I tried to read Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” years ago while on a spiritual retreat in the San Jacinto Mountains of California. In my early 20s, I believed it was required reading for a good feminist. Sliding that thin book off the shelf among all the other options, I felt like an actual grown-up woman, anticipating the wisdom I was about to receive.
Here’s the thing, though: I could not get into it. And I tried. But it was: (a) boring, and (b) irrelevant to my life. A year post-college, I had recently moved to Chicago and was crashing in a rundown house with a group of my new co-workers. I was years away from beginning to write, and nothing about my sketchy living arrangement indicated the potential for a closet of my own, much less a whole room.
I have yet to gain an appreciation for Woolf’s style, but as I have aged I’ve certainly come to understand the wisdom behind having a room of one’s own.
When I started to take writing seriously a few years ago I claimed for myself the only free space in our house: the spare room. Let me tell you a little bit about this room. If it were in an episode of House Hunters, the couple would stand in the doorway with a look of mild disappointment and say, “I guess this could work for [insert name of smallest kid, preferably an infant],” before moving on to see the master bedroom and all-white ensuite.
I’m okay with that. I don’t need a large, fancy space like, say, a particular author I follow on social media who regularly posts photos of her immaculate, book-lined writing room. Curled up in a large chair, legs to one side, laptop perched on her knees, reading glasses sitting on the tip of her adorable nose.
All right, fine. I wouldn’t hate that, but it’s not in the cards.
The room was filled with boxes in need of sorting, stacks of books, and more stacks of books. I sifted and winnowed, pulled in a large bookshelf and cozy chair, and called it mine.
We actually refer to this as ‘the green room’ because the previous owners painted the walls green, and in our 12 years here we’ve never bothered to change it. Of course this brings to mind ‘green rooms,’ as in where celebrities wait prior to their appearance on a late night television show. We’ve probably all seen pictures—the beverages and snacks, sometimes flowers, and usually a monitor so the upcoming guest can see what’s happening on stage while they wait their turn.
Maybe I should paint these walls. I don’t want to be waiting, watching the action from the wings. I want to be creating the action, or at least capturing it on the page. (I do, however, like the idea of someone assembling beverages and snacks for me.)
More important than the color of the walls is what happens in this room. This is where I work. Yes, I also work in coffee shops and libraries, and an occasional hotel room when I hole up a couple times a year for a long weekend of writing, reading, and sleeping in a bed I don’t have to share with dogs. Or my husband. But mostly I work at home at my small desk in the green room.
Several months after I’d claimed this space for my writing, reading self, we bought our teenager a desk so they could have a dedicated place to do the increasing amount of homework they were getting as a freshman in high school. Their bedroom would be the natural spot for it, but they wanted to work in the green room with me. Listen, I was flattered. They may not have wanted to hang out with me, but they wanted their desk near mine. I was also apprehensive, knowing they do not have a history of maintaining order.
My gut said, “No, resist!” but when it comes to my kid, my boundaries are fuzzy and I’m easily swayed by the potential for connection, so against my own wisdom I said yes.
A switch to an alternative high school in sophomore year brought a focus on interactive, classroom-based learning with very little out-of-school work. Relieved of its intended use, the desk became an in-home Sephora: eye shadow palettes stacked in lieu of books, and all manner of foundation, mascara, and lip products spilled out of acrylic makeup organizers.
At first I didn’t mind the switch from books to blush, but the desk and surrounding area got steadily worse. Used makeup remover wipes and cotton rounds littered the floor, and half-full cans of sparkling water stood abandoned. This is what I faced, literally, every day as I tried to write my memoir about our lives, to capture the love between my child and their grandmother, to capture the exquisite losses, to feel around in the dirt for what we’d gained.
My own clutter grew, too, perhaps because by then the space had lost its sacred feel. By spring, the green room wasn’t far from the state it was in when I first claimed it. It had stopped being a place that fostered creativity and focus, and became yet another cluttered, chaotic spot in our house.
I mentioned this dilemma to the Fixin’ to Write women during our retreat in May. They agreed unequivocally that I needed to take decisive action.
I wish I could say I came home and immediately reclaimed my workspace, but it took me several weeks to follow through. I had thought the struggle was about convincing my kid to move the desk into their room, when really it was about me taking a stand for my work, showing my family and myself that what I’m doing matters.
I notice I take my work more seriously again not just because I’ve reclaimed the physical space, but also because I had to navigate the philosophical boundary. I had to admit how important my writing is to me, to heed the advice of wise friends, and to take a bold step to reclaim my room.
I guess I didn’t need to read that book after all.