Kay: A Room of One’s Own

Photo by Hannah Olinger

A long time ago, I entered an ugly period in which I had four weeks to finish my master’s thesis or be thrown out of the graduate program. I’d taken too much time; the administration was done with me. And if I’d been thrown out—and if I still wanted the degree—I’d have had to start over, take the coursework over, choose a new thesis topic, start a new thesis.

This ultimatum hit me especially hard because I was ready to move across the country. I’d given up my house. I literally had nowhere to go, no place to set up my typewriter.

Until a friend said to me, Come to our place. We have a spare room. I’ll bring you tea and sandwiches. You don’t ever have to go out. Just come and stay and write your thesis. You can do it.

And because she gave me a room of my own, I did finish the thesis in record time and defended it before I left town.

This year is the 90th anniversary of the publication of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, a critique of a literary tradition dominated by men and an exploration of female exclusion from independence, income, and education (“Woman have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves,” she writes at one point.).

Essentially Woolf says that for women to write, they need the physical and emotional space to do it, and the monetary means to sustain themselves. This aspect of Woolf’s analysis no doubt points to her middle- to upper-class upbringing, and Alice Walker wrote expanding on Woolf’s theme, pointing to the women of color who have found careers as authors without either room or means. Still, Woolf isn’t wrong. As journalist Suzanne Moore says about the anniversary of A Room of One’s Own:

When we ask, “What are the conditions necessary for women to write in?” we are really asking, “What are the conditions necessary for women to think in?” It’s that simple. And it’s that complicated. We are asking if what we think may ever be taken seriously or even valued.

What are the conditions women need to write and think? Maybe you don’t have a room of your own. You share, you have a family, or roommates, or whatever. Maybe you have a desk, a corner of the dining room table, a sofa after 10pm. I see people writing in cafes and other noisy, public spaces. I could never do this, but I’d never say it’s a bad idea for everyone.

You can’t reinvent the conditions you’re in, but these conditions are your fuel—anger, frustration, despair, revenge, love, silliness, need—whatever. Writing is your way to clarity, to understanding what’s important. That is its power. It’s about listening and thinking through all the information that’s thrown at us, finding a voice in the cacophony. So go for it.

What about you? Do you have a room of your own? Or have you read Woolf’s essay?



12 thoughts on “Kay: A Room of One’s Own

  1. I don’t write well in coffee shops or even writers’ retreats. I do best at home but I don’t need a dedicated room. That makes me feel confined. I tap away on my laptop–mostly from the comfort of my sofa, sometimes at the kitchen table and sometimes the dining table. I like natural light and space, and most of all emotional calmness. I work hard to create harmony in my life.

    I’m lucky that right now my situation passes the Virginia Woolf test. I have physical and emotional space and after 30 years at the day job I can support myself financially. I’m also aware that life can change drastically in a heartbeat–so I never take my good fortune for granted. It’s important to seize the day, right?

  2. I have a dedicated room and seldom produce anything of value outside its confines. Like Jilly, I can pass Ms. Woolf’s test. I have enough money (not to be confused with “plenty of money,” but enough), a nice space, and a husband who’s enough of an introvert himself to be happy to give me lots of space and time to write.

    The impeachment hearings, however, have played havoc with my writing time over the past week. It’s like watching a train wreck and knowing that 50% of the people standing in the crowd watching are saying, “What train wreck?”

    • Interruptions abound! And then the writing really can suffer. However, I think that outside distractions or interests also inform our writing in a lot of ways, so I don’t worry too much if I get momentarily pulled away. You certainly have been very productive for the last couple of years, so I think you’re entitled to a little impeachment TV time if you want that.

  3. I don’t write well while travelling. It’s not so much the space or time, but that I don’t have the emotional space. Plans for sightseeing and dinner and meetings with friends tend to crowd in, and it’s very hard to think about my world.

    When not travelling, I have had good luck with libraries. Cafes are OK if I have earphones and music (I’d feel funny wearing headphones, I think). At home, I do well at the kitchen table, and since I’ve finally cleaned off one of the kids’ desks, I have a space of my own where I do OK. (It’s still their room, but since they are off being adults, it’s mostly my room until they come home for visits.) I find it fairly easy to do OK with a limited physical space — I claim that space quite easily.

    Emotional space, though, is completely different. I often find my thoughts drifting to my day job and a million undone tasks at home. I wish it were easier for me to build up those mental walls.

    I haven’t read the essay; I’m going to have to look for it. I don’t see it in the links at Wikipedia, so I’ll look for it. Thanks for putting a spotlight on this! It’s such an important issue.

    • I read the essay long ago, and it made a big impact on me. I was in college at the time, and I had never really thought about why there were so many male professors and so few female professors. It raised my awareness about the obstacles most women face in doing intellectual or creative work, all before the obstacle of not being taken seriously.

      Good for you that you have several places where you can be productive, and now a desk of your own at home! I expect to read great things from your work there.

      • LOL, the problem is that I don’t always sit there. Sometimes I actively avoid the spot. It’s the mental space I need — fog-free (I tell myself). However, making sure I have physical space to write really is a big thing. The kitchen gets invaded several times a day because EVERYONE in my family seems to eat at different times. My daughter’s room is quiet and nobody’s up there (except when we have guests). It has been helpful, at least for blogging.

  4. Four weeks to complete a thesis? That sounds like something I’d do. Glad to hear that your story had a happy ending.

    I haven’t read Woolf’s essay (I’ve added it to my list), but I do have a room of my own. I have al lovely library / writing room with a dedicated desk, inspirational whatnot deorating space, and lots of lovely quiet to write in. Naturally, I tend to write curled up on the couch with the TV on, but the sound turned off instead. It’s like having people in the house (so I’m not feeling alone), but they’re quiet and don’t bother me; a weirdness that I inherited from my mom.

    If I had to guess, I’d say that writing in my dedicated writing room makes it feel too much like “work” and I try really hard to keep writing in the “fun” area of life.

    When it’s NaNo time my writing is done late at night in bed in the dark, with my laptop. That woudln’t work for me the rest of the year but somehow, in November, that’s what I have found to consistently work year after year.

    • Interesting, Elizabeth! Your writing spaces are like a movable feast: many possibilities.

      And just so you aren’t too awestruck, a lot of the work had been done on the thesis. The research was done, a bunch of the chapters had been started. I had to work hard to get it done, but I didn’t have to start from scratch

  5. Pingback: Michaeline: Mental Space, Flow and Writing – Eight Ladies Writing

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