Over the past few weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of my time in sheds. Not that I’ve been banished from the house or anything, and not that I’m complaining either. In fact, quite the contrary: I love sheds, and here’s why.
I needed to get some writing done – and I was finding it impossible to get down to it unless I physically removed myself from the house. I am sure that there are those who are made of sterner stuff, but my mind is apparently half-butterfly half-monkey and flits constantly between screen and biscuit tin, keyboard and kettle. Trying to write in the kitchen is like trying to knit in a swimming pool.
I finally gave up, and bleated to various friends about needing a ‘writer’s retreat’.
As a result of my prevaricating and whining, two of these long-suffering friends offered me their sheds to write in. No need for long-winded applications; no need for bursaries or statements of purpose; in fact, no excuses. Write on.
With characteristic litotes, my friend Miranda refers to this gorgeous, gracious room in her gorgeous, gracious garden as “the shedlet” as though even the humble term “shed” would be too grand for it. It contains two bamboo-frame chairs, upholstered in plain beige, cream-white walls, a hanging globe lampshade made of woven reeds, and a narrow, triangular shelf unit in one corner on which are placed: a selection of bird feathers, a shrew’s skull, a porcelain-thin, white sea urchin, and a piece of turquoise pottery that looks like it might be Aztec.
Removed from the humdrum, domestic bustle of quotidian life, the monkey-butterfly-mind is momentarily baffled by the absence of shiny (or more accurately, chocolatey) things, and while it’s staring slack-jawed into space, I manage to write several pages of my novel. And then some more. I manage to do even more of this in mid-Wales in a smaller, funkier but equally conducive shed in another friend’s garden, strung across with prayer flags, scented with incense and rollies, and graced with several regal felines.
The whole staring slack-jawed thing seems to be prerequisite when it comes to writing fiction. I remember Arundhati Roy once describing to me the process of writing God of Small Things – which mainly involved gazing vacantly out of the window, and periodically starting guiltily when people came into the room and saying “I’m working, I’m working.”
Roald Dahl would spend hours in his shed, incarcerated in a high-backed battered old wing armchair, with a drawing board across it so once he was sitting down it was hard to get out. An angle-poise lamp peering over one shoulder, he would sit there and write his pencils to bluntness, his ashtray to overflowing. After his death, the shed was dismantled and re-installed piece by piece in the Roald Dahl Museum, a few miles down the road in Great Missenden, not far from where I grew up in Buckinghamshire. I remember being fascinated by the round object on his desk that turned out to be not a cannonball, as I originally thought, but a ball made up of the accumulated foil wrappers of a lifetime of chocolates.
In the 1920s, George Bernard Shaw built a rather special shed in his garden: it was mounted on a turntable such that he could turn the whole thing to face the sun as it moved across the sky. He spent so much of his time in it, that it earned the nickname ‘London’, so that his staff could say – truthfully – that he was ‘in London’ when unwanted visitors called by.
For Stephen King, writing is about as close to dreaming as the waking mind can get, and the shed – or room – where you do it should be private. “The space can be humble … and it really needs only one thing: A door you are willing to shut.”
Virginia Woolf had a shed of her own, but her door was always ajar and other Bloomsbury groupies were constantly wafting going about their pruning or weeding business. Thoreau of course went the full Romantic isolation route, with his shed by Walden Pond, “a tight shingled and plastered house, 10ft wide by 15 long, and 8ft posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite.”
There are others, who swear by writing in public places. J.K. Rowling immediately springs to mind, conjuring Harry Potter into existence in the distinctly unmagical environs of a coffee shop in Edinburgh. But I’m just too easily blown off course by others’ trade winds. I need a shed with a door, or a room without a view.
There’s something about a shed – its cut-offness from everyday life, like a raft tethered to a boat and bobbing along in its wake. It is literally a half-way house – somewhere between the natural and the human or, more prosaically, between the house and the garden – with elements of each. The spiders’ webs in the corners, the dappled shade of trees, but also the lights and roof and windows and chairs of the civilisation. There’s nowhere quite so conducive to the lucid dreaming of writing fiction than on the blurred border, in a place that is neither quite one thing or the other. Part den – like the ones you used to make out of cardboard boxes and blankets strung across chairs when you were little – and part office, the shed is the perfect location for my writerly life: half-playful, half-grown-up. One day, I dream of having a shed of my own, but for the moment am immensely grateful for the kind sheds of friends.
The Hindu Business Line, BLInk supplement, 12.8.18