A Room of Her Own – a guest post from Keri Wyatt Kent

[I am so excited to have Keri Wyatt Kent guest posting here today, bringing us this amazing essay on writing and life.]

***

In an oft-quoted lecture on women and fiction, Virginia Woolf remarked that a woman needs a room of her own if she is to write.

Woolf had been asked to lecture on women and fiction. Here’s a bit more of the context:  “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.”

What is meant by “a room of her own” has been discussed countless times since Woolf said them in 1928. It’s obvious she meant much more than a physical space with four walls to contain it. But certainly she was talking about some space, and boundaries to protect it (whether physical or metaphorical).

In the same lecture, Woolf noted that because of her gender, she was barred from walking on the lawn or even entering the library at the university she was visiting, unless accompanied by a man.  Certainly independence and autonomy were part of what Woolf longed for and recommended.

I am a writer by profession, and if you take these requirements literally, I do indeed have both financial resources and a “room of my own.”  The spare bedroom in our house is my office. And I earn my living—modest as it is—by writing.

Women have far greater access to resources than they did in Woolf’s day. And yet, sometimes we think we’re still not allowed in the library. We don’t take what is ours for the taking. We’re also bereft of a resource that is the currency of our day: time.

For today, a woman (and a man, for that matter) needs time and a room of her own to write—and not just physical space, but mental space. She must be brave enough to step away from those who need her in order to do whatever it is she really needs to do. The discipline of solitude has a cost—but also a benefit.

A few years ago, one of my dear writer friends went away from her three kids and husband, to a friend’s cottage in Vermont, where she worked non-stop to meet a book deadline.

At the time, I said, “Good for you!” and sincerely wished her a productive week. But at the back of my heart, a little voice asked, “Why does she get to do that? Why can’t I do that?” I was also finishing a book project at the same time—we had the same deadline, I think. I was also balancing the book deadline with a part-time job and parenting my teens, and getting supper on the table every night. Oh, and also, attending my own little pity party each day.

The story I told myself (to feed my martyr complex) was that I couldn’t get my husband to drive the carpool, let alone send me off to Walden to write in solitude.

Do you ever find yourself asking that question: “Why does she get to ________?” Maybe it’s not about writing but about self-care, or pursuing dreams, or taking a day off, or – you tell me.

But sometimes, when we listen closely enough to the voice of our discontent, the truth crashes in on us. The reason my friend “got to” go away is that she decided she would. She asked for her husband’s (and others’) support, and got it. She chose to do whatever it took to go away to write. And the reason I didn’t “get to” is because I didn’t even bother to ask if I could, or simply say that I would.

So last month, I was invited to speak at a church in California. For one day. I boldly chose to extend my trip there. I longed to escape Chicago’s endless winter, which was slogging on into April. I had a book deadline looming. I needed to finish the book, but also, I realized, I needed to stake out, in so many ways, a room of my own.

“What are you doing out there for a week?” my husband asked. “Writing.” I replied calmly, ignoring his pained expression.

And write I did. After my speaking gig in Aptos, CA, near San Jose, I drove south along U.S. 1, and camped out at a quaint (read: affordable) motel with a tiny room in Pacific Grove, a sleepy beach town on the Monterey Peninsula. I spent four days doing little else besides writing. I would get up, drive to one of the many indie coffee shops (there is no Starbucks here) in this tourist town, plunk down my laptop and a cup of coffee, and write.

By noon, I’d take a break and walk the beach. I’d pray, I’d marvel at the beauty of iceplant in bloom, I’d delight in spying a harbor seal or sea otter in the waves. I basked, after six months of winter, in the spring sunshine. In the afternoon, I’d wander to a different coffee shop, bakery or restaurant, or back to my motel room, and write some more. In the evening, I’d go for a run along the beach, then shower and go to dinner. Yes, by myself.

I had no traveling companion, and was glad of that. I relish solitude, even when I’m on the road. Answering to no one but myself, I could work—which I did for hours on end. I ate if I was hungry. I had no one’s schedule to coordinate but my own.

If I wanted to go out to dinner, I did so. If I wanted to eat carrots and hummus in my motel room instead, I did that. It was the perfect blend of freedom and discipline. I never watched television and I walked the beach every day.

I finished the book I needed to finish. Thousands of words found their way to the page.

But something else happened on this trip. Peace found its way into my soul. The tightness in my chest—that I hadn’t even been conscious of—unclenched.

I gave myself permission to be kind to myself. I shattered the myth that I can’t afford to do things like this: psychologically, I can’t afford not to. And practically, I earned enough on the trip by working to more than cover its financial cost. And realized: not taking this trip would have been much more costly to my emotional well-being.

I realized that the only way to “get to” do things like take your own writing retreat is to do them. I affirmed what I’ve always known—I love traveling alone, I love being a stranger in a small town. Solitude reconnects me with God, with myself, with my true priorities, which get lost in taking care of everyone else.

I finished writing the book, then spent a few days with my daughter and my parents. The whole journey healed my soul in a thousand ways.

This trip was more than just a writing retreat, more than just a method for meeting a deadline. It was a chance to navigate roads I’ve never driven before, to claim for myself a room of my own.

What do you need to do to stake out some space for a room of your own? What does that phrase mean to you?

 ***

KWKKeri Wyatt Kent writes and speaks on slowing down to listen to God, and occasionally tries to follow her own advice. She and her husband Scot have two teenage children and live in Chicago.

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26 Responses to A Room of Her Own – a guest post from Keri Wyatt Kent

  1. Jeannie says:

    I appreciate this post very much; thank you for it. I agree that very often (perhaps women in particular) we feel the need to justify ourselves — both to others and to ourselves — for being kind to ourselves and saying what we need. In one of my favourite books, Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, he says, “Self-care is never a selfish act — it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

  2. Tim says:

    Keri, when you wrote that the only way we get to do things like a writing retreat is to go ahead and do them, it made me think that this applies to so much in our lives. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” is more than a cliche. One sure way to fail to get something done is to never try at all. I am so glad that God wants us to achieve so much that he lives in us to achieve his purposes through us.

    I think that’s what happened with your speaking/writing trip. God achieved much through you.

    Thanks for writing for me here today, Keri.

    Cheers,
    Tim

  3. Thanks for being willing to post my ramblings, Tim. It’s always an honor to visit. And Jeannie, thanks for your comment. Parker Palmer is one of my favorite writers and thinkers–Let Your Life Speak was life-changing for me. I heard him speak at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Learning a few years ago–amazing.

    • Tim says:

      Ramblings? This is one of the most coherent essays on responsibility for one’s own person that I’ve ever read!

      Thanks again for coming along, Keri,
      Tim

    • Jeannie says:

      In 2010? I was there too. I went to his interview and his plenary address. Beautiful person, beautiful writer. And Let Your Life Speak is so special to me because I remember walking through a huge library, casually browsing the 200 (religion) section. This tiny, slender book seemed to call my name. I pulled it out, signed it out, bought a copy, bought a friend a copy, my friend bought about 10 copies for other friends …. So I’m so glad to hear you love it (and him) too! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Finding that “room of my own”…in California | Keri Wyatt Kent

  5. Tim, thanks. I needed that encouraging word today.

  6. Susy Flory says:

    A couple of years ago I did a one-day silent retreat. I was stunned at how many ideas poured out of me that day as I worked on a writing assignment. Also, it’s good to remember that Jesus got away often so he could rest and reconnect with his Energy source. So who are we to think we don’t need to do that, too? Keri, I’m so glad you found some space for yourself at the beach.

  7. l1bryant says:

    Thank you for teaching me once again Keri. I think I was supposed to read your wisdom today.

    • Tim says:

      God’s timing in bringing this post today has touched many people, I’m sure. So glad you are one of those blessed by Keri’s words.

  8. Lesa Engelthaler says:

    GREAT post Keri! Thanks. lovely imagery and I needed to hear this message.

    • Tim says:

      Wasn’t that imagery something, Lesa? Perhaps it’s because I’ve walked that same stretch of shoreline many times, but I could almost see the cliffs and hear the waves and feel the breeze as I read this post.

  9. I was so touched and inspired by Keri’s words and experience that I wrote a post at my blog, with links of course. Here’s the link to my blog post. http://www.cheryl–wright.com/2013/05/claim-room-of-your-own-to-write-keri.html

    • Tim says:

      I just read your post, Cheryl. thank you for such a wonderful encouragement, and for linking it here for us to read.

      Tim

  10. Lesley says:

    Keri, what a beautiful and encouraging post. I took my first writing retreat last fall to work on my book proposal, and while I think that time away is paying off now, I felt incredibly guilty about leaving. I almost canceled the day before I was set to go! I think you’re giving a voice to many women, writers, moms, creators, who need permission for self care.

  11. Wow, thanks all of you for the comments. I had a rough writing day, trying to convince a potential client that I could handle a freelance assignment. Even as I outlined my qualifications, I fought back the dragon of self-doubt at the door. So your feedback is appreciated and needed. Blessings on you all.

  12. Aleah says:

    As a stay at home mom to four under 7yrs it’s difficult enough to have a chair of my own, let alone a whole room.

    “The discipline of solitude has a cost–but also a benefit.”

    I’m feeling encouraged to begin working on a “room” and shifting my focus away from seeing only the cost. Thanks for this!

    • Tim says:

      A chair of your own – great way to put it in perspective, Aleah!

      Tim

      P.S. When I was first appointed to the bench, way back in 1995, they didn’t have a courtroom for me. I had to wait 15 months! In the meantime, I used courtrooms belonging to other judges who had a day off or were on vacation, and I used the Board of Supervisors’ chambers when they weren’t in session. Made for some interesting mornings: “It’s the first Wednesday of the month, so where am I holding court today?”

      • Aleah says:

        Sounds like an interesting game of musical benches! Thankful you found your room, as a NorCal native and being new to this whole blogging scene, I’ve benefited from your work.

  13. wow, nice to meet you Aleah. And yeah, I love California, where all of my extended family has settled.

  14. Tuija says:

    Thanks for this post, Keri! Your writing retreat sounds heavenly to me. I love solitude, too.
    “A room of my own” in the literal sense – I don’t have. I have a table in the corner of our kitchen. For me, at this time of life, it’s the mental space that counts – a time of solitude. I notice that if I don’t get that for a while, my mind starts trying to grab that space no matter what – so I am physically present but mentally absent. I think my child can handle the physical absence a lot better (providing there is someone at hand whom he trusts) than the mental absence and distance, which he can easily interpret as rejection of himself.

    What is needed for that kind of self-care: I guess a big thing is to believe that it really is important enough to take the trouble. And I must let other people know what I need if their cooperation is necessary – can’t assume that they can read my mind 🙂
    And when I take time for writing (or such work), I have to believe that this work is something God has called me to do, i.e. I am responsible before God for getting it done – so I better ask for, negotiate and arrange the time and resources I need to get it done.

    BTW it occurred to me that Jane Austen never had a physical room of her own for the purpose of writing her novels. Apparently she was good at taking the mental space she needed, despite the physical circumstances. (Moreover, based on what I’ve read in her biographies, her family considered her writing important enough to give her the space/time to do it. But would they have done that if she herself had not believed in the work she did?)
    Sorry, looks like I’ve written a very long response. It’s just that your post was so inspiring 🙂

    • Tim says:

      It’s that letting others know our needs that might seem scary, Tuija. I think we psych ourselves out thinking they are going to reject our needs, or deride our priorities, or make their own demands on us. I wonder at this, though. These are our loved ones; why should we assume they won’t support us in pursuing what we consider to be the tasks that God has given us?

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