The day we moved into our Texas apartment, one of the first things I noticed was the oversized walk-in closet in the back corner of our bedroom. It was massive as far as closets go, and we already had two normal-sized closets on one wall. (We have more closet space than we have kitchen space.) Within minutes of walking into our unit for the first time I said (half-jokingly), Hey, this closet can be your office, B. J.
And so it was. B. J. put up additional Ikea bookshelves, moved in a desk, and also set up our Aero Garden, all in a 5 foot-by-5 foot space. Although the temperature is a little hard to control, and it sometimes smells like sleeping dog, this make-shift office was one of the best blessings to come out of our move.
I don’t have an office. I have the whole living room. And sometimes the kitchen. Mostly the couch. Although I have to share my space in the evenings when we eat dinner together (on said couch), this space is primarily my own. It’s marked by traces of my personality: colors, mementos, and books all point to who spends the most time here. I recognize that as time goes on and our family grows (beyond just dogs), I’ll have to find another space just for me; but, for now, this room of my own is wonderful.
If it’s not already obvious, I’ve been reading (in my fleeting spare time) Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, a (very) popular account of the state of women and fiction at the beginning of the twentieth-century. I’m always juggling novels for class, so Woolf’s creative (and moving) non-fiction is exactly what my reading appetite craves. If you’ve never read Woolf before, this particular book is actually a full length essay — an adaptation of two papers that Woolf presented in the late 20s. The thesis is fairly simple (“a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”), but Woolf explains that coming to that conclusion requires an even deeper examination of the “true nature” of women and fiction in general. The first time I read this short book, I’m sure I didn’t understand a whit of it, though I felt pretty sharp reading it.
I could never forget her fictional account of Judith Shakespeare, William’s gifted sister whose talent could never materialize amidst sixteenth-century social conditions for women. Woolf’s point in describing Judith’s inevitable artistic failure is to illustrate that when there is no room to oneself, there can never be space for creative energy. Judith couldn’t create because she lacked the space to do it; and, the community necessary to affirm her creativity was perpetually absent. Judith had so much to give, but no one was interested in receiving. For Woolf here, part of re-humanizing women in a less-than-gracious society was attached to recognizing their inherent need for creative, personalized space. Judith scribbles out verses in a hayloft, but then burns the pages about as quickly as she writes them; with no place to store up the work that she’s done, what’s the use in keeping it?
If I didn’t have my own space, I think I’d crumble. And I’m not alone. From what I’ve read, one of the biggest pitfalls that accompanies homemaking or home-managing is neglecting the space that’s left all to yourself — forgetting that the time spent in “a room of one’s own” (literally or metaphorically) is vital. I’m terrified of losing sight of this as I get older. Even now, I get up early so that the demands of the day can’t infringe on my space; if that time spent in “my room” is lost for whatever reason, the day feels a little less significant, maybe even lost. I feel cheated of my tiny space reserved for “creating,” whether it’s writing in my journal or drawing castles in the air.
In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf claims that a sense of indifference is a crucial component of art. She praises Jane Austen as an example, who wrote her novels “without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.” Although I don’t necessarily think that “art” requires indifference to social conditions or cultural influences in order to be “good”, I agree that creativity tends to flow much more effectively when it is able to distance itself from powerful feelings like hostility or enthusiasm. The “room of one’s own” is the physical starting place for that emotional distance.
Here’s one of my favorite Woolf quotes about the Bard (not his unfortunate sister…):
…the mind of an artist, in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire the work that is in him, must be incandescent, like Shakespeare’s mind, I conjectured … There must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed … All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry flows from him free and unimpeded. (Woolf 56-57)
I don’t think Woolf is arguing that we write from our own problem-free island, but I think you could read this passage as a call to cultivate vision that isn’t blurred by pain, angst, or excitement. I don’t want to forget Woolf’s rhetorical context, though. This isn’t about a life philosophy; it’s about writing. Regardless, the connection between mental clarity and “a room of one’s own” as a means toward fostering creativity is certainly valid, and I feel this might give us all the more reason to advocate alone time. It doesn’t just build us up; it’s a creative force, too.
I bet my husband would say the same thing about his closet.