Thursday, 30 January 2014

A Fire of One's Own

Virginia Woolf famously said that, "a woman must have money and a room of her own if
she is to write fiction" (A Room of One's Own, 1929).

What Mrs Woolf omitted in her description of the ideal writing room for women… was a fire.

When I arrived at my cottage for my month in the country, I thought that coffee would be the main operating principle of the whole shebang.
Survivalist's coffee

I might make a little too much and get the jitters, stay up all night, pen prose in my pyjamas, and feel ferally connected to reality by virtue of the caffeine in my system.

Instead, the great revelation has been the fire.

When I first arrived, I timidly assembled little fires with kindling, and the logs to hand. I copped out and used a fire lighter once, but after that I was off.

The whole cottage gradually filled with warmth, and the beating heart of it was the woodburning stove. I dried my clothes and my trainers in front of it. I ate in front of it. I read in front of it.

When I was a little girl, my father loved to make fires. He stood out in the garden, in his underwear, perilously close to our barn and its wooden beams, stoking enormous bonfires, made out of my mother's garden refuse, with kerosene. He scorched a whole wall of fir trees between our garden and the neighbour's. Unrepentant, he built massive fires in our sitting room. We had an inglenook hearth, big enough to walk into if you stooped, with an iron fire basket and cast iron fireback, a sheaf of wheat embossed upon it. He made fires so hot, it was uncomfortable to stay in the room, and we were eventually driven out to seek coolness elsewhere in the house.

Later I saw black and white photos of my father in the oilfields of Maracaïbo back in the 1950s, hands on hips, or shading his eyes against the sun, great silvery pipes behind him sucking oil out of the marshy ground for Shell, and I understood where his pyromania came from.

Here in the Suffolk countryside, I started walking the lanes, looking for kindling to dry out on top of the stove, revelling in the fact that there was no man to admonish me with dire warnings that it would all go up in smoke. I dragged whole pine branches back to my lair and set them alight. Some were too long for the fireplace, and so I burnt half of them, with the other end sticking out and propped up on a carefully-positioned bucket, the poker levered against the door to keep it as tightly closed as possible. I knew my physics would come in handy one day.

I was getting through rather a lot of logs, I noticed, so I decided to replenish. I managed to locate a local supplier, who told me he'd call me back when he'd worked out deliveries, and that it might be a few days. The lorry turned up at 8.30am the next day. Thank goodness I'd had a shower.

I'd been expecting a cubic metre of wood in a cubic metre sized dump bag, which I'd imagined a burly woodsman toting across the lawn to the woodshed for me.

What arrived was a truck with a load of logs thrown in the back. As I watched, the driver activated the hydraulic lifts, and tipped a cubic metre of wood onto the cottage drive.

As I hauled the logs across the grass to the woodshed by myself, and set about stacking the logs, as if I were stacking a bookshelf, with precision and in height order, it occurred to me that the process of sorting out my fire and its fuel was not dissimilar to what I was struggling with indoors.

Now that I have reached the middle part of the book I'm trying to write, the part which has been blocking me for years now, I have started, in my procrastination, to burn the various pages and sheets which are no longer useful to me. These are sometimes duplicates of other sheets, or I have already drafted the things they are referring to, and am now happy with them — they are finished business. Page by page, I feed the redundant sheets into the fire. Although the draft I'm writing is probably not finished, I'm done with the earliest versions.

I'm aware that I'm not really making forward progress with the book, but it has given me deep satisfaction to slim down the paperwork I hauled to the cottage with me on the train. My book's administration system, its ponderous heaviness, has given way to just a few sheets on the table beside me.

What is now left is the very core of the book, the raw problem which I have been running away from for so long. It is the many people whose words I have carefully taken down in interviews, and whose stories I am going to have to edit in order to make them work as part of the story I am trying to tell. I have laid out these interviews on the ground, in little groups, as though they are sitting in a cafe chatting to each other.

I am afraid of selection, afraid of editing, afraid of its cruelty and potential for loss. I prefer digression, frittering, embroidering. I don't like interrupting other people.

But I am too aware of another of Woolf's hardline but all too accurate comments.

Less famously in A Room of One's Own, Woolf also says, "give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days".

Never take the fire for granted.

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