A room with a view

13 September 2011

Once upon a time, an old friend let me use a seaside house she’d rented. I had a whole week to myself, and it was going to be a writing retreat during which, essentially, I would write my whole book. I set up my laptop and all my notes at the kitchen table, which had a view looking out over the sailboats, and then failed to concentrate on my writing for the entire week.

What is this fantasy of the room with a view? I am utterly, romantically dedicated to this fantasy, yet I’m also quite sure that as with my failed Rhode Island retreat, my own great views have been directly tied to periods of severe writer’s block. Give me a view, and I’ll daydream.For a single year in grad school I was given an office — my own office, a true luxury — and perhaps because it was a miserable, tiny, windowless room lit with a quite feeble fluorescent light, I wrote like a demon. To finish my book, I arranged myself at home with the desk facing a wall. Anytime I tried to move to the back porch or to that one coffee shop with a view of the river, the writing slowed to a standstill.

Yet the fantasy remains. I write, really write, in a tiny windowless cave of a room with lights that buzz. But when I go home I sit in a nice sunporch and try to read scholarly literature — and instead I stare out the window at the woods across the street.

Or I force myself through that draft of a chapter from a grad student by saving it for a rainy day, when the sunporch offers no view at all. Yet the romance of interiority of reading (“I am reading on a rainy day! I am cozily arranged under a comfy blanket with a cup of tea!”) takes over, and I feel so incapable of following the argument that I retreat to a less distracting room.

I can remember every great view I’ve had, especially the ones I had only briefly — glamorous cityscapes, charming neighborhood scenes, oceans, or that one time when my upstairs apartment seemed so surrounded by trees that it was like a treehouse. It was great. Just not for writing.

I’d like to suggest that our fantasies of rooms with views are cinematic — directly evocative of all the art and photography and film that portray individuals thinking and emoting while posed in glamorous windowsills. In front of each one of these images, we can imagine ourselves in that cinematic scene (of course A Room With a View was such a great central motif for a film). But the pleasures of looking are very different than concentrating and writing. Writing is a decidedly uncinematic act.

After The Social Network was released, someone brought up the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to portray cinematically the act of writing code on a computer screen. It’s just so dreary. Yet we insist on imagining that other forms of writing and reading can be romantic. And even though I should know better, I still hanker for a room with a view.

5 Responses to “A room with a view”

  1. JustMeMike Says:

    Marvelous –

    the better the view – the harder it is to write. How true.

    When the venetian blinds are open, which is hardly ever – it faces east; way too sunny in the morning – my view is of a facing apartment (ground floor) 12 feet away hidden behind a large tropical plant. I specifically chose to place my desk and pc here.

    Doesn’t mean I can’t be distracted – but at least it won’t be by the view.


  2. Hattie Says:

    This is astute. My office is like a cave. I keep the shades down so as not to be distracted by what is outdoors. I read in a chair tucked in the corner with no view. I seldom read outdoors on the deck, much less write there.

    • Didion Says:

      Exactly! I could probably read a very compelling novel (or trashy magazine) at a window with a view, but not for long. Anything that requires actual concentration goes with me straight into the cave.

  3. Didion Says:

    Oh, also: the idea that Ewan McGregor was able to any ghost writing at all in this room staggers the imagination. This wasn’t the only thing that was hard to believe in Polanski’s The Ghost Writer.
    ghost writer

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