A Room of One’s Own

While going through some family papers recently, I came across a news clipping from one of the daily papers in Columbus, Ohio with a handwritten note indicating it had been published in January, 1954. The article was accompanied by a photograph showing a young matron with her four children gathered around, all staring intently at an open book entitled The Blue Chip. The headline was a real grabber: “Son, 4, Reveals Mother’s Secret in Writing Novel.” The son -- in this case, was my younger brother Mark -- was gazing down over my mother’s shoulder at the book in her lap. Confronted by this charming domestic scene, with four children under the age of seven, the reporter naturally wondered how my mother had found the time to write a book. According to the story, my mother was at a loss to explain how she did it. But my brother had a ready answer. “She just goes into her bedroom and locks us all out,” he said.

I do not know whether my mother ever read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, but she was living out its message. The book was based on lectures Woolf had delivered in 1928 at two women's colleges at Cambridge University on the topic of women and fiction. Contemplating the relative paucity of women novelists prior to the 20th century, Woolf claimed to offer an opinion on only one minor point. She declared, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Minor point or not, the means to work and a place to think were precisely what women lacked through much of history. Woolf herself had inherited £500 per year from an aunt, a substantial sum in those days. She also had an obliging husband in Leonard Woolf and relatively few domestic distractions, since the couple had no children of their own.

My mother likewise had inherited money – in this case from her father -- and had an obliging husband who was an executive at an insurance company. More to the point, they were able to hire a housekeeper to look after the kids so my mother could lock herself in her bedroom and write. For Virginia Woolf, a lock on the door was a hard-won freedom promising intellectual independence. But for small children crying outside the door, it was something altogether different. My own children were taught to knock before entering, but they were never locked in or out.

Woolf recognized that many of the challenges facing women writers in her day also applied to men. The world, she wrote,

does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact. Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want. And so the writer, Keats, Flaubert, Carlyle, suffers, especially in the creative years of youth, every form of distraction and discouragement.

The conditions necessary to write apply to both sexes: the means to write and a place to think. Historically, men had the advantage here, but only up to a point. They generally did not have to care for small children. But they were supposed to be the breadwinners. And unless they had a rich aunt, they did not have the luxury of quitting a steady job to find out whether they could support a family with their writing.

Conditions now for writers are seemingly much different than they were in Virginia Woolf’s day. Whereas once it was a feat comparable to climbing Mount Everest for a woman to write a great work, now the chief obstacle, as with the real Everest, is the traffic jams on the slopes during the summer climbing season. Books by either sex are published by the hundreds of thousands every year – so many that they threaten to outnumber readers who can spare the time from writing books to actually read one. With the Internet and social media, it seems that every thought, no matter how inconsequential, is broadcast instantaneously around the globe on every subject.

And yet, for all that, the conditions Virginia Woolf cited for the writing of a great work still apply and, if anything, are more needful than ever: money and a room of one’s own. Money buys you time, and a room gives you a place to think, free from distraction. Thoreau's cabin was remote, even though it was an easy walk into Concord. So was Emily Dickenson's bedroom. In my mother’s day, a lock on her bedroom door was sufficient to keep the world at bay. But no longer. As I sit here in my study with my laptop, I can be reasonably assured no one will disturb me during the day. But the entire world is only a few keystrokes away, and with it every thought, no matter how inconsequential, on every subject imaginable at any hour of the day or night. These can exert a powerful lure, especially when inspiration flags. Or is it that inspiration flags because these distractions exert such a powerful lure? In the end, one condition remains indispensible: to be alone with one’s thoughts.

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