Virginia Woolf famously said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” She did have a point. I imagine my writing life, in both fiction and non-fiction, would be much easier if I had a staff to take care of all of my housewifely jobs and errands, and a window-lined office filled with books (and an ocean view) to repair to for 8 or more hours every day. The total immersion! The productivity! The bestsellers! The masterpieces!
I’m writing this while we’re on spring break in Chicago (yes, I know, but it’s close by and has museums). I had very high hopes for this vacation. My day job has kept me very busy for several weeks; I could feel the well beginning to run dry, and my dream of writing solid fiction slipping further away. Once you hit your 40’s, that’s not an exaggeration. I planned to use this trip to get to the root of what’s missing in my WIP, put a few chapters in the can for book#2, and start building a platform for book #3. The kids go to bed at 8:30, so this seemed achievable.
Except I forgot one thing.
When I was a kid, I could write under any condition–in school, in the car, on the bus, in a crowded playroom–all I needed was pencil (or crayon) and paper, which was good, because in a family with fourteen children, privacy is nonexistent. Over the years, however, I’ve lost that skill. Now, writing fiction in the presence of people who know what I am doing is tantamount to public nudity. Well, guess what? There’s no privacy in a hotel room, and when you’re Mommy, you’re not going off by yourself anywhere anytime.
But we determined writers don’t give up, do we? I found my space, and so will you.
First off, I had to remind myself, it’s not like I have an office at home, anyway. I write at the kitchen table, surrounded by clutter and jobs that need doing. I try to chase people out, but I can only get away with that so many times before I have to feed them. Most of my writing, both fiction and non-fiction, gets done in the three hours that everyone is at school and the hours between 9p.m. and whenever a.m. That’s my “space.” Quite vulnerable to invasion, but it works. Occasionally, if deadlines are pressing or I’m unproductive, I haul my everything over to Panera, where anonymity builds four effective walls. If you think about it, you probably have some time when no one is around, or if they are, they’re unconscious. Train yourself to grab these moments with both hands and use them to full advantage. It won’t be easy at first–I struggle with it, actually–but apparently it can be done, and done by regular people who are not named Nora. If you live in a small space, surrounded by other people, do what you can to get out, even if it means writing in your car, or outside on the apartment balcony. Don’t own a car and share a basement hovel with five other people who never seem to leave? Then do all you can to invest in some kind of music player and a good pair of earphones. I no longer need a room of my own–I can start writing in my own “coffee shop” the instant I put in those little buds and hit “play.” Remember how your parents used to yell at you to “take those things out of your ear and join the family”? They had a point. And now that teenage offense can be your writing salvation, taking you into your own private world even as your roommate babbles inanely into her phone, or your son comes down to “inform” you that Nicholas isn’t picking up his fair share. And really, wouldn’t you rather be in your imaginary world anyway?
Virginia Woolf was an extraordinarily talented woman, but she was wrong. Both male and female writers struggle with balancing their writing needs and desires against the more prosaic requirements of daily life. And creativity can find its way in the least nurturing of environments. All it needs is a persevering mind to coax it along.
What are you waiting for? Grab that crayon and crank it up to eleven!