The Lady of Shalott is the quintessential female artist. At least, she has been for me.
As represented in Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott sits in her tower and “weaves by night and day /A magic web.” She is also heard singing — two distinct artistic endeavors. My undergrad professor explained that Tennyson refashioned the Lady from previous representations, adding these details to transform her into an artist.
What kind seemed unimportant to me: the arts of singing and of weaving on a loom could just as easily have been substituted, in my opinion, for a writer weaving a web of words.
What was important was that she was a female artist, alone with her art.
Virginia Woolf famously wrote that in order to write fiction, a woman needed money and a room of one’s own. That was in 1929, and a lot has changed since then. Many women have since had the advantage of a room of her own.
Me, for instance.
Within my office, I write from my desk. My bookcases line three walls, and I’ve posted a quote by Walter Benjamin on the outside of my shut door: “Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.” I try to practice this as I write from my room of one’s own.
I write on this dark morning in my office-library, and look out my window at a layer of fresh snow on the hedge and fence separating our place from our backyard neighbour’s, outlines I more imagine than properly discern in the pre-dawn light.
The view from my window is very unlike that of the Lady of Shalott’s who saw the Arthurian world outside her window as reflections through her mirror, which she then reproduced as she wove them into her art on her loom.
I get distracted with the view reguarly. We still haven’t put curtains up, and as my desk is directly in front of the window, I both see and inevitably am seen over the hedge and fence shared by neighbours who have vertical blinds on their windows.
I think of another, previous room of one’s own, my “tower” in my third floor apartment (which I so-named, though it wasn’t a tower proper at all) which I wrote in several years ago, a place I mentioned in Against Retrospection and Change. I sat in that front room and wrote with the world beyond me, below me. I kept a small print of Waterhouse’s painting of the Lady of Shalott fastened to my wall.
I think about this as I sit now in my office.
My professor’s interpretation of Tennyson’s poem (which I’d memorized after having watched Anne of Green Gables as a child and looking it up) put it into my head that in order to be a successful woman writer, I needed to be a solitary woman with a place to write. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I referred to my previous writing space as my “tower,” not unlike the Lady’s artistic studio.
Madeleine L’Engle likewise refers to her writing space as a “tower” in A Circle of Quiet: The Crosswicks Journal, a room which is over the garage at her Crosswicks home. It once had been used for chickens before they cleaned it out upon purchasing it. “It was almost fifteen years before we were able to turn it into my study,” L’Engle writes, “and it was supposed to be Absolutely Private. Nobody was allowed up without special invitation. The children called it he Ivory Tower, and it is still called the Tower, though it is neither ivory nor private, nor, in fact, tower.” The summer in which she was writing this book, she explains that her tower has been commandeered by her future son-in law as he needed a place to write his doctoral thesis. It evidently was only a room of her own sometimes.
Annie Dillard writes, “The study affords ample room for one. One who is supposed to be writing books.” She write about two of her writing spaces in The Writing Life: her pine shed on Cape Cod, and the small study room in a university library on the second floor where she used to write. She eventually had to lower the blinds to not be distracted by the ever-intriguing view of a campus parking lot. (She sketched it instead and pasted this on the blinds and would look at this whenever she “wanted a sense of the world.”)
“Appealing workplaces are to be avoided,” she wrote. “One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” In the margin of my copy of The Writing Life, I’ve carefully penciled beside this, “I don’t agree.” But whether this was in principle or reality, I do not know. (Perhaps I still wanted room with a view.)
Anne Morrow Lindbherg, as she details in Gift from the Sea, had her writing space which she was renting for a few days of vacation, which she describes this way: “Here I live in a bare sea-shell of a cottage. No heat, no telephone, no plumbing to speak of, no hot water, a two-burner oil stove, no gadgets to go wrong. No rugs. There were some, but I rolled them up the first day. . . . No curtains. I do not need them for privacy; the pines around my house are enough protection.” This description of the bare cottage both reminds me of and goes against Dillard’s adages of having a small space in which to write, and not having a room with a view.
I recall having read years ago, in her Selected Journals or one of the many memoirs written about her, that when L.M. Montgomery was teaching in her native Prince Edward Island in a one-room schoolhouse, she would wake up early at wherever she happened to be boarding, and write in an icy house for an hour before trudging off to her day job as schoolmarm. And then later, married and living in Ontario as a famous writer, she would steal away to write for a couple of hours each day. She recalled her two little boys putting their fingers under her shut door, sending flowers and love notes and other signs of affection, though I do not know where I once read this.
It occurs to me that there are several examples of women writers who have a room of one’s own, and some even with a view. But it is “with a view” that has caused me to realize that these rooms are not the isolated spaces that perhaps we’d like to view them. We can never completely escape from the world.
Rather, each room has its context: the Lady of Shalott’s was mythical; Viriginia Woolf’s was perhaps still imaginary; Madeleine L’Engle’s had once been a chicken coop; Annie Dillard’s had shut out the real world; Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s had only been lent to her for her vacation; and L.M. Montgomery’s were temporary before marriage, and afterwards, had been infiltrated by the outside world literally pushing in under the door.
Is it ever possible for a woman to have a room of one’s own?
I’ve had my own tower room, yes, and currently have the office-library from which I presently write. These have been privileged places. But they, too, are surrounded by the contexts of responsibility, of limited time, and of limited energy.
As I think of my own writing, I concede that I cannot really concentrate to write unless I am sitting at my desk. I think this probably has less to do with the fact that it’s in a “room of my own,” and more to do with the fact that I’ve so strongly associated writing with this room, that it’s now become a cue for my brain, like the way the routine of reading stories, brushing teeth, and singing songs can cue a baby to prepare for sleep.
Of course, I have written in many settings (why else would I bring some paper and a pen to almost anywhere I go?). But for the serious, sustained writing, I often feel I need my office — my space that’s reserved for a certain kind of work.
It is more than the considerations of physical space that we think of when we talk about a room of one’s own. It’s as much an emotional or psychological space as any.
There are many more questions to answer than I’ve asked, and even more answers that need to be pondered. I’ve only posed a few, and have tentatively answered even fewer.
Having a room of one’s own cannot be the answer to it all: rather, it gives a space, if only for a while in scraps of time, for us to write a few lines.
Question: How do you navigate the need for solitude to write, while living in the context of your surroundings?
Oh my, Heather! I love this post so much. Just my kind of read. I recently finished A Room of One’s Own by Woolf, so this is appropriate. I was just talking to an inspirational fiction author on Saturday and she is an extrovert and works best in busy cafes or coffee shops! I was like, WHAT?! 🙂 I’m definitely one who needs quiet, more of an extroverted introvert here. However, I’m finding that if I wait for that, I’ll never write. My lifestyle is EXTREMELY noisy. I always feel like the Grinch and the Whos down in Whoville. 😉 “The noise, NOISE, NOISE.” Ha. I do occasionally ask my husband to take the children or more likely I go somewhere by myself. In the winter, that’s harder, because we live VERY remote and the icy, snowy weather in Wisconsin is difficult. Soooooo. I’m trying to write in little snatches of the dark, early morning, or lock my door to my “garret” (my daughter named my desk corner in my bedroom that and said I was Jo March), or in whatever moment I can grab. I just need to KEEP at it. Otherwise, I wait, and nothing happens. 🙂 I love the poem (yes, originally introduced by Anne here too!) and painting by Waterhouse? and I must say you look beautiful next to it. (Hopefully, that wasn’t weird to say. :P) Love all that you said about the different authors and their little writing spots. I got to see many of the Lucy Maud spaces and sat under the actual apple tree she wrote under when visiting PEI, which meant so much to me! Anyway, blathering. You’ve inspired me here! Amy
Thank you! – so glad you enjoyed this discussion, Amy! That’s so interesting about your recent conversation with your extrovert fiction writer and her need to write in the busy and noise! I had not considered that aspect at all when I was writing this post! (perhaps because I am also an introvert and, in an ideal world, work best in quiet and calm). It’s so interesting to me that perhaps everyone has a different version of what her ideal “room of one’s own” looks (and sounds) like.
You make an excellent point about not “waiting” for the quiet in order to write. It’s not about finding the perfect situation and time, but making do with what we have — or perhaps even creating the time and / or space — and taking advantage of it. I love that you have your own “garret” – *Little Women* is a favourite of mine!
Thanks for your compliment about the photograph! It was taken at the Tate Britain when I was on a study abroad, and has a bit of a funny story to go with it. The morning we were scheduled to see the painting (a long awaited event!), I woke up at the youth hostel, showered, and then could not find my hair brush! The group was going to leave, so I took my hair and wound it up into a bun and hoped for the best! After all these years, I finally saw the original painting in its home, and wasn’t going to leave without a photo of me in front of it (unbrushed hair and all) and on the spur of the moment, decided to mirror the Lady, which required taking down my hair: it miraculously fell into those perfect ringlets, and my friend snapped the photo. 🙂
I love what you wrote about visiting the places in which L.M. Montgomery wrote. There’s something about approaching the places where favourite writers actually did their writing that’s difficult to describe. But it’s inspiring, and I’ve experienced this too.
Thanks so much for your comment!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’m glad you breached this topic. This is something I have thought about a lot.
The first image I recalled was of the practise rooms at the Univeristy of Ottawa. The cubicles are as large glass door refrigerators, with imperfect soundproofing. They were so difficult to practise in. There was never true privacy. I felt constantly pulled away from honest focused creativity and the examination and remedying of vulnerabilities in my own playing by the temptation to attempt to appear at a proficiency and quality of studiousness I had not truly yet attained. I felt the weight of expectations and memory of past bodies in the dented metal walls and the quiet buzz of the fluorescent lights. At once I had no room for my insecurities to be handled in gentleness, and insodoing succumbed to them in unsolicited quasi-performances or extended stupors of thought.
Thankfully, it was not always like this. There was a mental game. I would draw my bow across a G, down and up and down again in a seamless loop, perhaps for five minutes, noticing and release tensions and inconsistencies, in a ritual of centering myself within my own expressive voice, creating a blank page from which to compose. The reverberation would catch me up; I would feel resonant, comfortable, and capable. From G, I would move to other notes, techniques building into melodies, and I would lose and find myself in the monotony of perfecting of measure, or the bourgeoning cry of a phrase.
Writing from home as a mother has had its share of interesting space challenges as well. It is no surprise to me that almost all of the poems I have written in the last two years have been composed during and related to the night; the night has often been my space, as my children are omnipresent, and their sleep affords the greatest certainty in my space. That said, while my most effective writing has been while they sleep, I have been able to write at times while minding them, though some of my writing energy has needed to be diverted to maintaining my sense of space, typically on a communicative level versus a physical one.
I like to add elements of inspiration to my space that are predictable and do not interrupt my creative process. For example, when I have felt to listen to music as I write, I have enjoyed music created with meditative intent, such as shamanic drumming, or minimalist work. I use music to add a focal point to my sense of space, even if I do not have walls to define it.
Overall, I would say that the elements that are necessary for me in my creative spaces are these: sense of boundaries, whether physical or otherwise; an inviting or inspiring quality, whether as simple as a good pen or as developed as a dedicated space with personalized aesthetics; freedom from the imposition of incongruent emotions, whether of my own creation or that of others; finally, a predictable blank slate, where the variations in physical, auditory, and tactile stimuli particularly are such that they do not draw my attention.
LikeLiked by 1 person
What a poignant image of the practice rooms! I had not considered a creative space from the perspective of being seen (or heard) from the outside. I wonder what it would feel like to try to write if I knew there was someone reading all the words of my drafts as I went along! I would imagine it would bring a whole different set of challenges, as you’ve so aptly described with your experience. It also raises some interesting questions about practice versus performance and what we expect from ourselves and others in either of those cases.
I really like your idea of creating the “blank slate,” formerly in the practice rooms and currently writing at home. And I’m so glad you took this discussion beyond the physical creative space! It has to do with the environment, as you illustrate with the examples of perhaps playing minimalist music or maintaining your “sense of space.”
I particularly like your list of necessary elements for a creative space. And about having a good pen, I hear you! 🙂
I’m going to think more about the idea of practice versus performance, as well as the necessary elements that are non-physical in a creative space. They’re both intriguing ideas. Thanks for your engaging comment!
LikeLiked by 1 person
The writing place…”it gives a space, if only for a while in scraps of time, for us to write a few lines”.
Fascinating topic Heather.
I too have conjectured about the space in which one writes. Sometimes the space is really defined by necessity and sometimes, if fortunate, by idealism. Your “Tower” sounds like idealism, and your current location probably by a combination of both.
For me, in my experiences with “serious sustained writing”, I have had need for that physical place. In one situation, It needed to be a place to dedicate to writing. It was a small dining nook just off a tiny kitchen in a small one-bedroom apartment. The desk was a plain, hollow cedar door sustained at desk height by three construction spruce 2x4s cut to form two support squares joined by two four foot supports. My chair was a white resin plastic job rescued from a nearby dumpster. A pillow or two made it quite comfortable for long stints at the keyboard. I equipped the room with nearly all the resources I needed to do the job – write a dissertation.
It took a while to get to the psychological place where the room and the desk “cued the writing”, but I got there somewhere between transribing interviews and writing them into a “case record” and writing, the research summary. Those were the boring parts, but they allowed me to find “the place of mind” to write the the fun stuff like the challenging Introduction. After a slow beginning, as you suggested, that small room became “My Tower”, and set the wheels in motion just about every time I sat down in that space, Heaven knows, I sat there for a long time, each time.
My room did have its own context, with its piles of books, keyboard, computer and printer, but the real context was in my head. That context allowed me to know exactly where I had left off after a session and where I needed to begin again when I continued. When I got “stuck”, it was that context that rescued me. Sometimes, when stuck, I would take a break and go somewhere else, but that context stayed with me. Actually, it was like a pleasant haunting because it never left me. Even after I had completed the task, for months it stayed with me like a familiar spectre. It did fade eventually, and as much as I, when in the middle of the process, wanted to be done with it, I missed that friendly haunting.
The question of solitude being necessary when writing intrigues me. I suppose people will write where and when they can when they have to do so. If that where is in a crowded space or a noisy place, I believe that the writer will find his own solitude in the concentration of the act of serious, sustained writing. You simply “go there” in your mind and everything else gets shut out. Barring any type of jarring noice or abrupt interruption, you can stay there for an extended period of time, until worn out by the energy of that sustained concentration, you simply can’t go on because you have to eat and sleep. I have a recollection of tossing and turning in bed in a struggle with how to express a specific idea. I got up at about 2:00 am, and went an sat in the room. I began to write and the solution to the problem of expression seemed to evolve itself into a solution as I worked. The next time I looked up, it was 12:00 noon and I was starving. I looked up because I had solved that problem and completed that piece. What a sense of mystery and satisfaction!
Finding that “writing place”, I think, only begins with the “room”, “the tower” or the “garret”. Often, it can set your context or your mood, but the real writing place is perhaps found in the magic of Lewis’ wardrobe that takes you back to that place in your mind where you find ease and comfort in the concentration of writing.
My thoughts today, UJ
Hi UJ! I’m so glad you were able to relate to this!
I loved reading the image of your dissertation desk: a door on its side! Although it sounds like your writing space may have fit more under the category of “necessary” rather than “ideal” (but maybe not!), I thought it sounded like just the kind of space one would want to write a dissertation in. Thanks for including all of those vivid details to let us see it ourselves!
I appreciated also what you wrote about the context of the mind . . . that that is perhaps more important than the physical space(s) in which we write. I know that when I’m in the habit of writing regularly, my mind can almost cue itself to be thinking of what I’m writing when I’m away from my desk, doing something completely different, and not necessarily even trying to think of my writing specifically. It’s a neat thing when that happens. You put it into words beautifully.
And I really like the progression you pointed out: from having the “writing place,” to the “place in your mind,” something you can take with you wherever you go. I love that idea! It’s empowering: even if we don’t have the physical space, or “ideal” situation, we can always write, always have the context in our minds to go there.
Thanks for your insightful comment!