Please Don’t Interrupt Us

“This is it!” I said to my husband. New to Atlanta, we were househunting back in the days when people actually drove around to look at houses. Who knew how many we had seen? There were of course the “impossibles” and the “unaffordables.” But the “maybe’s” were merging into an indistinguishable blur.

My Own Room (Photo: Ann Temkin)

My Own Room (Photo: Ann Temkin)

In the case of this particular house, the first and second floors were “fine.” But when we climbed to the third floor, I knew immediately that our search was over. The refinished attic was about 21×15 feet with slanted ceiling. That was already good. But the wall that faced me, with double windows flanked on both sides by built-in bookcases and window seats, called out to me right away. There I was, high up in the trees with books! A perfect sanctuary in the midst of urban excitement and turmoil. High above the trucks and leaf blowers there was quiet. The climb up two flights of stairs made it inaccessible to those with casual needs.

Twenty-five years later it is still my sanctuary and the place where I write, meditate, bring others seeking time and space for reflection. The rest of the house has suited our needs well. But it is this room that always lets me know I never want to move. Still, I feel a little guilty, because even now it feels like such a luxury! Growing up, I knew my father’s study was his sanctuary and I was never to touch anything or enter without permission. But my mother had no such room.

Virginia Woolf's writing-shed in sunshine, Monk's House, Rodmell jpegntprints.com

Virginia Woolf’s writing-shed in sunshine, Monk’s House, Rodmell (jpegntprints.com)

Almost ninety years ago, in October 1928, Virginia Woolf delivered a lecture at Newnham College in Cambridge, England entitled “A Room of One’s Own.” The women who heard her passionate cry that day were still not allowed to graduate from university, and only those with very wealthy parents might have a room of their own.  Woolf proclaimed that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” She was radical. And she had not only a room but a “shed” that her husband had built in their garden at Monk’s House, their country home.

Jane Austen, celebrated by Virginia Woolf in her famous lecture, did not have her own room. She wrote in the family sitting room of Chawton Cottage. Her “desk” was right by the front door, and it was not a desk but a tiny table – the kind used today for a vase or small sculpture.  Her mother and sister sat sewing   and, we can assume, conversing in the same room, and a squeaky door hinge heralded the arrival of guests or family members. The annoying noise was welcomed by Jane, who did not want the hinge fixed since it alerted her to the approach of a family member or guest. She could then to push the tiny pieces of paper on which she wrote under the blotter, move to sit near her mother and sister and pick up her sewing.

Jane Austen's writing desk, Chawton

Jane Austen’s writing desk, Chawton

In Austen’s day at least eighty percent of British women were working class, mostly servants of wealthy families, some working on farms or factories. Married women in those pre-birth control days had many children, and cooking and housework were not made easy by modern gadgets. How could they find time to write? They certainly would not have a quiet space to call their own.

Today, defined work weeks, time saving technology, cleaning agents and the like make work less exhausting. Birth control has made an enormous difference in family size, and many women choose neither marriage nor children. On the other hand many women are single parents, grandparents are raising grandchildren, music and other noises pervade the air, cell phones make us available twenty-four/ seven, and children have endless activities requiring parental involvement and transportation. And aren’t women still expected to be available to answer every question, respond to every event in the lives of a family member?

One extraordinary woman of our time is Toni Morrison. A celebrated contemporary author, Morrison was a single parent of two sons, held a full time position as editor at Random House and university teaching responsibilities. She wrote very early in the morning or very late at night. Whether she had her own space or simply worked while everyone else had left the common areas I do not know. She certainly did not have a life that was either quiet or inaccessible to the interruptions and needs of colleagues, students, children.

I wonder how many women now have a room of their own. Google gives information on any topic, right? Googling everything I could think of – women and home offices, women and space in home and on and on – I found virtually nothing. There were lots of articles about when to give a child a room of his or her own. There were articles about the need for man caves. The only information I could find about women’s offices advertised home decorating, and often those spoke of “portable office” that can be moved from room to room or offices for husband and wife.

The Elephant House, one of the cafes in Edinburgh where J.K.Rowling wrote the first Harry potter book. (lifetonic.co.uk)

The Elephant House, one of the cafes in Edinburgh where J.K.Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book. (lifetonic.co.uk)

I began to think about my friends. There are those who live alone and so obviously have their own space. But the others? Most seemed to have a small desk in a corner of a common room. One writer did tell me that she rearranged her house and turned her son’s game room into a space for herself. (He already had a bedroom.) Another said she had never had a room while the children were growing up – although they did. My interest in this has grown daily. Now I have a question on Facebook. It’s new, but the only response so far is from a woman who says she uses one corner of the couch. I hope to hear from more women.

Question for the Reader: Do you have a room of your own? For writing or whatever? Do you have any space where you can have quiet? Any place that’s not accessible to the world?

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15 thoughts on “Please Don’t Interrupt Us

  1. Over the last year I’ve read about the luxurious writing spaces both Barbara Brown Taylor (Leaving Church) and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) had built for their new homes. I wonder where they wrote before they acquired the money Woolf tells us is necessary for a room of their own.

    • Great question Chris. I may email Barbara Brown Taylor and maybe even Elizabeth Gilbert and ask them. i’m really interested in the question of women/space/creativity.

  2. I have been a freelance writer for many years and a writer of fiction for the last five or so. I started with a desk and a typewriter in the master bedroom with my husband, then a desk in a guest room. Eventually, we moved the bed out of the guest room and it became my office — my husband put in built-in book shelves on one wall and I have two desks, a CD player and files and supplies in the closet. I love it. It’s my space. I agree with Virginia — every woman needs space to call her own, and especially if you’re a writer.

    • I love your progression Laura! And yes, I totally agree, every woman needs space to call her own, not only writers. And yet space usually means money and some basic stability. It makes me sad to think of all the potential, all the wisdom and experience that never reaches us because of the conditions in which so many women in the world must live – and many men too.

  3. I too have a room of my own, where I can write and do my freelance editing. It’s a far cry from the days when I worked in our dining room, and I’m very lucky to have a place where I can retreat and get things done. There are still distractions, of course, but of a different kind, and if I’m strong-willed enough I can ignore them more easily than when I worked in the midst of a busy household with two growing kids and their friends racketing around me. I very much miss the racket, but I also welcome the silence!

    • Here’s to silence Kate! I don’t know how you managed to write on the dining room table in the midst of all that activity. I admire you – and am glad you have your own space now.

  4. I am used to a Home “of my own”, small- still all my own. Soon I will be sharing a home and will have a room of my own. Own Space , not unique to woman. Modern human nature.

  5. Fun post. My third floor office is also inspired by Va Woolf’s lecture and book, also formerly a child’s bedroom, also divinely tucked between attic eaves. It is filled with books, has four desks, and a bird’s eye view of the backyard and woods behind it. I call it the Aerie (eagle’s nest) and thought it was so original, until I learned that Jane Yolen had written most of her books in her upstairs “Aerie” long before I ever dreamed up the name. Still, I like knowing Jane Yolen and I had similar creative moments of Zen in the naming of our offices, albeit at different times.

    • Deb, your space sounds absolutely fantastic! You talk about having four desks. I’m interested – do you use all of them? and if so, what different uses do they have?

      • Haha! Pretty decadent, I know, but I use them all almost every day. Old fashioned roll-top that holds all my stuff, stays messy, and where I pay bills. A small simple 2’x3′ desk-like table-top(no drawers) by the windows, where I work with computer and notebook on more creative writing projects, and which stays uncluttered because I can’t leave The Aerie at day’s end if I haven’t cleared it. Tall round bistro table where I stand to write when I need a change of position, or when the going gets tough. And an adjustable rolling hospital bed-tray that fits over a chaise lounge when I REALLY want to get comfortable. Most of my serious writing gets accomplished at the 2×3 table. The chaise with rolling desktop is mostly for reading and note-taking, and dare I admit it, facebooking. And of course almost nobody goes up there but me.

  6. Living alone, I have my own quiet space, although it doubles as my guest room (sofa bed as opposed to regular one) that I give up only for several days at a time. It would be nice to have an “Aerie” such as you have Deb, but then I’d probably want to be out in the woods instead of at the computer. Although, I admit I’ve dreamed of having a tree house studio, but it’s just a dream.

      • Love love LOVE the new tiny house movement. I don’t think I could actually live in one comfortably (too much stuff), but as an office in the woods….that would be a dream come true.

  7. I do have a space of my own for writing. It is not picturesque, quaint, or pretty, but it works for me. Surrounded by stacks of books, papers, favorite mementos, and photographs, I find my muse quite readily. It does have to double as the grandchildren’s sleeping quarters when they visit, and the little girls take it over for their pretend schoolroom whenever they are here, but that just lends more charm as I look at their job charts, menus, and teacher-y notes. I especially love it when they leave me little surprise notes – sometimes not found until several days after they have departed. I am smiling now as I look around and feel blessed to have a “room of my own.”

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