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?