the weather outside, not for working in.
I was always struck by JK Rowling reporting how writing in a cafe was some kind of hallmark of a breadline writer, when it’s actually far easier to write in a cafe than it is at home. There’s less distraction, and if you wander aimlessly around the cafe like a pottering field mouse looking for its memory you’ll be asked to leave. However, writing regularly in the same public space also has pitfalls.
It is amazing how much of writing in public spaces is actually spent talking to anyone who mistakenly makes eye contact. Not that partners, agents or publishers are informed of this. Even if they were one could claim it as research. One of the chaps I made friends with in the local cafe was Bob – who yes, used to be builder. He was born in South London a few miles away in 1929, left school at 14 and followed his father into the building trade. He passed away recently aged 86 shortly before Christmas in Lewisham hospital and it was a pleasure to have known him.
At his funeral so many stories were told of his so many narrow escapes with death that one was almost tempted to knock on the coffin to ensure he had indeed passed. I was told of one occasion when the health and safety wisdom of working a roof by tying your waist to the nearest chimney stack was challenged by the chimney collapsing, and taking Bob with it. He arrived soot-laden in a fireplace.
He recalled being evacuated to Wales, and the Blitz, during which a mobile Anti Aircraft gun was parked outside his house in west Dulwich. During the next air raid it opened up and blew out all the windows in the street; causing more damage than the Germans achieved. He was also narrowly missed when a fighter bomber strafed Goose Green, killing several school children; one beside him. My Dad, the same age as Bob, also recalls German aircraft machine gunning a children’s playground in Catford as they returned home.
Working in public you will meet writers. They’re the ones looking harassed at the harassed looking mothers. Generally you can’t swing a copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook in St David’s Coffee House without hitting a few scribblers. And words offering to read their book sound like your own because they are, and eventually more time is spent reading their manuscripts than your own.
There’s incredibly smugness in people who work from home, as though eating flapjacks for lunch in your pyjamas is a mark of success, and perhaps it is, but you don’t get to chat, and you don’t get the stories. Although you don’t leave with more manuscripts than you came in with.
R.I.P. Robert Hobbs.
My novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 – is available for all homeworkers here – http://myBook.to/lifeassistance
and on ebook here –