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 was 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 which 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.