A room of one’s own is good, but what a writer truly needs is uninterrupted time to create.
Virginia Woolf wrote that to be a successful writer, a woman must have an independent income and a room of her own. As a young writer, I understood the income part, but the room of one’s own seemed puzzling and a little out of date. As a middle-class American, I’d always had a room of my own. Growing up, my bedroom was as small as some closets, but it was all mine, and nobody ever prevented me from going there. (In fact, I was sent there on a regular basis.) In addition to a bed and a dresser, I had a little desk and a bookshelf: everything an aspiring writer needed.
Many adult writers not only have rooms of their own, but entire apartments, even entire houses. So what is the big deal about having a room of one’s own?
Now that I’m older, with a family and a schedule and constant interruptions, I have new appreciation for having a room of one’s own. Now I understand it wasn’t the physical room Woolf was referring to, but what the room represented. Having a space to call your own and arrange any way you want is good, but what’s more important is having a quiet place and the uninterrupted time to actually have two thoughts in a row.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called it “flow,” that magical state of working at creative capacity when the rest of the world falls away and the artist is truly one with the work. It’s not something that can be turned on and turned off. Research has shown that it takes ten to twenty minutes of work to achieve this happy status, and every interruption resets the start time.
I have children. They need things. When they were little, they needed many, many things. But even as near-adults, they need answers to questions and help finding lost keys. Don’t get me wrong. My family and my writing are the two biggest blessings in my life and I wouldn’t trade being a stay-at-home writer for anything in the world. But it’s hard to get into flow when the stream of your thoughts is getting splashed into every few minutes. There are days that it’s better to write elsewhere.
Some people look down their noses at writers in coffee shops. “How pretentious,” they say, “showing off by writing in public.” They wonder why anyone would try to write in such a crowded place, where the espresso machine is hissing at top volume and the music is loud and everyone is talking. Obviously, those writers aren’t producing anything except hot air for their own inflated egos, right? John Scalzi even wrote an entire book on the subject, telling new writers that they weren’t fooling anyone by writing in coffee shops.
However, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Scalzi. It’s not about trying to fool anyone. It’s about trying to write a whole paragraph without hearing, “Have you seen my sneakers?” or “Can you get toothpaste next time you’re out?” Going to the coffee shop or the library or the study lounge gives writers what having a room at home does not give them. It gives them uninterrupted time to work.
More importantly, it gives them the right to claim that time. Perhaps multi-published writers whose words pay for the family’s groceries have no problem telling everyone in the household to shut up and leave them alone. But no writer I know has that same luxury, especially no one who is a parent. Sometimes, we have to go where nobody knows us, even if it’s noisy and the tables are small and the chairs are uncomfortable and there aren’t enough outlets.
We need to seek out that room of our own, even if that room isn’t ours at all.