Thursday, January 13, 2011

With apologies to Virginia Woolf and the room of my own

I feel like I owe Virginia Woolf an apology. In college, when I read her groundbreaking essay “A Room of One’s Own,” I was just taking the very first baby steps into the vague idea of a potential career in writing, but it all made sense to me: the idea that to write, a woman needs a room of her own.

Twenty-five years later, I have that room of my own. But I don’t use it anymore.

My home office is technically our spare bedroom, but it’s set up as both study and guest room, with a single bed, a night table, a beautiful angled glass-topped desk that Rick picked out for me as a birthday present and a comfortable adjustable desk chair. When we first moved here, I was amazed at what a luxury it was to have my very own home office. And when my freelance writing career became more-or-less full-time after I left the corporate sector two and a half years ago, I basked in the luxury of having my very own second-floor room to write in, clean and tidy, its windows looking out into the woods. “It’s just as Virginia Woolf said,” I told myself. “I now have what every woman who wishes to write needs: a room of one’s own.”

So I can’t quite explain why over the past few months I’ve migrated elsewhere to write. Since the kids went back to school, I’ve been working mostly at the kitchen table. The kitchen table – where women with no extra space in their homes at all tend to set up shop when they need to do paperwork! It’s as if I’m breezing past the laundry room to scrub our clothes against a rock in the stream.

But somehow my office started to feel a little bit too…well, austere, to me. It was a place for working, in a formal and compartmentalized way. Whereas in the kitchen, I can refill my coffee as often as I want to. I can heat up lunch while I’m doing a phone interview. When my 12-year-old arrives home from school in the midafternoon, I can make him a snack and oversee his homework. Previously, his arrival home from school meant the end of my work day; once I left my office space, it seemed there was no going back, but now I settle him in with something to eat, he pulls out his homework, and we work companionably together for an hour or so.

Various factors led to my departure from my office. Until last spring, I didn’t own a laptop computer, so there was no choice: I had to work at my desk because that’s where my computer was, and it wasn’t going anywhere. But not long after a friend gave me her hand-me-down ultralight notebook computer, I realized I could take it wherever I wanted to work. At the same time, I discovered that if I were sitting at the kitchen table looking out into the backyard, I could let the dog loll around outside while I was working. She’s trustworthy enough to be out on her own, but I wouldn’t have done that back when I was all the way up on the second floor.

Now, it seems as if I’m getting more enjoyment out of my surroundings. Most days, I write in the kitchen, looking out over the yard, but some days I set up shop in the sunroom and watch the southern exposure of light spreading over the fields that surround our house. Other times I pack up my materials and head up to the public library: I know it makes little sense, but sometimes I concentrate best when surrounded by other people.

Meanwhile, my office sits mostly empty other than the occasional overnight visitor using our guest-room facilities. I feel bad about the magnificent molded-steel-and-glass desk, and I think often about Virginia Woolf’s claim.

But then I remind myself that her “room of one’s own” can be taken on both a literal and metaphorical level. She meant that women who write need a space in which to do it, but also they need privacy, solitude and time to think. With two children who are in school all day and a husband whose office is fifteen miles from home, I have all the privacy and solitude I could possibly want. My “room” is made up of all the elements of my weekdays – the quiet empty house, the lack of appointments and other scheduled events during the workday, the dishwasher and clothes dryer and other myriad automated devices that keep the house running so easily -- not just the four walls of my office.

So it’s good to have a room of one’s own, and it’s good not to need one. With heat and sunlight filling the kitchen, coffee close at hand, and the dog happy to be able to lie outdoors on the warm planks of the patio, I’m content with my new workspace. And I feel certain that Virginia Woolf would understand why.

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