A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. – Virginia Woolf
Women writers just love old Ginny. We quote her chestnut about the ‘room of one’s own’ at the drop of a pen. The quote isn’t limited to fiction, but writing in general. Usually, it’s centered around the “room” part – the need for a physical space. These words burned in me when I was a young mother and struggling writer. While the quote from her original essay has meaning that is both metaphorical and literal, it was the literal that I embraced most tightly. I needed solitude and space to write, two things in very short supply in the days when my house was overrun by small humans dependent on me for their every need. I was lucky enough to be accepted to several writers’ residency programs, where I was given Virginia Woolf’s mandates. I have spent weeks in remote cabins, doing nothing but reading, writing and blissfully staring into space, waiting for inspiration, uninterrupted. My muse was like a shy dog, waiting until everyone was gone before venturing over to lick my hand. Such retreats were a small slice of heaven.
However, as time goes on, infants became toddlers and toddlers became preschoolers and finally, after about a hundred years, they are fully-matriculated students. I was sure that once I had the house free all day, I would recreate the atmosphere of those writer’s retreats and bang out novels in a flash. However, there is still more needed than just the metaphorical room in order to write. The home is still command central for the extended campaign of parenthood. Laundry, permission slips and dishes mount and demand attention. Still, suddenly there are hours to fill that are devoid of human company, and then this lack becomes a barrier to writing. Lack of an audience compelled me to dwell on this irony in silence.
Woolf’s comment presupposes that writers are inundated with company and intrusions of the social world. But what happens when a writer doesn’t have enough? What happens when the writer’s world shrinks a small sphere? Spoiler alert: you become boring. There is a reason we call those solitude visits “retreats.” You have to have something from which to retreat. Otherwise, it’s just isolation. This conundrum sums up my last year. I was a writer who lacked engagement with the world outside the family. There is a name for these folks: mommyblogger. While I enjoy many a mommyblog, it’s just not my gig. My muse, it seems, is now a fraternity brother, and only comes out when there’s a party.
There were subtle clues that I needed to find another outlet to the world. Here’s a tip: do not sit home all morning reading Donald Hall’s haunting poetry about his wife Jane Kenyon’s decline and death and then go to school to help with a cupcake party. That other mom across the table does not want to hear about the frailty of the human condition and the unyielding nature of death – she just wants you to stop weeping and work the frosting station. Likewise, your family doesn’t always want to hear about how you’re forging in the smithy of your soul the uncreated conscience of your race – they just want you to remember to buy toilet paper and peanut butter. Seriously, they’ve been having jelly sandwiches and using Kleenex for the last week and it’s getting old. Online connections are great – it’s fantastic to be able to sit down at any moment and connect with other writers all over the world. We post updates, link our latest stories, read each other’s work and torch unkind commenters. However, at some point, we really need to change out of our slippers and head out into the physical world. I bet that poet in Australia I chat with really needs to go buy Vegemite or something for her kids too. And I bet she could use a haircut and some new clothes, just like me.
Which brings me back to the second part of Ms. Woolf’s quote. Money. Writers have pay for things like paper, pens, laptops, books and little sundries like mortgages, health care and shoes. Writing prompts cost money – and by writing prompts, I’m referring to children. They need braces, shoes, rocket kits and watercolor sets. Yes, I still wanted to breathe the rarified air of a literary author, but I also needed a new dishwasher. You can’t believe how much time hand-washing dishes takes away from writing. However, I wanted to expand my world a bit without giving up on the ultimate writing goal of the novel.
Sometimes the universe answers when you put out the call. I started a job last month – the kind to foot the bill until my prose takes the world by storm. Unexpectedly, it’s delightful. It’s the opposite of solitude – I have co-workers and deadlines and meetings and business trips. Also, a fresh flood of things I want to write about. I write for pay – a hired gun – then go home and hang up my holster and write for love. There’s even a new dishwasher in the works. I have not figured out the balance. Like much of life, there’s always too much or too little. But for now, it’s good. A new dishwasher is on the way. I think Ginny would understand.