Time to write and space to write are essential for all authors. Many struggle to access space and time. They are not always a given, when we are focused on paying the rent or mortgage, or in the restricted lockdown of recent times.

No matter what our circumstances, though, a space to write is an escape from the everyday into creativity and we believe, at Literature Works, that we must do all we can to provide such space, whether it be virtual or room with a desk. There are some beautiful rooms, large and small, at the iconic Exeter Custom House, where we are delivering the Quay Words programme on behalf of Exeter Canal and Quay Trust. It was my pleasure to show Patrick Gale around them, including the fabulously historic, wood-panelled attic spaces, when he came to read at the Quay Words pilot season back on a sunny evening in July 2019. Patrick was so taken with the beauty and potential of the building for writers that he applied in October 2019 to be Quay Words Autumn 2020 writer-in-residence. He brought thought, wit and sparkle to the residency even though we had to move most of it online, because of Covid restrictions.

This time, Patrick didn’t get the chance to enjoy writing in the those atmospheric attics, but we hope he will come back and do so. We are ambitious to open them up and to provide other places in Exeter Custom House where writers can come and claim their space, in line with what Patrick Gale writes here, as a result of this Quay Words residency.

Words: Helen Chaloner, CEO, Literature Works.
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Read Patrick's thoughts on a dedicated space to write.

There should be no mystery surrounding writing spaces: writers need somewhere to write, and for some that can be anywhere, for others it must be the modern equivalent of Proust’s and Carlyle’s cork-lined rooms. Or, indeed, Woolf’s room of her own. And yet there is a mystique around the subject and a reverence paid to the chair sat upon, the desk leaned on, the pen used to write this or that masterpiece as well as the room in which these things are found.

I have never been blessed with an iron discipline and my mind is as easily distracted as a kitten in a windy garden, so I have never been one of those lucky writers who can write in a crowded café or public park. I need somewhere still where nothing much is going to happen. A view is fine – it’s restful for the eyes to settle on something distant while the brain is thinking – so long as it doesn’t alter much faster than its shadows lengthen or its clouds move.

When I started out, in my early twenties, I lived and worked in one room – an amazingly cheap, serviced bedsit in Notting Hill. I worked on a typewriter – one of those “memory typewriters” that were the immediately precursors of personal computers – and would rest it on a plank across the arms of my armchair then wrap myself in a duvet so as not to feel the cold when I couldn’t afford light and heat simultaneously. It was actually fairly idyllic, not least because my ancient French landlady was so impressed that I was trying to write novels that she saved up my weekly rent cheques for when my first advance came from a publisher, thus guaranteeing that thrilling first payment immediately went up in smoke.

I then spent nearly a year writing in a tiny village near Albi, where my agent landed me an unpaid job chateau-sitting for an eminent musicologist client of his. I had a cosy apartment in one corner of the ancient building with a view across maize fields. There were cats. A housekeeper who regularly brought me delicious cassoulets because she was convinced I was starving and even one of Haydn’s pianos to play.

Utterly spoiled by both the above, I had a restless few months back in London renting rooms in other people’s flats and writing absolutely nothing of any significance because I was so unsettled and not very happy. But then I fell in love, and with a man who needed to spend a few years in Cornwall for his work, so impulsively bought us a very cheap house in a justly overlooked and untouristy town in the soggy skirts of Bodmin Moor. My thread of an income still, amazingly, raised me a mortgage big enough to get us a two bedroom house with a garden. For various complicated reasons arising from a complicated relationship, I made my writing space in the loft, even though I was the one paying the mortgage and even though the loft was at that stage unconverted, unheated and had only a small, cobwebbed skylight. There was a kind of magic, I discovered, to leaving the body of the house, climbing a ladder through a trapdoor to enter a dedicated writing space. Even if I was writing in overcoats.

And this was the breakthrough: that the writing space didn’t need to be special or even especially attractive, but that it needed to be used for nothing else. A dedicated space. The relationship came to an end but the attic remained the writing space and slowly acquired heat, light, bookshelves and a sofa. The staircase I eventually had built to it remained almost as steep as the original ladder, though, which I rather liked as a reminder that writing carried risks.

I then escaped the soggy house in north Cornwall for a second relationship, with the man who became my husband, and a new life on his idyllic farm at Land’s End. For nearly ten years at that point I had no dedicated writing space. I wrote in corners around the house, and emerging garden, in armchairs, on window-seats. This wasn’t the crisis it might have been because, since the stay in France, I’d adopted the practice of writing in ink. This has never left me and continues to give my writing hours great flexibility. On our honeymoon in Italy my other half bought me a generous leather writing case. It’s big enough to hold an A4 hardback notebook and a penholder and pockets for essentials like bits of photocopied research, bars of chocolate and so on. I’m aware that this case is effectively a portable writing space – an extension of my study – and that if I try writing out of doors without it, the process never seems to go terribly well.

Only when my novel Notes From an Exhibition was picked by the Richard and Judy Book Club, then in its mighty television-based heyday, did I manage to save enough for us to build me another dedicated writing place. Significantly this stands apart from the house, tucked away in the garden, so that I can make the mental break with mundane concerns by leaving the house and “going to work” in it. Inevitably it’s known as the Richard and Judy Shed. It works very well. It has a high, rounded ceiling like an upturned boat, a limited but undistracting view across the garden and a desk big enough to accumulate a great quarry of fertile mess. My writing space is now perfect. And I can still write just outside it in the garden on a fine day.

And yet I remain tempted by writers’ residencies. I know writers who are adept at filling out applications and applying for grants so that their lives seem to be spent on retreats in Scottish castles and Iowan ranches to the point where they almost seem addicts of the residency life. But there are plenty of others who desperately need these breaks to get any writing done, away from the demands of small children or elderly parents or unreasonable partners or simply time-hungry day jobs. So I try not to apply very often because, when I look at it with an outsider’s eye, my whole life is a writer’s retreat, and a pretty lovely one. But occasionally I crack and apply. The residencies I’ve been on have varied hugely, from the decidedly six star one into which I cheekily incorporated our honeymoon, which involved six weeks in the converted gatehouse of an Umbrian castle with delicious meals, the use of a car and even a dedicated driver and guide thrown in to a decidedly more monastic stay at the veritable Hogwarts of writers’ residencies, the Gladstone Library.

And I jumped at the chance of a residency at the beautiful Custom House in Exeter. Even though it wasn’t strictly residential (though I’ve dropped heavy hints about how magical a visiting writer’s flat its attics could become one day) there was something marvellous about the prospect of spending entire days writing in a quiet room of this historic building. The quayside view is bustling but sufficiently far below not to be a distraction, the writing room has a high ceiling which always seems to help one body out thoughts better than a cramped cell, but the principle attraction is the complete lack of domestic distraction. Writing there I couldn’t break off to cook something or check the seedlings in the greenhouse or raid the fridge. All I could do was write. And write, reader, I did. At least until Covid 19 intervened to send us all back to Zoom…

Words: Patrick Gale
Photo by Markus Bidaux