Tunes for a Monday Morning
A Room of One's Own, II

A Room of One's Own

George Bernard Shaw's writing hut

I'd like to go back to the subject we were discussing (before illness distracted me) in the posts Guarding the Egg and The Things That Stop Us in Our Tracks, namely: the challenge of obtaining uninterrupted time for creative work and the tricky business of sustaining a good work/life balance.

To start us off, here's a passage from Janet Sternburg's Introduction to The Writer on Her Work (an excellent anthology of essays first published in 1981):

"I'm drawn back to a room from my childhood," Sternburg writes, "the back room of my aunt's apartment. When my parents and I visited, I used to vanish into that room. My means of escape was the typewriter, an old manual that sat on the desk in the back room...[which] was a place of freedom. There I could perform that significant act: I could close the door. Certainly I felt peculiar on leaving the warm and buzzing room of conversation, with its charge of familial love and invasion. But it wasn't the living room I needed; it was the writing room, which now comes back to me with its metal table, its stack of white paper that did not diminish between my visits...that room was essential to me. I remember sitting at the desk and feeling my excitement start to build; soon I'd touch the typewriter keys, soon I'd be back in my own world. Although I felt strange and isolated, I was beginning to speak, through writing."

Jane Austen's writing table at Chawton Cottage

"Looking back," says Sternburg, "I feel sad at so constrained a sense of freedom, so defensive a stance: retreat behind a closed door. Much later, when I returned to writing after many silent years, I believed that the central act was to open that door, to make writing something that would not stand in opposition to others. I imaged a room at the heart of a house, and life in its variety flowing in and out. Later still I came to see that I still valued separation and privacy....

"Now I've come to believe that there is no central act [of chosing either isolation or engagement with others]; instead there is a central struggle, ongoing, which is to retain control over the door -- to shut it when necessary, open it at other times -- and to retain the freedom to give up that control and experiment with the room as porous."

Charlotte Bronte's writing table

In an essay from the same collection, Anne Tyler says: "I have spent so long erecting partitions around the part of me that writes -- learning how to close the door on it when ordinary life intervenes, how to close the door on ordinary life when it's time to start writing again -- that I'm not sure I could fit the two parts of me back together now.... After the children started school, I put up the partitions in my mind. I would rush around in the morning braiding their hair, packing their lunches; then the second they were gone I would grow quiet and climb my stairs to my study. Sometimes a child would come home early and I'd feel a little tug between the two parts of me; I'd be absent-minded and short-tempered.

"Then gradually I learned to make the transition more easily. It feels like a sort of string that I tell myself to loosen. When the children come home, I drop the string and close the study door and that's the end of it. It doesn't always work perfectly, of course. There are times when it doesn't work at all: if a child is sick, for instance, I can't possibly drop the child's end of the string, and I've learned not to try. It's easier just to stop writing for a while. Or if they're home but otherwise occupied, I no longer attempt to  sneak off to my study to finish one last page; I know that instantly, as if by magic, assorted little people will be pounding on my door requiring Band-Aids, tetanus shots, and a complete summation of the facts of life. "

Rudyard Kipling's writing room

"When I first started writing," says Sara Gruen (in Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran), "I had a corner in the living room. I put up a freestanding screen, but that didn't keep little bodies from coming around the corner asking for milk and cookies. I could only write when no one else was home. We ran out of money for day care when my first book didn't sell, so all of a sudden I was taking care of a toddler and trying to write. My husband built me an office -- really more of a cage -- out of baby gates. My son couldn't unplug the computer anymore, but he could still throw things at me. Somehow I managed to finish my second book, and when it sold, we could afford a babysitter and once again I had the house to myself during the day.

"That didn't always translate into productivity. At one point, I was so stuck on Water for Elephants that that I worked in a walk-in closet. I covered over the window and made my husband move his clothes out and pasted pictures of old-time circuses on the wall. We had no Wi-Fi, which was perfect. The only thing I could do was open my file. I figured if I stared at it long enough, something would happen. Apparently I was right, because I finished the book, but I spent four months in that closet. Does a walk-in closet count as a room of one's own? Somehow I don't think that's what Virginia Woolf had in mind."

Charles Darwin's study

Lest we think that work/life balance issues are unique to women writers with children, here's a searingly honest except from an interview with Barry Lopez in Michigan Quarterly Review (2005). When asked if he'd made sacrifices for his work (which requires a great deal of travel), Lopez responded:

"Choosing the life I did, I've lost some things that from time to time cause me the deepest kind of anguish. Foremost among those are my social relations with other people. No one is comfortable exploring this topic with a stranger, but the truth is, if you're devoted to your work your family is going to pay a price. How you cope with that — opting for the work or opting to maintain the long-term stability of a marriage, a family — is a singular measure of character.

"I've lived in this house for almost thirty-four years, but I know relatively few people here. I'm not involved in the fabric of day-to-day life on the McKenzie, in part because my work is not local. My life is not working in the woods. If it were, I'd be logging every day with people whose lives I shared and whom I went to church with. I don't have that. I've chosen to do work that takes me a long way away. And when I come home, what I really crave is privacy.

"I've chosen a life that has made it impossible or very difficult for me to remain fully engaged in the life of a family. As a consequence, there have been times in my life when I've been very lonely. I can't look at paying this price, though, as having made a sacrifice. Because you choose one thing, you don't get another. I miss the pleasures of daily human contact and company. I'm in close touch with a community of people spread all over the country, all over the world, but I don't see them every day. I love my work. It's the good I have to offer. I don't regret what I've done, but I have gone through times when I wondered what it would have been like if I had chosen community over being the kind of outrider that I am. If I had chosen a monastery or a community of people to stay with, if I had chosen a conventional family life where I married somebody and had children. But those were choices I did not make."

Your thoughts?

Virgina Woolf's writing shed

The photographs above come from a series of articles on writers' rooms published in The Guardian: George Bernard Shaw's writing hut in the garden of his last house, Shaw's Corner, in Hertforshire; Jane Austen's writing table at Chawton Cottage in Hampshire; Charlotte Bronte's writing table in Haworth Parsonage, Yorkshire; Rudyard Kipling's writing room at Bateman's, his grand Jacobean house in the Sussex Weald; Charles Darwin's study in Kent; and Virginia Woolf's writing shed in the garden at Monk's House in Sussex.

Comments

A friend of mine, a crime writer, worked in a living room with televisions and conversations and children in a happy tumble and tangle all around her. And yet she managed to produce a first novel that was nominated for the John Creasey Award, and many since that are beautifully crafted and loved by her public. Her children have grown up now, but the living room is still a study in total chaos, full to the brim with a husband, a son, televisions, telephones, computers, and, very often, me. We all loudly demand attention, and get it. She runs the home, pays the bills, drives everyone everywhere, cooks for all and soothes hurts, bolsters egos, critiques work and, (I sometimes suspect), helps to run the Universe. Sometimes I'm forced to stand back and realise my humble role in life as a mere male.

I think there is a certain requirement for isolation as part of the creative process, although there is also requirement for collaboration too. For my own part, I need to be alone from time to time. The distractions of husband and little boys is such that I find it very hard to paint when they are there. I also find that I don't find marking books easy when they are there either. Solitude can be very all embracing and nurturing and there is a sense of space and stillness that I find very necessary. To reach this in a busy, suburban, house I often use the early hours of the morning to provide the space I crave.
Yet there is also a need to spur ideas, work in collaboration and talk out loud the ideas inside my head. For this I use the blog, FB with family and friends; holding an external dialogue that gives me chance to examine the ideas I have in the more forensic light outside my head.

What I find I have come to value is a desk space that is mine. This is a recent luxury and one that is much appreciated.

A number of resonances here, especially in the quote from Anne Tyler. I can feel those strings as if they were real right now. It's heartening to realise that one is not alone in having these experiences. Personally I can stitch in almost any conditions, but any other creative work, writing, drawing, you name it, requires solitude and introspection. But the transition from mother to artist always comes slowly - and painfully. As I wave goodbye to the children, the fears that the artist is wasting her time come in and have to be beaten - every day.

I have a well-worn copy of the book 'The Writer on Her Work', and the essay by Anne Tyler is the single best thing I have ever read about juggling creative life with family life. It makes me laugh, and sigh with recognition, every time I read it, it's just delightful. (Tyler's description of her father, also, is priceless.)

The whole book is brilliant, but Tyler's essay is worth the cover price alone. plus it does help to know that a writer as good, and as successful, as she is has struggled with these things too.

GREAT thread--gorgeous pictures--truthful participants! WOW. I could copy out quotes from a book I love of writers (the ones we know) sitting in their writing places, but I'll just say that the central most potent phrase on this page for me is "retain control over the door", and that the 'door' is an internal device. Isolation may help productivity, of course, and privacy is needed--by the way did you know that there really is no word for 'privacy' in Chinese...not one that precisely replicates it. The closest word translates to something like 'in retirement'--so, although a place might be retired to, and privacy might be demanded and received, the mind of the writer is the only door that truly matters. It can be opened and it can be closed. Therein the real problem for a writer, painter, creative of any stripe. I admit, of course, if there's a deadline, and assignment, well space and time must be arranged. It can, of course be done, if it needs to be done. If it is what one wants to be done. Since I'm not a professional writer, painter, but a renegade creative of all stripes, my response should be salted with that knowledge.

Farm life is somewhat different in that it's work the whole family engages in in various ways. There's little about it that requires isolation. But I, personally, require isolation from time to time in a way that my husband does not, perhaps because it is harder for me to switch off from the roles of parent and spouse, easier for me to lose myself in the needs of others.

We talk about this, how he has been encouraged from birth to put his own needs first and so, he says, he finds the demands of family and farm a good counter-balance to that impulse. Whilst I have been trained to put the needs of others first, with no culturally-sanctioned counter-balance. Our study, with desk and computer, is a shared room, and he has no difficulty claiming his time there, no difficulty making it clear to the kids that there are times when dad must not be interrupted, yet for me, there are always knocks at the door, 'I know this is your Alone Time, mum, but there is Just This One Thing that can't possibly wait...' I'm not blaming the children, there is clearly something in me that makes it hard to set firm boundaries when I'm in the same house with others I love.

We've been talking about separating our studies, creating a garden shed study for me, for reading books, and blogs like this one, for Alone Time where I'm just Cynthia and not mum, not wife, or sister or school governor or any of the other roles I daily play. I sometimes lose track of who Cynthia is. I have recently found myself long for a Room of My Own, and I suspect having a Room of His Own will do my husband good too. The George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf garden shed pictures are inspiring. As is this discussion.

It's almost like you need two levels of solitude to work. One is of the sort where you aren't required to interact with anyone other than yourself (even though there may be plenty of activity surrounding you), and the other is making a space inside of yourself where you are focusing on whatever it is you are creating.

Both of these are intentional: you go to a place outsdie and inside. I make this distinction because I get plenty of solitude in which to create, but I don't have an established practice of going to the place inside. Right now I am staying in London, having subletted a flat for two months. I Skype with my husband daily, but am on my own here. I have been blogging daily. But drawing or painting? I'm hoping when the weather gets better I can do that in the park, because though I'm alone, this space doesn't feel right...maybe the creation of something visually oriented needs a more expansive feeling place for me? An interesting thought.

Your friend sounds amazing and much to be admired, and yet I physically cringe when I read your description of her life because I personally would go mad living that way. Vive la différence!

While I'm suspicious of reducing human beings to labels, I do find value in recent studies about the difference between introverts and extroverts (and people who go back and forth between the two). Your friend (based entirely on the description above, so I could be completely wrong about this) sounds like a classic extrovert, invigorated by her engagement with others. For introverts such as myself such constant engagement would be draining at best, traumatic at worst. (My partner is both: she has a fierce need for social engagement, but must balance this out with periods of extreme isolation in order to function properly.)

Within those broader designations, I think we probably all fall on a spectrum and have a least a speck of the opposite in our makeup. Although I'm terribly introverted and could happily go for a long, long time without social contact, I do have my moments when I pop up, reach out, and leave overly-long blog comments like this one. [Grin.] I think the trick is knowing who you are, and what you personally need. We live in a society that rewards extroverts - and women who can do it all, like your enviable writer friend, are definitely built for what society asks of women now. She seems to have found what works for her, and that's brilliant.

As for what works for me, that is still very much a work in progress.

A quote on the subject from Ursula Le Guin:
'Hardly anybody ever writes anything nice about introverts. Extroverts rule. This is rather odd when you realise that about nineteen writers out of twenty are introverts. We are been taught to be ashamed of not being 'outgoing'. But a writer's job is ingoing.'

By Le Guin's count, your friend is that one out of twenty. She sounds lovely. But lovelier still is your paean to her, Stuart, and I hope she see it.

Carmine, you did it! You fulfilled your dream to go to London. Congratulations!

Perhaps you need some time to absorb and take things in before you start putting them out again as art. Travel to a new place is a very absorbing experience. If you don't mind advice from a non-artist farmer- 'Patience, grasshopper!'

I wouldn't dare draw her attention anywhere near it; I'm sure she'd bat me round the head, metaphorically at least. But you're right about people being a mix of both extrovert and introvert; she is exactly that. A tower of strength who somehow also manages to be contemplative amidst a tempest of people.

Interesting post. We all have our ways to get that space.
I'm currently trying to rearrange my tiny flat, more like I've spent time the last two years trying to find a better arrangement.
I live on my own so in theory I shouldn't get distracted. But I have two jobs plus a freelance activity, also a sort of distraction.

Working at home is difficult when you can't make a clear distinction between the place where you spend your leisure time and the work space. It's gotten worse now that our computers are an open window on the world and so many other distractions. I need to make clearer boundaries here.

oh, how i loved reading this post...and the conversation that follows. i am always interested to see how others navigate the tangle of time-to-create and the-outer-world....because i struggle with it very much.

going to the space-within is never an issue for me, in fact i can get there with alarming ease..which is why i'm so reticent to do so, because once i'm there, i don't want to come back until i'm ready. motherhood rather complicates that sort of arrangement. :)

i'm getting better, though...making that transition with greater ease (and less fuming savagery), as Anne Tyler observed in her own experience. still, though, i think that has more to do with not allowing myself to wade too deeply into the torrent of creativity than i perhaps would if there weren't an impending interruption.

i am incredibly fortunate, though, in having acquired a room of my own when we moved to this house last year. i love, love, LOVE it -- even though it has no heat in the winter (i bundle up and huddle around mugs of tea)..it is that physical barrier that allows a certain level of Do Not Disturb that scribbling away in the corner of the living room never did.

thanks so much for this...it has me pondering how better i could be at curating the space and time that i need.

I both love and hate this discussion. Just as I am both outrider (Lopez's word) and insider. Yes there is much of both the voyeur and voyager in me. But I am also a family person, much involved.

Still this poem. . .


Outrider

I have gone through times when I wondered what
it would have been like if I had chosen
community over being the kind of outrider
that I am.”—Barry Lopex, Michigan Quarterly Review (2005)

Here I am, on my daily rounds, the spy in the house, watcher at the ford.
I stenograph the lives of others, place them under glass, pin their dessicated bodies to my walls.

Even when I pretend to be at the center of life’s fun fair,
in the spinning teacups, whirligigs, riding the carousel,
I am outside, looking in.

If this were a novel—as my life always is--I am the private eye,
the mood is noir, hand me the damned falcon, if I blink, you are gone,
I ride on.


©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

I resonate with this. My wife and I, both writer/acadmemics, have these discussions also. We each have Rooms of Our Own - a requirement for sanity it our marriage - and we have carefully worked out our best working arrangements and practices over the years of cohabiting...

... all of which has now gone out the window thanks to the arrival of our bouncing baby boy. I do much of the childcare due to practical/financial considerations, my wife's career being the more stable and less flexible one, and suddenly I relate in a visceral way to quotes like Anne Tyler's and Sara Gruen's. (LOVE Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, by the way, but I digress.)

This issue of work/life balance is certainly a gendered one; it cannot help but being so due to the different expectations society places upon boys/girls, men/women; and even those of us up-ending the traditional gender roles can still get caught in their sticky web. When I am out and about with my son, for example, I am constantly congratulated for my work in caring for him. My wife gets no such praise; it is simply expected of her. Being married to a staunch French feminist, I've not thought myself particularly naive about gender role pressures, and yet this new experience of madly juggling my roles as teacher, scholar, writer, and primary care parent has been...shall we say, eye opening.

I have the historical and actual privilege of a Room of My Own, and must now learn how to work without it - to work in the kitchen, the playground, the GP's office, to multi-task in ways I never knew humanly possible. I keep telling myself, women have been doing this around me all my life. Like Stuart, I stand humbled.

And I stand tired.

Thank you all for sharing your thoughts on the work/life balance, it helps to know I'm not the only one juggling! I never feel that being a self-employed artist is a job that's taken very seriously by some friends and family. I have a 2 year old and a 4 year old, and the strings tug me in every possible way! With my eldest I felt interuppted if she woke from a nap early; we don't have family close by to take the kids for a day or evening, so it's all me and my husband, and he has a full-time job so it's really just me. Having seen how quickly she's grown and started school I cherish the moments with my younger son who's still at home. I was probably a better artist 4 years ago, but a better mum to them both now! I think I'll get a copy of 'The Writer and her Work', it might help me be more patient. Painting time will come!

Oh, a room of one's own. As a child and teen it was the only thing I really wanted and dreamt about. We were poor and so I spent my time at home sharing my room with my sister and sometimes brother, too. At one point, I cleaned out the back room-- a junk room, really, that contained our dryer. I spent 5 hours and filled 10 trashbags for about 5 square feet of space. And there I set up my easel and painted late, from 10 or 11pm until 3 or 4 or 5 in the morning. I found an old statuette of Merlin holding up a crystal ball and I set this by my side. I saw it as my magical place, and it only existed at night when everyone else was asleep.

Now I'm married and my husband and I live in a tiny apartment and we share most spaces, but I've set up my art table in the corner of our bedroom. It's covered in paper and paint and brushes and tape. And my desk is near it, my writing center, (where I sit now), and by my side is a statuette of a fairy, journals filled with first draft work, post its of dozens of plot reminders, a candle, and all my favorite writing pens. And in another corner, my side of the bed is my nightstand, filled with books of power and my dream journey, a candle and my butterfly lamp. Even though these are in a corner of a room, this all is 'my room'. We're moving in a couple months and he understood what I meant when I said with utmost fervency, "My art table is coming with me. And so it my nightstand. And I must have a desk." Because even though I don't have a full room quite yet, I need these little bits and pieces right now. They're my sacred drumming circle for soul traveling, the rock supporting my creative work. I still long for my room, but I'm happy with this for now. It helps that my husband is respectful of what I need.

Thank you and that is a good point, Cynthia Rose. I've been in a "listening/receiving" cycle for a while now, and that is really my main focus here—be open to what comes at me. It is all stewing away in the cauldron of creation, let's hope. :)

I so appreciate your blog where myth is made real and real myth-makers tell what it's like when distraction might be easier. Barry Lopez' essay is especially meaningful to me. I am nurtured by the good he offers and the essay you quote is the balance that I can 'pretend' was shared with me along the McKenzie, just down the Western Coast from our Salish Sea.

This thread tickled this from me in my on-line writers' space ... reminding me that when I see the work-art as play that balance seeps out in just the right way.

Nimble Fingers, Fumbling Mind

"Mind you I know it is a blessing as well as a curse to own these nimble fingers attached to a fumbling mind," it was a disclaimer meant to put him off the scent. Rather than look up and confirm the smoke-screen I crossed the room and poured myself onto the piano bench. Half-written scores of melody lay in stacks, I pushed them aside to make room for my ass.

"Find center. Middle C. Start the scales from there. Go. Play."He wasn't buying my distraction. Poured more coffee into his china cup, added milk, two lumps of sugar, stirred slowly and sipped.

Sun pulsed through the streaked windows as my fingers struck the smooth whites and blacks, tempting my mind with the bottle of vinegar ... should wash that window; the cat would love a walk before it rains again. My fingers struck the smooth whites and blacks. I'm really too old to get very good at this. My fingers strike the smooth whites and blacks.

A small mouse squeaked from the hearth rug at the far-end of the music room. My fingers loosened now the strikes on the smooth whites and blacks were quicker. The squeaking kept pace with the scales. I thought about stopping but looked up and saw him wave me down.

"Keep playing."

I did that. My fingers were loosened enough to do the scales with less effort. Over the tops of my glasses I turned and saw the young piano teacher pull from his pocket a wad of fleecy wool. He tossed the wool into the fire. Before the wool was overly burnt, Mouse Woman rescued her prize and started making wonderful piles of mountain goat wool with her ravelly fingers. Mischief had been avoided. Music was being made. Balance was brought to a fumbling mind. A most satisfying end.

Inspiration: http://books.google.com/books/about/Mouse_Woman_And_The_Mischief_Makers.html?id=cbFMhIafXkEC

Those beautiful work places make me cringe at my own bohemian clutter. This theme brought up
memories of my little former breakfast nook with desk, rejection slips on the wall, view of the side of
the house next door, at my typewriter doing what my children called, "Tappety-tapping," and they
waited to ask me something when that stopped, not knowing silence is part of writing. I have always
cherished how their little kid songs and pure poetry came to them, at 3, 4...5..and how it changed my
writing. When they were in school, when I wrote. Two lives, often in balance. It is all about balance. I have to family, some theatre work (work? Uh. no), writer's workshop, movies and then solitude in my sunlit
little studio.

Corrections; not when I wrote, then I wrote. And, have to family? cross out -to-. Goblins
in the keys.

I'm in a moment of such loneliness - both death and choice have gotten me here - that Barry Lopez's words tug at me very, very deeply. I took the day off to grieve today, so I'm more than a bit vulnerable. Maybe better to say it this way - the day took ME off to grieve.

Lopez's words are both balm and bite. Bite, because I get on an ever deepening way how alone one is in the studio, painting. There, I am content, inspired, getting somewhere, committed. But when I come out, tired, I long for companionship, but seeking it out is an effort that I don't have energy for. The blam in his words is that, yes, its all about choice, and I wonder if I can do better at finding - or choosing - balance.

For me it's time that's the "space," which means late at night after everybody's in bed and no more demands on me for the day.

I really liked this part from Anne Tyler: "I no longer attempt to sneak off to my study to finish one last page" - She's obviously wiser than me, and I need to learn this one. Just makes me cranky if I try to write when the kids are around. But if I put it down, I can even maybe enjoy them. (This from a man who has, mostly, chosen the opposite course to Lopez.)

On rare occasions, though, I've managed to write a few pages in the middle of the day, and what joy. I seldom feel more alive. Remarkable.

Wonderful!

And yes, while I think of you as an Inrider sort of writer, deeply embedded in a long marriage and a rich family life, now that you point it out I can see ways you are an Outrider too, with your travels and homes in two countries.

My thoughts are with you today, Valerianna.

"Time that's the 'space.'"

I like that phrase a lot. And I know just what you mean.

Ah, but these are photos of workspaces empty of the writers themselves, preserved as museums of what once was. I wish we could go back in time and see them as were, filled with the exuberant creative clutter of working artists: piles of manuscripts pages and cups of tea and scribbled notes and half-read magazines; the old sweater on the back of the chair; the boots drying by the fire; the cat hair and pawprints on the old faded rug...all the things that really bring a work space alive.

Thank you for such thoughtful responses, everyone.

Awe...thanks.

As an introvert myself, with occasional extrovert needs, I found myself wishing you had a blog that I could follow. This is a lovely comment.

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