A room of one’s own does not have to be limited by the rules of physical space. Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat and 19 other books, explains.
When Virginia Woolf famously said: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” I’m pretty sure she didn’t have a woman like me in mind. My first books were not only written with no money that was not already spoken for in utility bills, mortgage, food and the costs of bringing up a baby, but the concept of a room of my own was so removed from reality that it might as well have been part of the fictional world I was writing. I wrote when I could on a laptop at work; on the train; or sitting against the radiator on the floor of our front room, surrounded by my daughter’s toys, and most often with the TV on while my husband caught up with the football. Hardly ideal conditions, but the books were written anyway. They needed to be written. If I’d waited for the luxury of money, time and personal space, I would probably still be waiting, and the twenty books I’ve written since then would still be the stuff of fantasy.
But personal space is subjective. There’s far more space in a writer’s mind than in the most splendid of mansions. Failing a room of my own, I explored the concept of mental spaces, as an extension of the “mind palace” technique first popularized by Cicero and Quintilian. My first imaginary space came from these early mind-palace experiments, as well as from a series of creative-visualization techniques borrowed from books about altered states of consciousness, meditation and self-hypnosis. There’s nothing weird or esoteric about this. Children do it all the time. Imagination - like hypnosis, like meditation, like prayer, like immersive reading - is an altered state of consciousness. Accessing these states is sometimes hard, and sometimes bizarrely effortless. My evolving technique was designed to make it easier to reach the mental place where creativity happens, by engagement of the imaginative brain and dialling down Reality.
A number of experiments and visualizations later, I was able to build my imaginary space (and with it, my imaginary world), regardless of my surroundings, by means of a simple trigger – a ritual, if you like - which meant, in practical terms, that I was able to access the mental state in which to write in less time than I had previously, regardless of distractions or the restrictions of my surroundings. I tried different kinds of trigger, and found the ones that worked for me. Scent triggers are good for me, as are physical touchstones – in my case, a couple of candlesticks marked, both the boundaries of my portable desk, and the gateway to my portable world. I still use this technique when I’m travelling, and in soulless hotel rooms. The candlesticks have been replaced by two less cumbersome objects, but the principle still stands. Heaven can live in a grain of sand. A madeleine dipped in linden tea can unlock the narrative of a life. Repeat after me: A room of one’s own does not have to be limited by the rules of physical space.
When I finally began to make money from my writing, I moved to a house with the luxury of space, and for the first time, enjoyed the reality of having an actual room of my own. To my surprise, it didn’t work. For some reason, I struggled to concentrate. A single interruption – the postman, a neighbour, a telephone call – could throw out the balance of a whole day. I needed something else, something new - and so my husband built me a shed at the top of the garden; a designated workspace of a kind I’d never had, built to my specifications, and free from the distractions of phones or random callers. It was lovely – stone-built, with beams of green oak, and even now that scent brings me back there cleanly and effortlessly. And as it was in construction, I tweeted about it daily to my modest Twitter following, detailing its progress as it turned from workspace to creative space.
As this became a habit, I found my descriptions of the shed – or the Shed, as it became known – growing increasingly fanciful. One day a rocket ship, the next a flying carpet, like Howl’s Moving Castle, it changed shape and location daily. My Twitter followers began to anticipate the Shed’s many changes, and even in some cases, to use them as prompts for art or micro-fictions.
In the ten years since then, I see now that I have been creating a different kind of ritual to facilitate my entry into the process of spinning straw into story. Every day since then, before sitting down to write, I have tweeted the Shed’s latest incarnation. No Shed tweet is ever repeated. No Shed tweet is ever planned in advance. And because I am not always at home, the Shed follows me wherever I go. It is, in effect, another version of my portable desk, accessible wherever I go, and fitting into even the smallest luggage. And because, by its nature, it reflects my inner self, it often contains coded messages about my life, my mood, my preoccupations.
Some people still ask me whether the Shed is real or not. The answer, I tell them, is that of course, the Shed is both, just as we ourselves are all imaginary constructs as well as being physical entities. We all re-imagine ourselves anew to accommodate our changing needs; our relationships, our circumstances. And as artists, we reveal ourselves – that is, our true nature -–through our work via a series of imaginary journeys. These liminal spaces that we explore as part of the creative process are directly linked to our dream-selves, our unconscious selves, the parts of us that can only be glimpsed through the lens of story.
When Flaubert said of his character: I am Madame Bovary, he spoke for every creator who really inhabits their creation. Thus is the Shed, an imaginary place, more real than its physical counterpart. On Twitter, it has thousands of fans, who use it as an oracle to see into my work-in-progress. My Shed tweets have been used both in primary schools and in creative-writing classes. They have been illustrated many times by artists of all ages. My illustrator, Bonnie, and I are planning a calendar of 365 Sheds, one for every day of the year. Some followers have told me – especially during lockdown – that my daily Shed tweet has become the highlight of their morning (or of their evening, depending on where in the world they are). And the Shed is always expanding. During the three weeks leading up to Hallowe’en, it tells tiny ghost stories. During December, the Shed becomes an Advent calendar containing a little scene every day. And on those (infrequent but inevitable) days when the Shed is just an ordinary shed, I find that my working process is limited to the physical realities of typing, or proofing, or editing, instead of becoming a portal to the multiverse of story.
I have learnt not to worry too much whenever this happens. Sometimes the dream machine doesn’t start, but that doesn’t mean it’s broken. And on those days, the Shed still stands, immovable, in the garden, a physical reminder of all the places – real or otherwise – that I have seen, and of all those there are yet to see.
Joanne Harris (MBE) was born in Barnsley in 1964, of a French mother and an English father. She studied Modern and Mediaeval Languages at Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time she published three novels, including Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche .
Since then, she has written 18 more novels, plus novellas, short stories, game scripts, the libretti for two short operas, several screenplays, a musical and three cookbooks. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, has honorary doctorates in literature from the universities of Sheffield and Huddersfield, and has been a judge for the Whitbread Prize, the Orange Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize, the Betty Trask Award, the Prima Donna Prize and the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science, as well as for the Fragrance Foundation awards for perfume and perfume journalism (for which she also received an award in 2017). Follow her on Twitter: @joannechocolat
Image credits - all from The Public Domain Review
The Sorceress by Jan van de Veldt II (1626)
Theatre of Machines, Figure LXV, Agostino Ramelli (1588)
Pumpkin Boat from Filippo Morghen's Fantastical Visions of Lunar Life (1776)