This Is Not a Writer's Room


James Joyce’s room in the present-day James Joyce Tower and Museum, Dublin

by Karl Whitney

Why do we invest writers’ rooms with any significance whatsoever? They’re big or small, bright or dank, smell bad or smell good: they’re rooms like any others.

I have a room – one for writing in. But I refuse to tell you about it.

Writing is subject to the most fantastic fetishism: does a writer write longhand, use a typewriter, a computer, a pencil, index cards? If they use any of these things, how does this affect his or her work?

Where do you get your inspiration? (But when you get that inspiration it probably happens when you’re in your room. DOESN’T IT? TELL ME!!!)

For years I wrote fitfully, in libraries and sitting rooms and bedrooms. I thought I was a writer when I wasn’t really a writer – and perhaps that’s the first step to becoming a writer, if that’s what I really am now. I’m not sure if I ever succumbed to the fetish of writing in a coffee shop – the flip side of the obsession with writer’s rooms is the conviction that some writers, the chosen few, can write anywhere. These writers – part of an elect that includes Malcolm Gladwell and probably a few others – either thrive on distraction, in which case they’re some kind of genius, or can block distraction out, in which case they’re kind of superhuman when you think about it. This is writing as lifestyle choice – ordering coffee while polishing off another draft, darling – which is something I find completely alien while I sit here in my tiny windowless room scribbling on my index cards… oh.

That’s not my room. That description: I made it up.

Brian Dillon’s excellent book I Am Sitting In A Room deals with writers’ rooms in the offhand manner such spaces deserve, while also exhibiting a profound interest in the cultural obsession with them. When writers deny having any interest in the compartments and props of the writing life, Dillon is sceptical.

Even listing the places where I’ve written doesn’t seem to cut it: they’re generic locations where anything apart from writing could also have happened. So what did actually happen in these rooms while I was writing, apart from the requisite sitting and staring into space? The truth is that I can’t remember. Memories of that period have been edited together and the room I’m now thinking of has been assembled from other rooms in the same way that the intense period of writing and research that I undertook over the last couple of years has boiled down to a book of average length and blurred memories of the near-identical daily grind of sitting in front of a computer screen at a cheap desk in different rooms that ultimately become the same room and anyway I’m not going to tell you about my writing room.

About the Author:

Karl Whitney’s book, Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin, is out now from Penguin.