I first read Virginia Wolfe’s A Room of One’s Own while studying abroad at the University of Wales in Swansea. I was one of those uppity teenagers who couldn’t wait to leave the familial nest and set out on the road to independence. In my mind, a room of my own was a place where I could smoke cigarettes without anyone complaining, sleep uninterrupted until noon, and have boys over without concern about roommate or parental intrusion. I do not, however, think that this was exactly what Virginia had in mind.
Virginia’s aspirations were admittedly a little loftier than my own. She wrote of the need for women have a physical space of their own in which to think, to dream, and to write, as well as a figurative place in the patriarchal literary world. We lady writers have come far* since 1929, but regardless of our gender, having a room of one’s own is still key to writing, or any creative pursuit. How we choose to define this space, however, is as individual as one’s preferences in paint color or lampshades.
Writers – male and female alike – write where they can: in cafes, parks, libraries, the dining room table. Until recently, my friend Jen wrote in the closet. Literally. With two small kids, two dogs, a husband and a mother in residence, it was the only place she could find. I once heard author Wally Lamb talk about sneaking into a nearby university library before dawn to get some quiet time away from his family and job while writing She’s Come Undone. I share my home with a dog and a cat, and am lucky to have several rooms to myself**, yet I suffered the hard wooden chairs at my kitchen table for months until I finally relented and acquired a decent desk chair. The point is that when you are compelled to write, you find a way to make it happen, whether it’s while everyone is still asleep or by putting a lock on the closet door to keep the kids out.
Aside from the physical location where we tap out our ideas onto our keyboards, I’d argue that the most crucial rooms of our own are the ones we create in our own minds. These rooms are with us wherever we go. I perform the physical actions of writing primarily in one space (my study), but in my mind I am always writing. We writers must preserve a calm space in our minds – turn off the Kindle, take out the ear buds, set down the iPhone – so that we have room to let our thoughts wander, to eavesdrop, to observe. This is how we notice when the kid on the bus tucks a partially smoked cigarette behind his ear. This is how we notice when the homeless man on the corner hums the theme to Looney Tunes. This is how we notice the particular color and texture of the splash of vomit we step around while crossing the street. And when we wish to write about our walk from the bus stop to the bar or restaurant or office, our recall of these details helps us to paint a richer picture of the experience. Perhaps, at times, too rich.
*There is of course some distance yet to cover here. For instance, I learned recently that J.K. Rowling used her initials at the urging of her publisher, who was concerned that little boys would not want to read a book written by a woman.
**Although my cat is – like many of his breed – a furry saboteur. He enjoys little more than walking across my keyboard and rubbing his cheek against my mouse hand.