A Room of One’s Own, Revisited: How Important Is Solitude to a Writer?
Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Leaving aside the question of what a woman writes—fiction or nonfiction, prose or poetry, journalism or pithy blog posts, just how important is it to have a room of one’s own?
In researching the writing lives of twelve classic women authors for my book, The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, I was often struck by the universality of the issues and struggles all writers experience. Finding quiet time to write and a modicum of privacy was as great a challenge for a nineteenth-century woman, especially those with children, as it is for today’s writing women.
Woolf wasn’t the first to express the need for a private space. Harriet Beecher Stowe, best known for the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, neatly foreshadowed Woolf’s words in a letter she wrote to her husband, “If I am to write, I must have a room to myself, which shall be my room.” Stowe was the mother of seven children (three of whom she lost, one as a toddler and the other two in young adulthood). Yet she needed to augment the family’s income, which came from writing anything she could get paid for, all the while being responsible for all the household duties.
“All last winter,” Stowe continued, “I felt the need of some place were I could go and be quiet and satisfied.” Still, time apart from her children in pursuit of writing made her feel guilty: “Our children are just coming to the age when everything depends on my efforts … Can I lawfully divide my attention by literary efforts?” While Stowe’s husband was little no help with the home or children, he encouraged his wife’s literary efforts, which in the end, paid off handsomely, not only in terms of financial success, but with the seismic shift in public opinion on slavery caused by the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. From her letters, it was clear that when it came to privacy and quiet time, Stowe muddled though, just like most of us, snatching bits of tranquillity as best she could.
You needn’t have a passel of kids running around at home to feel pressed for time and privacy to write. L.M. Montgomery, best known for the Anne of Green Gables series, struggled with this issue even before she had her two sons. As a young working girl in 1910, she wrote in her journal, “I have had a hard time trying to arrange for enough spare minutes to do some writing.” First she tried to do so in the evenings, alone in her room after a day’s work of writing copy in a newsroom: “Well, I tried it. I couldn’t string two marketable ideas together.”
Next she tried getting up at six in the morning to try to write before going to work, but found that she “could not do good work in a chilly room on an empty stomach.” Musing on a solution to her dilemma, she continued, “Now it used to be at home that I thought undisturbed solitude was necessary that the fire of genius might burn. I must be alone and the room must be quiet. It would have been the last thing to enter my imagination that I could ever write anything at all, much less anything of value, in a newspaper office, with … people coming and going and conversing, telephones ringing and machines thumping and dragging overhead.”
Yet the hubbub of the news office seemed most conducive to young Maud Montgomery, snatching a bit of time here and there between calls and deadlines: “Every morning I write and not bad stuff either.” Who among us can’t related to Montgomery’s longing for “enough spare minutes to do some writing,” especially if it’s writing that isn’t compelled to be finished by some real-world deadline? And along with those spare minutes, some sweet solitude. But wait—let’s rethink the latter. Might finding the time and place to write be easier if total solitude isn’t necessarily the ideal to aspire to? What if, like in Montgomery’s case, a bit of hubbub is more conducive to getting work done?
Now that my kids are grown and I can actually attain that perfect, rapt silence I so longed for once upon a time, ironically, I find I get more work done (and enjoy it more) when I work with my writing partner, a novelist. We work together in a café with just the right amount of background noise and just enough strong coffee. We keep one another focused, and the pleasant din precludes the isolated sense of being completely in your own head when alone in “a room of one’s own.” This might be why writing centers and specially designated spaces in public libraries are proliferating. In these places, writers come not to discuss work, but to actually do work, in a sort of grown-up version of parallel play.
It’s a tricky balance each writer needs to find for herself. Whether in sequestered silence, working in a café or library, with writing friends or scribbling strangers, each of us needs to experiment, like Maud Montgomery did, to find what formula best and most efficiently to help words flow, in the precious moments snatched away from daily busyness and obligations.
— by Nava Atlas, author of The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life