You're in Martin Heidegger’s heart-meltingly idyllic hideout now. You immediately spot an incongruity. Despite the sublime view from the window, you can see his desk slap-bang in the middle of the room. You think of Stephen King’s point that the desk should always be in the corner to remind us that art is a support system for life, not the other way around. By seeing where Heidegger and others placed their desks, you wonder if it's presumptuous to infer their level of commitment or obsessiveness from such anecdotal evidence. You hear the guide saying that the great German thinker regarded the outside world as a counter-productive distraction. You think about how Bertrand Russell believed his Welsh mountain view to enhance and empower his philosophical rumination.
Now you can only see one thing: there's no pattern whatsoever. Now you realise how stupid you've been to ever think there was one in the first place.
You think of J.K. Rowling scribbling away in that Edinburgh coffee shop. You know that Jean Paul Sartre was also a café scrivener. You know the white noise of random chatter and the clanking of cutlery in Les Deux Magots were like choral background music to him.
You begin to wonder if French existentialists and those who conjure up stories of juvenile wizardry are more balanced than other writers. Maybe they didn’t feel the need to take flight from the real world (though what that actually is may have been the purpose of some of Sartre’s philosophical journeys).
For some it was clear that the reconfiguration or transformation of the 'real' could be done internally, irrespective of their surroundings. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, perhaps they knew that the organising principles of the real world should be acknowledged but not repudiated. You have to accept and adapt in order to thrive. Anything less would be like ‘doing a geographical.’
You see, Sigmund? I HAVE been listening - as well as looking at your big pen. That’s it! That’s why some people can write on aeroplanes, in hotels, or in doctors’ waiting rooms. That’s why Bunyan, Negri, Gramski, Solzhenitsyn and Wilde managed to produce great works while suffering the deprivations of prison life. The external is superfluous to requirements; irrelevant!
With all this in mind, you realise you could write in bed when the kids are asleep; you could write on the kitchen table after morning drop-off; you could even put a lock on that junk-cupboard you've commandered as your study. But you're using your old friend cognitive dissonance to persuade you that you do really need that pine writer's cabin after all – the one you've seen in that catalogue. It's firmly ensconced in your mind's eye. You've got your heart set on it. It would be so quaint, so cool. It would make me feel like a real writer. Shit! There goes my ego again! Sigmund? Are you there? For Christ’s sake, someone tell me what to do! You've told everyone about it already. You can’t go back on it now. You've become like a politician: you've already decided the policy but now you have to think of reasons to justify it because you can’t say the real one. It’s time to snoop around inside again. Maybe you've missed something: that elusive deal-breaker.
You return to Freud's study. You're standing there, clasping your forehead. What were the Egyptian figurines about, Sigmund? Oh, wait, I’m not sure I really want to know. But it's not just Freud. They all have these random artefacts arbitrarily strewn about. I don’t do things like that … or do I? Maybe I do.
But weren’t they all deep and dark and driven? Surely they didn’t succumb to the banality of trivia and trinketry like the rest of us. These objects must have carried some symbolic meaning or utility for them. If only I knew what they were.
As you look again at Freud’s big, fat fountain pen on his simple wooden desk, Wittgenstein’s deck-chair, or Heidegger’s ink blotter, you're desperate now, praying that you're standing before nothing less than esoteric relics; nods and winks from the old masters to the new generation of writers – yes, that means YOU!
You're wondering if the cabin walls are just like your chapter titles: putting stuff in there would simultaneously flesh it – and you – out. There must be a correlation … Of course! I could actually begin to emulate them if I sat in a tatty deck-chair by an unremarkable wooden desk, and wrote with an old-fashioned pen and ink!
You're on a roll now. You look in other famous writers’ cabins for more inspiration. Just a few more glimmers for good luck and I’ll call that shed guy.
Another month goes by. You've been to a quite a few of these secular shrines by now. At last you've got your honest, rational head on. You've had to acknowledge that the fog has actually thickened, not dissipated as you'd anticipated and hoped. You saw a deeper meaning in Freud’s pen but you know that's because he was obsessed with penises. And you have to begrudgingly admit that nearly all the objects you have seen in other cabins appear so prosaic; without any distinction. You're struck dumb by the ordinariness of it all. You begin to get that sinking feeling, that old realisation – the one you get when you meet famous people – that your expectations have been unrealistically high from the start.
The level of austerity you've seen in most of these places denotes a purposeful attempt at self-deprivation. Their spartan surroundings, you now realise, must have been indicative of their monkish graveness and dedication to their craft. Yes, the austerity was deliberate. It wasn’t meant to be comfortable in there: it was meant to make them think, not stretch out and relax. When you're decontaminated and stripped of the trappings of material life, and excused the distractions of human relations, you have nowhere to look but inside. If they'd had a luxurious Chesterfield, pillows and an electric blanket in there, they would never have got any work done. But I’ve always wanted a Chesterfield. A dark green one. It would look so nice in my cosy cabin. No, stop! Think about it! If enhanced mental powers of introspection and analytical observation are what you're really looking for, you have to keep it simple, plain, austere. When all’s said and done, there is a huge difference between meditating under a banyan tree and a brief sojourn into the realms of self-contemplation before crashing out on a comfy sofa for half the day.
Oh, I give up! Just make a decision … Sod it! I’ll buy the cabin. What have I got to lose? What worked for Dahl, Shaw and Thoreau – and so many others – could just work for me too. But I’ll keep it as spartan, drab and uncomfortable as a monastic cell. It will still look nice from the outside. And if it all comes to nothing, the extra storage space will come in handy.
And there it is at the far end of the garden. You can’t believe it. The workmen thank you for the coffee and digestives, then drive away. Your family gather round to look at your – not our – new home. They leave you in peace and you enter what you hope will be a capsule which will transport you on the most scintillating and rewarding adventure you've ever been on. On this epic journey you're going to discover who you are and what the world is about. In fact, you already know it, but just by thinking and writing about it every day you'll be able to explain it to yourself using nice words and attractive phrases. And if it goes really well, eventually you'll be explaining it to millions of strangers all over the world. You know deep down that if you actually pull it off, you're never going to care whether you did it in a shed or not.
Still, I absolutely adore my writer’s cabin. It’s so quaint and cool. And that Chesterfield's going to look divine in the corner.