Like a cross between the Guardian’s Writers’ rooms and MTV Cribs, our ‘Where I write’ series brings you up close and personal with the furniture of our authors’ lives to discover where – and how – the magic happens. In this episode, poet Sonia Overall invites us into her attic writing room and reveals the importance of walking to her practice.
I live in an Edwardian terrace in the sleepy town of Sandwich, Kent. Indoors, I write in my attic study. A couple of skylight windows look out over our back garden. When I’ve had too much screen time I stand up and stick my head out of a window for a blast of air; I sometimes come eye-to-eye with jackdaws nesting on the chimney. If the weather allows I’ll take the laptop into the garden and try to squint at the screen. If I’m mapping out a narrative or reordering a piece I end up on the floor, surrounded by notes and cut-up bits of paper. I write a lot outside. My practice involves walking and I regularly write on the hoof. I have pocket notebooks for walking and writing, including one for use in the rain.
At the start of the day it’s fairly neat. If by the end it’s not littered with pencil shavings, empty cups and cat hair, it’s a sign I haven’t achieved much.
I have a university campus office too. During the pandemic I’ve been working from home, so the books around me include essential teaching texts that have decamped with me. The study is lined with books – I’ve no idea how all those office books would fit in the house now.
I bought a rocking chair to retreat to, away from the screen, but it’s been taken over by the cat, Mr Tabbs. He complains if I sit there. Behind my desk is an old trunk full of mumming costumes and props and the cat has commandeered space on top of that too. If he doesn’t get enough attention he will sit right in front of me on the desk and push things off it into the bin.
The ceiling is low; I feel close to the sky up here with the rain on the roof and birds landing on the slates. There isn’t much wall space but we made room for my grandparents’ old clock, which is left unwound because it’s so noisy. I find it comforting, hanging there. Our house is small and the study is usually the place where things in transit get stored, piled up or in boxes. I can ignore a mess if it’s out of sight while I’m working. The temperature fluctuates too much for houseplants, but I’m currently sharing the sunlight with some French bean seedlings after running out of windowsills downstairs. They seem to like it.
I’d like to say I have a regular writing habit, but with academic work and a family, I don’t have that luxury anymore. I wrote myself a postcard with ‘writing hour’ on it to remind me to make time; I keep it propped up on the desk. When the writing is going well I stay at it for hours. Other times I write in snatched moments. The best clear writing time for me is in the morning, with a pot of coffee; I often have ideas in the shower, so I’m still holding onto them when I sit down to write. Walking and writing is different though – that works any time of day, because it’s so immersive.
Calibri – minimal fuss. I like to write longhand in pencil. I have commitment issues with pen, but pencil doesn’t last well in a notebook.
My ambulant writing practice has developed a lot over the years. I’ve found this incredibly freeing: it’s something I always did, but now walking and writing are fused together in many ways. If I’m stuck on a piece of writing I will walk it out. If I’m lucky, I will write my way out of it at the same time. I get ideas in the most impractical of places – my first novel began as scene written on the back of a napkin at a wedding – so I’ve learned to keep a notebook with me. Because I tend to have several projects going at once I now number my notebook pages and keep an index. It took me a long time to get this organised; no doubt I will always have scraps of writing floating about that have detached themselves and are looking for a home.