Others’ Rooms and One’s Own

Yours and my own room might not be so eclectically pleasing or so richly furnished, but the Guardian book blog has got a revealing series about where writers write. These writing spaces range from richly furnished rooms to cabins. Looking at these brings back fond memories of finding such a place for myself.

Since I was a little girl I’ve wanted my own space to write and be reclusive. I remember that the books that resonated with me the most back then were books in which the main character had a secret place to go to in order to be alone. There was a book called Jenny about a young girl who made a place for herself among tall, tall grass in her backyard. I specifically remember a character of another book who found an old abandoned shed with a little desk in it and a large, metal key to lock it with. I don’t remember the title to the book now, but I vividly remember the picture in my mind of the shed, the drawer, and the key and the times she would steal away from her house and go there. She would carefully unlock the desk and take out her notebook and write. Oh to be able to shut and lock your own place! This image spurred a lifelong passion for diaries, journals, and locked books.

I remember another book about a girl who velvetwas a migrant worker’s daughter. She went to an abandoned house and found a tower room with windows on all sides and window seats with cushions against all the walls of the circular tower room. The cushions and curtains were pink. I just found out the name of that book after all these years. It’s The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. I read this book in the 4th or 5th grade and have never forgotten it. The product description at Amazon.com reads:

Robin was always “wandering off” (her mother’s words) to get away from the confusion she felt inside her. It was not until Robin’s father found a permanent job at the McCurdy ranch, after three years as a migrant worker, that Robin had a place to wander to. As time went by the Velvet Room became more and more of a haven for her–a place to read and dream, a place to bury one’s fears and doubts, a place to count on.

A place to count on. Hmmm. Another of Snyder’s books was magical as well. It was called Black and Blue Magic and resonated deeply in my soul. It was about a boy who found some magical cream that he could spread on his shoulders and sprout wings. With those wings he could fly out of his window at night and fly over the city in which he lived. Wonderful All of these books were about children who find solace in solitude and being away from all that would intrude into a child’s need for privacy. They were all about a place they could count on to heal them.

When I fled the abuse in our childhood home, I tried to go anywhere I could to find such magical places in our un-ordinary household in our ordinary small town; a place of solitude, safety, and comfort.  A place to count on.  Like Jenny in the first novel I ever read above, I tried to find my own place out in the backyard amidst a small hedge of short pine trees. They were enclosed somewhat, but less than ideal.  I spent some time in there writing stories in my notebook. However, I could never find the perfect spot, that spot that you just KNEW was where you could be most private. The cellar of our house, accessed through a door outside, was too dank, musty, and spooky for that purpose, although my sister and I found a nice, big steamer trunk with old jewelry in it and a set of books about Egyptian methods of mummification. This set off a period of stealing spices from the kitchen cupboard with which to conduct “experiments” down below.  There was a shed out in the backyard, similar to the one found in the book (whose name I can’t remember), but it had no windows and spiders thrived. Ick. And of course I could not find a Velvet Room as their were few abandoned houses to retreat to that were in such good condition, nor was their magical cream with which to sprout wings.

I never did find that place of retreat. I think that my whole life has been spent trying to find that place of solitude that would allow me to think my own thoughts and to write. It’s every writer’s ideal. Virginia Woolf wrote of all those lost women writers who were never discovered because they lacked a room wherein to write and the means to support themselves. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf writes,

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

Yes, where might all the mothers be, trying to flee young children by locking themselves in the bathroom, if they had a room of their own in vw-monks-housewhich to write? What masterpieces might there be? Or, perhaps, what could we have learned from hearing how ordinary women lived ordinary lives and tried very desperately to carve out their own spaces amidst the duties designated for them? Woolf said that not only did women need rooms of their own but sufficient income to support herself doing it. It appears that one cannot have one without the other.

As a mother with young children I remember watching The Waltons on television while my kids napped. I remember that John Boy wanted to turn the small shed next door to his house into a room of his own where he could write.  I think Mary Ellen was rightly outraged about his claiming to be older and a boy and therefore more rightly entitled to the place. Similarly, in the television show The Brady Bunch, Greg and Marcia Brady had it out in a step-sibling brawl over the attic room and who rightfully could claim it. I remember thinking that the boys would always win that one. Men, it is assumed, needed their own places to be creative. Women had the run of the whole house after all, they reasoned! But they forget that so does everyone else and the whole house is not private for  women.

Having one’s own room is the beginning of claiming your own space for the first time AND asserting your right to have one. Until recently, I never did find a secret place of my own. Now I have such a place, albeit not secret. But it’s mine. Mine will never be photographed for the Guardian Book blog, but it is no less important in the grand scheme of things than anyone else’s space and it is certainly, if I just realize it, more than adequate to provide me with that place I need to write; that place I can count on.

I think the need to have a private place where one can go and think their own thoughts and perhaps paint or write or compose music is a necessary thing for everyone. Women however are notoriously selfless when it comes to asking for their own space. They need to be more selfish and unapologetic at the same time. They need to be more assertive about asking for space, or better yet, just taking  space and claiming it as their own.  It’s a universal innate thing to do; retreat to a place we can count on to heal us. So, do you have a secret room? I certainly hope so.



10 thoughts on “Others’ Rooms and One’s Own

  1. It’s hardly surprising that we see consecutive posts on related topics.
    This one clearly ties in with your thoughts on tobeme’s post on forgiveness on his website The Naked Soul.

    People’s need for space seems to vary and, as in so many areas, we want it most when we don’t have it.

    I say “we”, although I was forced to adjust to 0 privacy when packed off to boarding school when young, which meant that, in term time, I slept in open dormitories from age 5 to 19.

    As usual with such forced adaptations, it had its uses. For example when I was earning a living in music touring in the 80s, I found life on a tour bus quite easy. On the bus, your bunk has a curtain you can draw; more than we had in those dormitories.

    I enjoy peace and quiet when I can get it, and I find it easier to be creative without people and phones interupting my concentration, but I can live in my head quite well when I have to.
    Such is the human ability to repress things however, that I’m left wondering if I’ve simply repressed my need for space, or am I fooling myself, or have I built a force field around myself that only a few may penetrate. If you’re as good at repression as I am, you can’t even answer your own questions easily.

    Others have to adapt to much more severe limitations of course. I can’t remember what the population density is in Honkong, but I’m sure that apartment life in Honkong City would drive us Westerners nuts pretty fast, and I don’t think their murder rates are higher, if as high, as ours.

    But to get back to the post on which I’m supposed to be commenting. My heart goes out to you MOI as that child who needed space, not so much for self-expression, as for self-preservation from a present threat. And here is where our flight from the controlling aspirations of others coincides with our need for privacy. I was denied privacy, but the lack of it did not in itself represent a direct threat; it was simply the Status Quo. Your need for space, I suspect, stems directly from the fact that lack of privacy related directly to a physical threat aimed at you personally.

    These are the things which real love, as implied in Tobeme’s post, should be expected to take account of. It’s not how much people need space, it’s how much YOU need it that should count. If there is a spare room, you should expect anyone you live with who loves you, with your history, to give you first pick. It comes with the territory.


  2. Reg,

    Perceptive as ever. 🙂 Yes, I can see how the threat of attacks aimed personally drives one to the need for space far more than any other situation might. I’m sure that there is a deep need to keep people at arm’s length (room’s length) in order to feel safer.

    However, there is something about a space that’s all your own, to do with what you like, that’s compelling. That and tied up with the need to create and perhaps the silence to do it in, a room of one’s own can be quite seductive. Should someone give me that room, I would be eternally grateful. :-D.

  3. Up in a tree. That’s where I’d go to get away. Heaven. I didn’t write up there. I did not yet know that I liked to write. All I knew was, I liked to escape.

    I have a great room here where I can write but I yearn for something else.

    If I couldn’t get up in a tree, then I liked the woods. One could walk endlessly inside them, and I’d often look for a fallen tree or bush to feel like maybe I had my own fort…just for me.

    Today, I’m drawn to the water. A quaint cottage, with abundant gardens, near the water and lots and southern exposure…alone, just alone, to see, to discover, can I do it, can I write?

    Actually, I may have just described my home. Abundant gardens, pool out back, total southern exposure…geesh, what am I moaning about?!

    You know, tears welled up at different places in this post. Felt a strong connection

  4. Zoe,

    Thanks for sharing your empathy with this post. It meant so much to me as a young girl to have that place of my own. I don’t think families recognize this longing enough. But even so, it’s so important to carve out that space for ourselves and sometimes we find it and don’t know we are in it!! Are you in it now? And if so, why indeed do you not write?

    Hugs, many hugs!

  5. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be “in it” right now. I should be able to write until the cows come home.

    I don’t write because of fear. Going out on a limb here (notice the tree symbolism) 🙂 … there’s always this sense that I cannot write, because I will offend someone or whatever I write will come back to bight me in the rear-end.

    I also think I’m addicted to the same patterns of thinking about what it is I’d write. It takes up brain space and it just keeps swirling around and around and I never seem to have room for other ways of thinking.

    I love to talk and strangely, the idea of getting up and talking doesn’t cause me fear. I have confidence that way. But, putting it all out on paper, that scares the hell out of me.

    Hugs back.

  6. Zoe,

    That’s odd about your fear of writing and not speaking. I’m just the opposite. I can hide behind my words and I’m terrified of public speaking or performing, even though I’ve forced myself to do it in the past.

    As for offending someone, the world is full of people that take offense at the drop of a hat. I figure if they are offended they can take themselves off elsewhere. Writing is first and foremost for ourselves not anyone else. We blog it because perhaps we think someone, somewhere might find it helpful or amusing to know that there are others in the same boat or out on the same limb. 🙂 My struggles, I hope, mirror others and what I learn from others has been invaluable. Writing for yourself and yourself alone is the key.

    It sounds as if you have a fear also of spitting things out in less than perfect form, but if we all waited to do that, nothing would get done or written. All good writers write no matter what. Julia Cameron’s concept of Morning Pages found in her book The Artist’s Way, helped me immensely because it ordered me to write three pages every morning no matter what it was or how bad I thought it was. That’s why I started blogging. Everyone else was putting ‘shit’ out there, why couldn’t I?

    I found that writing perpetuates writing and even though I go through my hibernating spells, I always end up writing because I can’t help it. It just comes out, all imperfect and full of crap (notice all the shit metaphors 🙂 )

    Anyway, you have a place here to throw your crap out there and not even be responsible for it. I will! Have you thought of audio podcasts? That might be right up your alley.


  7. Thanks MOI. Yes, I noticed the crap metaphors. 😆

    Audio podcasts? Nice idea. Who knows. Maybe one day.

    Julia’s book was helpful to me when I first started blogging. Perhaps I need to get it out and be inspired again.

    Perfect form? Could be, as my blogging is just me sitting down and writing at random or spontaneously. It’s likely that I think my writing is rather lazy and I suppose I don’t think it’s good enough. 😳

    • Zoe,

      I do have a potty mouth don’t I? And you are as good as any of us who purport to write. Don’t let anyone tell you different even those little imps on your shoulders!

  8. This is very true.
    I’m slowly getting back into song writing, and I would like to do some other kind of writing, if I could only find my subject. It’s all too easy to use our imperfections, or perceived imperfections, as an excuse to do nothing.

    Tom Paxton said: “Don’t get it right, get it writ”.

    While a major incentive for me to improve my environment is to give myself less excuses for non-creativity, I have to face the uncomfortable fact that many have produced their best work under adverse circumstances. How many bands and super-stars, once they’ve got the dream studio set up in their vast house, produce their best album? It seems we don’t always want what we think we want in this area. Gardeners seem to do really brutal things to their shrubs to persuade them to flower.

    And now, just before I hurl myself into the white heat of the creative furnace, I have to see to the laundry.


  9. Reg,

    Good point. Adversity does seem to promote the need to write all those pent-up emotions. In college my mentor commented on one students inability to write anything unless drunk or high. She says, “Why is it artists think these are prerequisites for creativity?” And I said, “Probably because it sometimes works.” She looked at me a little dubiously, being the high energy, highly productive and sober person that she is, but it’s true that some need to think themselves into position to write. I’ve often lit a cigarette, gotten my glass of wine, and drunkenly written as if I was Virginia Woolf or something. Like good sex, setting the mood goes a long way sometimes.

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