A Room of One’s Own?

Was Virginia Woolf right?

Is the lack of a room of her own the greatest obstacle for a writing woman? Do other things come into play, are other solutions possible?

Virginia Woolf’s essay on the need for a woman to have a room of her own in order to work, a place to be private and undistracted, free of demands from others, stunned me when I read it as a young woman. It explained so much, like why there was no female Shakespeare, or Tolstoy. Or Velazquez, or Mozart.

Her thesis was that when women are the necessary hub of the enterprise that is a family home, their time and energy is consumed by dailiness. They circle around nursery, kitchen, laundry, garden,  bound by the routine of life. Other people’s needs.

Virginia Woolf herself had opted out, chosen the writer’s life, with an extraordinarily supportive husband, no children —  But even so she’d been subject to daily demands, in her case, dealing with the servants who made the room of her own possible. (And of her recurrent depression, which ultimately nibbled her to death.)

So I would rationalize my own procrastination at getting on with writing. I was too busy, too distracted, too enmeshed with other people’s lives. I had no room of my own.

But ultimately the urge to create something with words grew too powerful. Without a room of my own, I began to write in public places.

Armed with pencil and yellow legal pad, I wrote in public libraries both quiet (in suburban towns scattered around Nassau County) and tumultuous (the third floor in the Midtown Manhattan Library). I wrote in crowded Manhattan luncheonettes. And I learned a couple of surprising facts about myself.

What distracted me?

My own four walls. My own home, books, telephone, pots and pans. Even with Frank at the office, and the children at school, I frittered away precious time.

What stimulated me?

The presence of strangers. A crowd of other people’s faces, random noises, sights and sounds unconnected to me, no response demanded. I noticed them, then ignored them, wrapped in my own cocoon, as I bent over the legal pad and my felt Flair pen began to fly.

I wrote two books that way.

And now here I sit at Chocolate Springs, chocolatier Joshua Needleman’s delectable paradise in Lenox, sipping tea the lovely Emma has brought over, nibbling scones, and then working with a will. No more yellow legal pad, it’s my Apple computer, but the same dynamic.

A room of my own? No, Virginia, it turns out that’s not my Santa Claus, nor sanity clause. Other people’s places, that’s where it is for me.

And how about you? What stimulates you? Distracts you? Is it surprising, or what you expected? I’d really like to hear from you —-

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13 Responses to A Room of One’s Own?

  1. Margie Clark says:

    When I lived in a small, cramped apartment in NYC, I came home one evening and found my roommate reading “A Room of One’s Own.” We looked at each other and laughed, understanding that as much as we enjoyed our shared living, we each needed more physical space. Now I live in a four bedroom house with plenty of room (though filled with a husband and children) and laugh at the idea of picking up a book – and perhaps even discussing it with a friend – at 6 o’clock at night.
    Thank God for pencils, legal pads and public libraries!

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  2. Julia Brumbaugh says:

    Maybe you’re right! I have a desk “of my own” in the basement of our little house here in Denver, but it’s covered with stacks of paper, an unused sewing machine and dust. And I have my own office at work. I’ve never done any serious writing work there (that is writing . At home, I get more work done on the sofa with Joe playing under the coffee table. I still struggle with writing — finding the time and the space in my head, and the trust that what I have in there is worth the trouble of getting out and sharing. Physical space isn’t really the biggest issue.

    I have a few words of wisdom in a little black book I keep that help me to write when I have time. One line is from you: trust your own authority. The other is a longer passage from Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life” in which she says that when writing you have to “spend what you have” rather than waiting for something else, something better. It’s selfish, she says, to hold back, and in the end pointless, because you lose what you don’t share (the image she uses is, “you open your safe and find ashes”).

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Julia, I love the passage from Annie Dillard! I’m facing just this when dealing with my two blogs, both View from the Woods and Touch2Touch. There’s stuff I want to hoard “just in case I run out” or set aside because “it’s not quite good enough yet”. And it really is a temptation, and I guess she’s right, both selfish and pointless. Her final image is so good, the ashes of Dead Sea Roses, which literally do exactly that, crumple into ashes.
      Absolutely, “physical space isn’t really the biggest issue.” It is trust. Thanks for reminding me of a truth I once knew but forget all the time: trust your own authority. We can count on it, if we dare.
      Love to all of you, JB

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  3. Mm says:

    Growing up as I did in India sharing a room with 2 sisters (and invariably a bed, with one or the other!), I thought VW’s A Room of one’s own hit the nail on the head, when I read it then. Today, I miss their constant chatter and exchange of ideas; and while I have indeed collected my own small booklet of jottings in metros (a habit I indulged in for a short while and then dropped – an altogether different story…) – I realize most of my jottings are merely a record of the running commentary in my head, to them, about what I’m seeing and hearing around me 20-30 years later!

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Of course it doesn’t change missing your sisters, but they are also with you (as you say) when you did/do your metro jottings. And now that you realize it so clearly, I’ll bet they become more vivid and present than ever—- Who knows, maybe they’ll even chatter to remind you of things like jottings! (Okay, Mercy, let’s hear from you, I miss you…. that kind of chatter!)
      Actually me, too: I miss you, let me keep hearing from you, like that!

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  4. pauline says:

    Interesting discussion you have going here. When I think back on when I was most prolific-writing for a newspaper deadline and then a publisher’s deadline-I did my best work when I was alone. In fact, I sought a solitary and quiet spot, though if I went outdoors I was far more distracted than when I sat inside. I find the distractions of people, music, and noise very annoying and frustrating. I don’t write well if I’m constantly interrupted.

    But then, I’ve always been solitary. As a child I preferred my own company most of the time to the boisterous neighborhood children. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time in the fields and woods and my room. I was shy and wallflowery. As a young adult, however, I was surrounded with people and noise, first at college and then as a young wife and almost immediate mother (Bren was born ten months after we were married. The three others followed in quick succession.) The demands of wifehood and motherhood cramped but did not stop the flow of words. I wrote my first magazine column with four kids clamoring at my feet, and many of my newspaper columns were written between housekeeping chores.

    Now, as an older, single woman, I have a cottage tucked away from the street, lots of solitary quiet time, no deadlines anymore, and find my best writing comes when I’ve just wakened or am just about to fall asleep. I’m with Virginia. Give me a room of my own!

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      I think the trick for me in the public library, etc. is that I don’t know any of those people, and they don’t know me. At home alone and solitary, I have lots of distraction in the furnishings, invisible obligations, even my own thoughts when they roam unchecked.
      So I can be more solitary among strangers — is that what David Reisman meant by The Lonely Crowd?
      Fortunately you and I both like to breakfast in the company of strangers — and each other. 🙂

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      • pauline says:

        Interesting how different our perceptions – among strangers I am more aware of them, tenser, not at ease. At home among my things I am free – I am sure of them and sure of myself and so I can relax and turn inward without fear of being lost or… I was going to say stolen but that seems the wrong word. Being inward so that I can write makes me feel vulnerable. I don’t like to do that in public. There I’m on my guard. I always found writing at the newspaper office a difficult task and the words I wrote there did not come as easily as the ones that showed up on the solitary page at home.

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        • Touch2Touch says:

          One of the best parts of reading what someone honest has written is being able to stand in a different place and view the world from THAT viewpoint. Otherwise we’re simply locked into our own place, and so alone and limited! Even if we’re not aware that we are. This was such a torment to me when I was much much younger (we can only live ONE life!!!!!!!!) that I always wanted to have been a twin, so there would be someone with whom I deeply, really shared something. Yes, interesting how different —

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  5. Tina says:

    I have to agree with Virginia. As someone who has always loved to write, I have only recently reconnected with my passion and committed to it. My inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere: people, places, faces, shopping centres, libraries, work, the beach. But it is in my sanctuary where those thoughts can be pulled together. A place without interruption, and where, at 2am, I can have a peppermint tea! Great blog! Keep up the inspiration.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      We agree on the peppermint tea, Tina. But I have mine in the morning, at breakfast, and then on a good day can get to Chocolate Springs to work. Hmmm, I probably neglected to say my fave cafe right now is a chocolatier! But truly, I have more tea and only once in a while, a cookie! I admire your blog a lot, it gets right out there and says it like sees it.

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