[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?
Keri 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.