Sir Kazuo Ishiguro famously wrote his Booker Prize winning novel The Remains of the Day in a very short space of time. Taking his copious research notes with him into his study in his house in Sydenham, he penned the book in an astonishing four weeks. He called this period of concentrated productivity the “Crash”, explaining in an article, “I would do nothing but write from 9am to 10.30pm, Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I’d not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house.” In writing the novel in isolation, the story-world took over from the real one.
Ishiguro is not alone in being drawn to this immersive approach to writing a novel. When writer Jojo Moyes took to Facebook to offer her cottage free of charge for a week in 2016 to writers who needed space and time ‘to kick-start, or even finish their work’, she received over 500 applications.
Maya Angelou also understood the need to write in a secluded space. She would work in a hotel room during the day and explained her work routine in an interview with George Plimpton: “I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty.” James Corden and Ruth Jones frequently wrote episodes of the BBC hit sitcom Gavin and Stacey in the confines of a hotel room, away from distractions.
Some writers go to extreme lengths to ensure that they stay inside until the task is done. In a bid to cure writer’s block, Victor Hugo would allegedly take off his clothes and give them to servants to look after while he locked himself away in a room to write. Without clothes, he knew he could not leave. A few sources say that he had a blanket to wrap round him while others insist his wrote completely in the nude (the details are sketchy, probably for the best). Greek orator Demosthenes reportedly shaved half of his hair off and stayed in an underground study working, only remerging when it had grown back enough for a symmetrical haircut.
Perhaps the most extreme in his efforts for total isolation was Marcel Proust. He spent years working in a cork-lined room writing his novel ‘In Search of Lost Time’ and rarely left the safety of his shell; visiting friends said they hardly knew if it was day or night as the windows were blocked off by cork. Proust was often unwell when he was young because of bad asthma, so his seclusion from the world may have had two purposes: to protect himself from illness (he thought the cork-lining shielded him from dust and allergens) and to enable him to write undistracted. This behaviour could be described as agoraphobic, although that term might be best applied to poet Emily Dickinson.
For the last 20 years of her life, Emily Dickinson rarely left the house that she had lived in for over 40 years. She was painfully shy and avoided the company of people. When guests came to visit, Dickinson stayed upstairs but left her door open so she could hear their conversations. She relied on her vivid imagination to conjure up images for her poems. The reason for her seclusion is unknown: she may have had depression or anxiety or she could have been agoraphobic (a word that was only coined when Dickinson was in her forties). Or, she could have simply shunned the company of people in favour of her fictional creations.
The need to get away from the world temporarily and work uninterrupted is a feeling shared by many writers across time. A writer’s shed in the garden has been a popular choice for solitude. Roald Dahl was so enamoured of Dylan Thomas’s writing shed that he built a replica of it in his garden, copying its dimensions exactly. Dahl described the space as ‘my womb’. Virginia Woolf would retreat to her writing shed at Monk’s House in Sussex during the summer months, and Sir Philip Pullman kept to a strict regimen of writing three pages a day in his writing shed in Oxfordshire. Arguably the most sophisticated shed-offering of all was George Bernard Shaw’s shed at his house in St Albans. It had all the mod-cons: electricity and telephone connection, and was built on a turntable which allowed Shaw to rotate it to follow the sun throughout the day.
Other writers have liked to play with the domestic sphere to suit their needs. Agatha Christie often wrote in the bath while eating apples; Gertrude Stein would steal moments to write in the car while her partner Alice was out in town.
A bit of time alone can clear thoughts and help ideas to germinate and take off. Sometimes it’s all you need. And given its success rate, maybe it’s something we should all try.