Monday, November 10, 2008

Finding a room of one's own

In Sleeping with One Eye Open: Women Writers and the Art of Survival (which I’ve been mining for my blog of quotes about female artists), Judith Ortez Cofer talks about the evening writing class she led with a group of working class Latinas. The women's first assignment was to create their own version of “A Room of One’s Own” in their crowded houses and lives. The women say it is impossible—they have no time or space. Yet they all manage to return to the next week’s class with reports of having cleared tables and corners of their homes to make space for their writing—except for one woman, a single mother, whose children in their cramped apartment had gotten into every space she tried to set aside for herself. So she made a portable “room” via a small notebook, which fit into the back pocket of her jeans.

I think this is a universal difficulty for female writers (or maybe all writers), no matter what race or class. I, too, have carried around a portable room of my own with a series of small notebooks I’ve kept in my pocketbook over the years, in which I’ve jotted down ideas and dreams when I’ve had a few moments of time. In fact, most of the introduction to the Interview with Kim Kupperman for this blog was written in a dining booth at Chuckie Cheese, on a long-promised pilgrimage with my daughter this summer.

When I worked nearly full-time and had a toddler son, the room of my own was the subway ride I took each morning from Maryland to D.C.—if I was lucky enough to get a seat. In a series of spiral notebooks I carried with me, I scribbled ideas for the little magazine I published at the time or, sometimes, the first few paragraphs of short stories, many of which never fully materialized.

Now that my children are back in school, I sometimes have whole mornings free when I could be writing fiction or blog posts. Yet many mornings pass just as this morning has—after exercising and eating breakfast, answering three phone calls, starting two loads of laundry, loading the dishwasher, and writing several necessary and unnecessary emails, it's 12:30 and I've written nothing expressive until this minute...but I'm hungry and craving lunch, and need to start another load of laundry.

So, a room of one's own is not just physical space but time or, rather, well-defined/set-aside time. Taking time away from the everyday demands of life to write can be guilt-inducing for women—or, at least, for this woman, especially writing that is done for the pure joy of setting down words to see what thoughts will come out, like this moment, without worry about market or publication.

Maybe it's not just a gender thing, but a class thing. After I had my first baby, a female relative so much as said that I should give up the nonsense of publishing a little magazine. The magazine wasn't making money, obviously, and was taking time away from free moments when I could have been mopping the floor or washing the dishes. From her perspective, it was unproductive (not producing money or otherwise contributing to the household) and therefore a waste of time.

This class-ism, if that's what it is, plays out in multiple and subtle ways. Give me a deadline, or assign me a topic, and I'm good to go; I am "working," not just piddling around. Offer me money to write about something or edit what someone else has written, and that project goes to the top of the list, even if it's not due right away or it means that I won't finish something I've already been writing on my own.

Whether I want to be or not, I may always be working class; when I write I am working against an ingrained notion that writing is idle time. Maybe that is why I find "serious" writing so exhausting. All those drafts and rewrites, "for what?" a little voice inside asks. "To perhaps appear in a literary journal not many read? And for no money? Why waste the time?" To continue on, the creative voice must also be an arguing voice; often, I'm afraid, creativity gets lost in the argument.

I need to build a room where such thoughts are made small, where there is no guilt in dawdling with words. My room, I realize, must first be constructed in my own head before I can find it anywhere else in the world.

1 comment:

C.M. Mayo said...

Terrific post, thanks.