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.

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