THE PERFECT PLACE TO WRITE?
I had always heard it said that one needs the right environment to write. That is more or less so, but what is the right environment? It’s not easy to define. What is right for one might not be right for another. For me, I started to look for the right environment a long time ago. It was a search down one dead end road after another. It was an education.
I found a number of places I liked where I could have settled down with my Hermes typewriter-Paris, Washington, D.C., Singapore, Papeete, Los Angeles, Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain and a few other places.
I liked them all. I also liked writing aboard my schooner. Not at sea, but in ports and in quiet coves around the Pacific and Asia. In the end I chose Bangkok, but first let me tell you why I made that choice.
One place I had considered was Phuket in Southern Thailand. It is beautiful. It’s picture postcard beautiful. It’s divinely beautiful. I was with my nephew, photographer Robert Stedman, who was looking for property to buy and asked me to go with him. Robert has a design studio in Singapore and wanted to build an escape pad for himself and his wife. A place in Paradise, he said-and Phuket was about as close to an earthly Paradise as one can find. We found an idyllic location on a cliff overlooking the blue, blue Andaman Sea. In the distance, tiny islands shimmered on the horizon as gentle palm trees along the dazzling white sand beach nipped at the blue sky. Here was all peace and joy. “Perfect for a writer,” Robert said. “Why don’t you build here, too? Look at that view. What a place to write.”
It sounded great. I turned it down.
After the long experience of looking for that perfect place in many climes, I now have a place to write, a perfect place to write. It’s in my house in Bangkok, with a closed-in study. It has no view and nothing to distract me. Had I bought property in picturesque Phuket and built a house on the cliff overlooking the sea, I would not have been able to write a single word. I would have spent all my time looking at the sea. I do well in my house in Bangkok or, when I am traveling, in hotel rooms without a view.
So after all these years what have I learned? What then is that perfect place to write? It’s a room with four walls. If there are windows, they must be up high so that I cannot look out. For a writer, a room with a view is destructive. I thought Tahiti would be a fine place to write and went there. What a beautiful view I had at Point Venus on Matavai Bay, with the wonderful sea spread out before me and, behind me, the high mountains of Tahiti rising up into the clouds. It was beautiful. Too beautiful. The sea was a kaleidoscope of changing colors all day long, and it was a thrill to watch the clouds drift in over the mountains. I wrote all right, about the view. I have reams of neatly typed pages of descriptions of my view in Tahiti. No editor wanted stories of Tahitian views.
Then I went to Spain, after the French turned French Polynesia into an atomic testing ground. Here certainly, at Jerez de la Frontera in the south of Spain, was a perfect place to write-and cheap to live, too. I found a studio, a real artist’s garret, on the top floor of an old Spanish apartment building with white-washed walls and a view looking down onto cobblestone streets. But it was impossible to be seated at my typewriter for very long. Nearly every day there was a festival of some sort, with all kinds of activities in the street below. I spent too many of my days checking out the view or else joining in the fun. I moved on to Singapore.
In the beginning, I found Singapore ideal. Everything worked there, like the telephones. I could drink the water from the tap, and the National Library was stocked with English-language books. The library had an excellent file of old Straits Times newspapers on microfilm dating back a hundred years. For accommodations back then, there were guesthouses-spacious, airy and inexpensive. I liked the Leonie Guest House-twelve-foot high ceilings, five-speed ceiling fans overhead and large verandahs. Today, unfortunately, guesthouses as such no longer exist. Aside from guesthouses, I found offers to “house sit.” I knew many journalists, mostly wire service writers, who were forever going on trips or else taking their home leave. They would ask me to watch over their places while they were away. It seemed like a good way to save money, and writers’ flats are usually nicely furnished and comfortable, with lots of books and reading material. In the beginning, house sitting sounded good. But I learned back then that saving money isn’t the important thing. It was far better to settle into my own place where I could rent or else to check into a hotel.
Every time I took over someone’s flat there was always a catch, like feeding their fish or taking care of their pets. The fish I didn’t mind, but the pets were something else, especially when they weren’t the standard type of pets. Keith Lorenz didn’t have the standard pet, like a dog or a cat. He had a monkey. No, it was an ape, an oversized gibbon. His Singapore flat was in the Ngee Ann Building on Orchard Road. The location couldn’t have been better.