I worked from home this past week and made a desk of the kitchen table. I have worked from home at least once a week every week for thirteen years, since my first maternity leave, and I have learned the benefit of reserving particular tasks for those days: long unhurried editorial phonecalls, creative thinking of all kinds, complicated emails, tasks which benefit in some way from solitude.
I am aware that my physical spaces influence my mental spaces quite profoundly. I’m that irritating woman in the restaurant asking to move table; someone who walks into cafes and straight out again if they don’t ‘feel right’; the one moving a chair into the sun or out of it; the fool who suspects that a particular holiday was spoiled by a rented cottage’s bad wallpaper. For me, working from home often means to be working at my optimum capacity, because the more at ease in my environment I am, the better I function.
We all take advantage of the link between our external and internal spaces, acting on the instinct to move ourselves physically when what we really need is to move on psychologically or emotionally. We’ve all taken that road trip which is a journey towards some sort of decision; or the holiday in the sun which represents a break from a bad year in one’s own skin; or a walk up a high hill which is an attempt to leave regret behind. And in fiction, too, authors take us on journeys to exotic lands and across raging seas, all in the quest of something we and the fictional characters have been carrying with us, all along.
Several of my authors have been travelling by way of research for their fiction recently; sparking the creative process through inhabiting the physical spaces in their novels; turning their imaginative cogs and wheels by walking in the footsteps of their characters. Where better to write a novel set by the sea than at a desk overlooking the water? How to conjure the mindset of a woman living in darkened narrow cobbled streets, if your own wide roads are open to blue skies full of starlings? Fictional humans should be formed in part by their physical environment just as real humans are; authors trying to work out for sure how their characters feel and think know that first they should experience what it is like to walk where their characters walk, sleep where they sleep, eat where they eat, eat what they eat.
Somehow, changing my real environment this week jolted my imagination too: I have been living in metaphorical spaces again these past few days, thinking of my own memories as strong-rooms; my own emotions as lakes; my hopes as mountain views. And if you wonder why I have spoken or thought or written so much of memories, emotions and hopes this week then just remember that a large portion of my daily work is to read novels-in-progress – most of them novels about the human heart – and to talk to authors about those novels, those hearts.
And just as our hearts beat in our chests and yet also swell metaphorically with emotions such as pride and love; so is it fitting that the chambers of our hearts share a name with the chambers of our houses. Just as the rooms of our houses can be filled with light, so can our hearts be; just as we invite our loved ones into our houses, so do we allow them to enter our emotional spaces, our private internal places. And in this way do places and spacesresonate with messages and imagery about Being Human.
Great authors excel at painting internal conflict large in the skies; I’m thinking of Hardy’s thunderstorms, Austen’s bright spring mornings and downpours of rain. Hardy and Austen’s weather sparked dramatic event, but internal drama can also blow like a wind through a landscape. An author can reference a character’s memories in the rattle of the leaves on the trees; reflect hopes in the whispering of branches; reveal the depths of a character’s fear in the impenetrable darkness of a pool; make loneliness real by dwarfing a small body with grandiose mountains.
When we speak of the world’s dark places, we all picture something different and unique to our individual experiences. What we say is ‘ dark place’ but what we mean is ‘dark time’, bad time. There are some hotels, homes, towns, we’d prefer not to see again; there are some chairs I’d rather not have to sit in again. And, similarly, when we go to our safe places, what we are accessing through memories of a particular hot beach, or wide white-sheeted bed, or misty forest, are the moments in which we felt most content and embraced – the glow of the light-filled times. These places are our most precious internal spaces.
What novelists do is to skilfully sketch out those metaphorical hotels, homes, beaches and misty forests and invite us to revisit them as guests. And as I go about my daily work of representing, editing and selling those novels – whether I sit in the boardroom, the open plan office, overlooking Soho or at the kitchen table – I too navigate through the dark places, the strong-rooms and the misty forests of my imagination. Some weeks, I swim the lakes, and gaze at the mountain views.