A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf famously wrote that a woman who wished to be a writer needed a room of her own and a sufficient income to be free to do so. (Her essay, born of a series of lectures she gave, asked whether a woman could write works comparable to Shakespeare, but I have to ask if any men have since written works comparable to Shakespeare. Her point stands, though. A woman of sufficient gifts in Shakespeare’s time would not have had the opportunity to develop her talents.)

For a long time I felt ambivalent about Woolf’s assertion. Most writers I know, and know of, have to steal time from all of their other responsibilities of living to write. I know that I do. Yet writing gets done. Woolf would sensibly counter that women of her age, and much more so in Shakespeare’s age, would not have even had the opportunity to steal time for writing. It’s not just for writing that we can be glad our society has changed.

Still, I often wondered just how much difference financial and social independence made for a writer. Then I came upon a revealing anecdote.

It seems that a young woman was working menial jobs in New York and lamented to friends that she could not get her writing done because she didn’t have the unbroken opportunity to concentrate on it properly. One Christmas her friends surprised her with a check in an amount equivalent to what she earned in an entire year. They told her she was now free to write, and so she did. At the end of the year she came forth with a manuscript entitled Go Set a Watchman. After a couple of title changes (and two and half years of work with her editor) the woman’s novel was published: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Of course it isn’t merely the opportunity to write that brings forth works like To Kill a Mockingbird. There has to be a story to tell, and there has to be sufficient talent to tell it well. Nonetheless, I became a believer after hearing this story.

There is a similar story about comedienne Carol Burnett and how she was given sufficient money to travel to New York and begin her singing and acting career. Author Michael Pollan explores this need for a room of one’s own quite literally in his nonfiction book A Place of My Own, which is an account of the construction of his writing cabin. (Pollan has since gone down a tangent in his writing to explore food, and while I’m sure it’s as well written as his earlier works, it doesn’t interest me much.)

I intend to use Woolf’s feminist theme of women lacking the opportunity to cultivate their creativity in my own novel Finnegans Deciphered. I continue to make extensive notes about it, but I want to be sure I’m ready to write it before I steal the time to do so. Means is just as important as motive and opportunity when it comes to writing.

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