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GUEST BLOG: Creative spaces

4th September 2014 - James Dawson

James Dawson is a primary school teacher and the author of award-nominated teen thrillers Cruel Summer and, mostly recently, Hollow Pike. He's also the author of Being a Boy, a teenage guide to puberty and relationships and the forthcoming book for LGBT teenagers, This Book Is Gay.


Here he reveals how his search for the ideal writing space led him to become part of a community of writers, using each other's company as a spark for creativity, at the Royal Festival Hall.



Roald Dahl writing hutLast year I visited the Roald Dahl Museum, the resting place of Dahl's writing hut - a place imbued with great magic. You can still feel it, even through a Perspex screen. It was a room with a single purpose: a space to create. That cramped little shed gave rise to Big Friendly Giants, Grand High Witches and Great Glass Elevators.


When I started writing full-time three years ago, I aspired to my very own Dahl hut (which would also, one day, find itself recreated piece-by-piece in a museum). I live in an ex-council flat in Battersea, and they are not known for their spacious gardens so I instead set about cultivating my dream office: framed book covers? Check! Unnecessarily expensive tax-write-off chair? Check! Retro hipster My Little Ponies? Also check. I was ready to go.


For a year I wrote like this, growing increasingly more distracted and miserable. I would look for any excuse to avoid writing. No flat has ever been cleaner, my ironing was done, I'd invent errands to take me out of the flat. I became boring too. A guy I was dating dumped me because all I ever talked about was what the fictional people in my head had been up to that day. It took its toll - I'm so perky people often accuse me of being part unicorn, but I strayed dangerously close to some bleak, morose thinking. Spending so much time alone meant starting up a confrontational inner dialogue with myself, a sort of internal therapist's couch. Every thought was analysed and a defined, egocentric concept of self almost became a hobby. In short, I needed to get out more.


Most writers choose to work at home, at least according to the ones I spoke to on Twitter. Most seem to have a dedicated work space - a kitchen table, an office room or even, like Maggie and Me author Damian Barr, a shed. It was clear, however, that it wasn't for me.


Now settled into London, I started to make friends within the UK young adult (YA) writing community. Skyscraper Throne author Tom Pollock suggested we meet at the Royal Festival Hall one evening as this was where he did his writing. I was wary to say the least. Quite unfairly, I had always thought those people with laptops in Starbucks were hugely pretentious not to mention rich beyond my wildest dreams - who can afford a stream of frappuccinos for seven hours a day? It never occurred to me that they were just like me - lonely self-employed people.

Royal Foylestival HallNor had it ever occurred to me to write in the company of others. I was pretty certain that writing should be a solitary pursuit and that writing in public would only be a distraction. How wrong I was. Like many creative public spaces, the Royal Festival Hall is a melting pot of talent from all disciplines - screenwriters, producers, poets, authors and even dancers rehearsing in the corridors. The environment, far from stifling work, encourages it, it's a professional working space. It also has its own branch of Foyles and I firmly believe being near new-book-smell makes me want to write books.


I bought membership and the change was instantaneous. I now have a clearly defined work and home life. Like anyone else with a job (and I feel writing should be a job as it's my chosen career) I now get up and go to the office. I work for seven hours and then come home.


It has also changed how I see the writing community, in that I now recognise there is one. Many of us write together and it's helped me to be more creative. Being able to bounce ideas off a fellow author is invaluable - as a group we've ironed out many a plot niggle. The word 'networking' is awful, I prefer to think that I made some friends. I don't understand competition or rivalry between authors; if a person only bought one book in their life it might make sense but people who love books tend to love books and so, to me, it can only make sense to collaborate.


I'd love to write with some other UKYA authors. I think we have a wealth of established talent like Sally Gardner and Patrick Ness to up-and-coming names like Non Pratt and Holly Smale. In the US, where Young Adult is arguably a slightly bigger deal than it is in the UK, it is commonplace for authors to co-write titles. John Green, Maureen Johnson, Cassandra Clare and David Levithan have all released collaborative works. It's my hope that similar partnerships will form within the UKYA community and having communal creative spaces could foster this.


I certainly no longer judge people with laptops in coffee shops. Writing can be an isolating career, but I have found it doesn't need to be. In fact, and I don't just say this to be sickening, I really look forward to going to work every day.




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