Whenever I read a discussion of the need for ambience in writing, in my head I have a picture of a woman undressing – only she isn’t removing corsets and clothing. Wooden slats and packing-crates, hinged and nimble, unfold until she’s there in her shift, in a home of her own surroundings.
The woman’s unfolding.
This image of the wooden woman unfolding, almost like a beachcomber’s hut, the house by the sea in David Copperfield, the shack with a boaten roof – I can’t place it, and likewise I can’t shift it.
A homeless (?) bag lady who carries her armour on her back, it’s no less effective when turned into a fort.
She unfolds her armour to mend it.
She unfolds her armour to permit us entry.
She unfolds her armour to let herself breathe, and expand, and remember what freedom is like.
Some have compared the need for ambience for writing to a space in the woods, or Rheims cathedral.
It’s finding a place we know we won’t be disturbed, that enables us to enter the liminal state of creation, fast or slow, deep or shallow.
My earliest space of my own was an oak so broad it hid me from the house – and thus from chores and homework.
When I was older, I made a den out of old doors and scrap wood. Under trees, in the lee of an old stone wall, lit by candlelight, with incense burning and food I’d bought with my own money, there I made fantastic adornments from shells and sea-torn rope and coins crushed by trains; there I kept my railway lamps and interesting bits of wood.
But the places I write now – the places other people identify as where they write, whether that be in the home, in the studio, or like me, anywhere you can – those places all have the same underlying quality – sanctuary.
It isn’t the sanctuary of cloisters, nor of other cells. It’s a quality we bring to the place – or rather, bring out in the place.
The woman unfolding.
Watch an embroiderer at work, or a quilter, and you’ll see the woman unfolding. She settles into the space and unpacks her tools and materials, the silks and cottons and needles and fabric, the pattern held in her head or on paper, the stretcher frame made to be handheld and portable. By the time she’s placed all her accoutrements around her the statement is clear: look, I’m busy, don’t interrupt, this is important.
Writing is unusual in that it doesn’t actually take much space.
Writing takes only a pencil, and paper. Chalkmarks on slate. Toes in wet sand on that beach where the boat-roofed house sits.
The only thing I can think of that takes less space is song – all song needs is air, and a voice.
But what we do when we set up a workspace, or create a ritual, is make for ourselves that sanctuary.
The preparation is all we need, and then:
“I am in my writing-chair, and therefore I am writing”.
The space needs to be somewhere we won’t be disturbed, that’s all. Whether that’s in a café, or on a boat, or a studio or a house or while travelling, the sense of controlling access to your space is what’s needed. It doesn’t need to be a physical space – it can be a mental space, a sanctuary of the mind, created with ritual and awaiting the arrival of magic.
Music on – headphones attached, earbuds inserted – and coffee placed in front of me like a shield against the other people in my local coffee-house – I’ve paid to be here, in this space – my work in front of me like a reason – look, I’m busy, don’t interrupt, this is important.
And as I write I become the woman, unfolding.