I’ve been visiting a lot of real estate agents lately, trying to find a half decent garret. I’ve decided to start taking my life as a writer seriously. A lot of people tell me the first step towards being a writer is to start calling myself a writer. But I’m not quite there yet. Before I can look in the mirror and say “There’s a writer,” there are a few conditions I need to put in place.
I now realise that I’ve been wasting a lot of my time. I’ve gotten into a habit of rising early and writing until lunchtime. After lunch I don’t do any creative work, but I spend a lot of time trying to educate myself about how to write better, how and where to publish, how to build a platform. Too many writers fall down that particular rabbit hole; it can be very seductive. But that’s just writing; it’s not being a writer.
Since I was very young I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to live that lifestyle. I can’t say I’ve ever had any love of the act of writing. I’m naturally lazy and can cope very well with the bum on seat aspect of the job. But what I do when I have my bum on that seat is not writing. It is something far more creative than that. Over the course of my lifetime I have accumulated a huge amount of hours sitting around, envisioning the writer’s life that I felt was my due.
I’m quite ascetic by nature and drawn towards the more monastic side of the writer lifestyle. I’ve always loved a good garret and I’ve finally decided that it’s time to buy or rent one to starve in.
Just yesterday I had an appointment with an enthusiastic young estate agent. She brought me to see custom-built writers’ garrets down in the docklands area of Dublin. I was excited about the prospect of having all of the atmosphere laid on for me; I didn’t want to have to spend too much time putting my mark on the place. We mounted the two flights of stairs in great excitement.
As soon as she let me in to the garret my face and my spirits dropped in unison. To counteract the downward trajectory of my physiognomy and mood she raised her eyebrows and put a little upward inflection into the question she now asked me:
“Is everything okay? You look a bit…”
She couldn’t finish her sentence. Her naturally optimistic mindset knew no words to describe how I looked or how I might be feeling.
I was, by now, looking around the room and blowing out air quite forcefully. I was pointing at a place about eighteen inches in front of my mouth. I felt this gesture would be self-explanatory. But her puzzled expression led me to believe that no explanation was reaching any self.
“I can’t see my own breath.” I gave her one of those expressions we use when we’re forced to state the bleeding obvious.
I found it hard to believe she was in need of elaboration, but I gave in to her implied request.
“How can I be a writer in a garret where I can’t even see my own breath. The temperature is all wrong in here. Totally unwriterly.” I pulled my hands from the pockets of my heavy overcoat. I was wearing standard issue writers’ gloves, the fingerless ones. I removed them, put them in the coat pockets and then removed the coat itself. Sweat had started to form on my furrowed writerly brow.
“It’s far too warm in here. The atmosphere is far too comfortable to support any sort of bohemian hardship.”
The penny dropped and her facial features obligingly arranged themselves to convey that fact to me. She beckoned me over to a very high-tech piece of equipment on the wall, beneath the window.
“What’s that? Some kind of heater?” You wouldn’t believe the amount of scorn I managed to pour into the word “heater”. In those two short syllables I let her know I would rather die than have to remove my writer’s gloves and coat.
She smiled mysteriously and nodded towards a large dial on top of the machine? At a glance I noticed a few words: Dickensian; Joycean; Hemingway. There were too many to take in with a glance. I raised an eyebrow and nodded towards the dial.
“It’s not a heater. It’s… It’s a…” So much was she looking forward to delivering the end of that sentence that it caused a log jam somewhere between her brain and her mouth. She had to pause, fill her lungs and push through the obstacle.
“It’s a Bohemiatron!”
“Is it ?” I have grown comfortable with not knowing what young people are talking about most of the time. So I did what I usually do. I disguised my ignorance as down-with-the kids knowingness. “A Bohemiatron. The very man.”
So excited was she about this major USB of the garret that she couldn’t wait to fill me in on some of its key features.
“Look what happens when I turn it to Hemingway!”
She turned the dial and the atmosphere of the room changed almost instantly. The sounds of a Parisian café from circa 1920 flooded the room. I don’t know where the speakers were hidden but the sound effects were convincing without being obtrusive. From air vents in the skirting boards smells began to emerge: of garlic and cats, of pommes a l’huille, of absenthe. The temperature changed subtly. Now, rather than the bland 22 degrees of modern central heating we began to experience the welcoming warm fug of a café during a cold Paris winter.
“Can I try Dickensian?” I tried to disguise the excitement in my voice as world-weary nothing-can-impress-me boredom.
She turned the dial again and, almost instantly, I was forced to put the overcoat and fingerless gloves back on. “This is more like it,” I thought, marvelling at the beauty of my own breath curling up into the damp-stained ceiling.
I started doing some quick mental calculations. I knew I could afford the rent. My public service pension was enough to keep me in the sort of soft focus squalor I craved. But paying the rent by monthly standing orders seemed wrong; it seemed unwriterly.
“Could I pay you in hand-written poems?” I tried to sound confident as I put this proposal to her. But my voice cracked a bit, my Adam’s Apple bobbled uneasily and I just knew my cheeks were becoming slightly flushed.
“Sorry. We don’t accept hand-written poems any more. Even if they’re written on beer mats from McDaid’s. We could take a signed first edition of your breakthrough novel as a down payment though. Depending on its sales we might even be able to count it as several months’ rent.”
I felt myself starting to dislike this young woman. Her view of what a writer does was far too narrow for my liking. I don’t have any breakthrough novels yet. I don’t, truth be told, have any finished manuscripts. Now that I think of it, I don’t have any started novels either. I am not that sort of writer. I’m more writerly than that. I live and breath the writer’s life all day long, which doesn’t leave me much time or energy for writing.
I shrugged my shoulders. “How much did you say it was per month?”