A few weeks ago I took the plunge, and rented an external brain.
This is not the opening line of a science fiction story (though, hmm, maybe it could be…). My external brain is a studio: a corner of an industrial building, a partitioned space shared with eight artists. A bookshelf and a reading armchair, an office chair and writing desk, and a good long surface for laying out pages and making plans – plus a stretch of wall-space, so I can draw out structures and schedules on huge flip-chart sheets.
I first came across the notion of a room as an external brain in Vincent Deary’s How We Are. Early on in the book he recounts how, before he started to write, he organised his workroom: ‘collecting and ordering the books, papers and articles into one space. I mapped the shape of this book onto a wall chart … I filled a filing cabinet with files, one for each chapter …. I spent several years getting this book out of my mind, and then two months spreading it all over this little room.’ Now, he says, the room can write the book.
The room can write the book. What an appealing idea that is. I’ve been writing at home for a decade, decamping to libraries and coffee shops when cabin fever strikes. But with two all-encompassing writing projects on the go – a PhD and a novel rewrite – I needed the ‘cognitive prosthesis’ Deary talks about. I needed a space that was dedicated to reading and writing; somewhere I could make my thinking visible. I needed to be away from the easy distractions of radio, kettle, garden. Above all I needed to avoid the internet, with its seductive illusion of productivity (social media is promotion; aimless surfing is research). We’re all vulnerable to this: even big name writers like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen have to resort to extreme measures to keep themselves away from its temptations.
Deary also talks about rooms as ‘spaces of embodied routines’; how repeatedly using a place in a certain way creates powerful behavioural cues. When I sit at my desk at home, it’s automatic to check email – but when I walk into the studio first thing in the morning, it’s automatic to flip open the laptop and begin work where I left off the previous day. And for me, sharing a studio with artists taps into older behavioural cues: having spent four formative years at art college, working in a creative visual environment somehow facilitates my own imaginative work in a completely different medium.
‘Without this room,’ says Deary, ‘I’m just a guy with a notion for a book. Equally, without me this room is, well, just weird. Together, the room and I can do stuff that alone would be impossible.’