A room of her own: the writing space
I’m crouched on my couch, thinking about writing desks, searching for photos of writing desks, when I could be, am supposed to be, really should be writing. Writing is such a holistic thing, isn’t it? For me, anyway, writing is more than the mechanics of keys and pens and paper, the tactile instruments we use to get words from our brains into the air, onto the media that get them into other brains. Just writing out that process is exhausting and alchemic. Writing is an exercise in imagination, in repetitive motion, in stamina. In making the body and mind work together to create something that means something, or that doesn’t, but sounds beautiful anyway.
Writing is a science, an art, an exercise and a sport. It’s not much of anything, and everything all at once.
I had a teacher in college who emphasized the importance of space.
“Carve out your particular space,” he said. “Having a place to write is as important as having a place to sleep. It creates muscle memory, so your brain will know what to do there.”
Like insomniacs are told not to do anything but sleep in bed, he told us writers to use our writing spots for that and only that. It was to be our haven and at times, our prison. It didn’t have to be a desk, per se. Just a spot to write, a spot where the words can pool like water and trickle out. Or in many cases, stop up behind a plugged creative faucet in starts and stops and gushes.
I’ve never forgotten that advice, through several permutations of writing spots, places, niches. At college, it was my desk, because that school provided us with great, sprawling places where papers and pens and post-it notes could wander across it and be scooped up at the end of the semester, a montage of a semester’s worth of thoughts.
In those days, I still burned my notes at the end of each class. Fascinated by the ceremony.
At an artist’s residency I undertook at the Vermont Studio Center last winter, my studio became the most inspiring and frustrating place in Vermont, for a time. I kept on that desk all of my tools and superstitions laid out to use me as they would. Stones I’d gathered from the ground at Goddard College, where I’d earned my MFA the January before; a pair of crystals I’d bought at a shop halfway through my journey that were intended to facilitate creativity and bloodflow to the brain; a sunflower seed from the Tate Modern, where I’d quit a master’s in creative writing at the University of East London two years before that, for both very personal and very obvious reasons. And a picture of Stonewall Jackson’s grave, an homage to a college writing group called The Arm, that reminded me of where I came from and what I was working toward.
That studio saw me finish my book and accept my first publishing contract, but not before it listened to countless rants and mutters, not before I papered it in indecision, threw pages at its walls in fury and stared out the window at the creek as it froze and thawed, in comforting concert with my own waxing, waning insecurities.
Now, I’m back in the city that bore me, in a new apartment with 1920s bones that creak in the wind, plastered-over walls I’ve pasted with maps that remind me where we’ve been, vestiges of my significant other’s tech writing job, a rack of my clothes that reminds me of a stock-straight skeleton, a sock monkey on the bed and a hollowed-out grenade next to pictures of our families.
It expands and contracts as I breathe myself into it, trying to imprint on the place like a baby bird that’s still not sure where it’s nest is. But it doesn’t have a writing space, not yet.
Virginia Woolf often wrote on the importance of finding a space to write, not only a physical spot, but the mental and social facility, as well. In her extended essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” she says, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
I would take it further, Virginia. A woman needs a room of her own if she is to write anything, because only if we feel comfortable enough to let our minds out of their cages (an idea she also addresses in that same essay), we need somewhere we believe they can safely run free.
My significant other writes for utility. He’s good at it; can wield a phrase as powerful as any, persuade people to buy things and use things and be things before they know it’s happening. He’s an expert at structure, form, execution. When I watch him at his desk, he looks like a commander of some powerful ship, tapping instructions into a computer screen that spaceships would consider small. His papers, his pens, the detritus of a life built on words, pepper its surface with his own talismen, and I see him when I look at it empty, too.
That’s a writing space, I think. A place where a person’s words whisper even when their bodies are absent; a place that’s both ethereal and concrete, with the things and moments that make a writing life waiting for use, by us and for us and within us.
My significant other will tell me I’m overthinking it. As I squat on the couch or at the kitchen table, feeling like a visitor in the realm of words. And I’ll nod an agreement, because I am. Because I’m a creature of rumination, of probing questions and improbable explanations. I’m a caricature of myself, with exaggerations made of words. Looking for a place to spill their viscera that will leave the right amount of mess.