“A room of one’s own and five hundred a year” (British 1929 pounds sterling, of course) – that was Virginia Woolf’s famous prescription for enabling women to write. By a room of one’s own she meant not only the physical space but also the mental freedom to create, and that explains the fact that one of her favourite workspaces was not some secluded sanctuary but a dreadfully cluttered desk in the stockroom at the Hogarth Press, where she and her husband Leonard published books. That’s encouraging for writers who set up their laptop on the kitchen table or take it to the neighbourhood coffee shop: the room of one’s own can be a mental rather than a physical space.
As for actual rooms of their own – well, artists do their creative work in many kinds of spaces, often not the most private or salubrious. My workspace is an attic that’s also used for storage; it’s more or less finished but far from fancy, and the arrangements for heating and cooling are makeshift. The writing area is a three-sided writing surface, of which the main desk is a sheet of plywood laid across two filing cabinets. On it and the side surfaces are the computer, papers, books, dictionary, and the usual office clutter of pens, pencils, stapler, sticky notes, and so on. Visual artists often have distinctive and fascinating studios, and sometimes they open them to the public or at least show friends and customers around, but there’s no point in my showing my attic. There’s nothing to see. (But, since web pages need visuals, the image given here shows what it looks like.)
Yet, whatever the appearance of these spaces, they are only the physical setting for the enormous, varied, vivid, and complex imaginative and creative life that artists live there and the resonant, multifaceted work that they produce. Jane Austen writing at a table in the family sitting room, Virginia Woolf in her stockroom, Annie Dillard in her drafty hut on the Pacific coast … what is actually going on in each of those spaces is immense, and even the finished product is only a distillation of the mental and imaginative world that the writer inhabited while writing. The piece of paper (or the computer screen) on which the words are written, the canvas on which the painter lays the paint – these are windows opening out from the physical workspace into the enormous created place that readers or viewers are invited to share and, by sharing, to use for the enlargement of their own worlds, the enrichment of their own perception and understanding.
The workspaces – mostly modest, often perhaps cramped and shabby – are ludicrously out of proportion to the dimensions of the work created there.
My physical workplace may not be worth showing to anyone, but the mental one – like that of every artist – is always open to the public.
© Marianne Brandis, 2016.