Monday, May 15, 2006

A Room Of One's Own

Author Virginia Woolf believed that a woman needs money and a room of her own if she’s going to write fiction. Her central thesis was that every woman novelist needs a space to call her own where she can engage in uninterrupted writing time. Something male writers of that day (and probably still do) enjoyed without question. While suggesting that women’s art suffered due to a lack of space, Woolf used the room as a symbol for more complex problems -- such as women’s need for leisure time and financial independence, if their writing was to ever be taken seriously—which I’m not even going to try to tackle in a blog.

I just want to talk about the room. I’ve always written. At least since I picked up a #2 pencil and a Big Chief tablet when I was seven years old. I've written anywhere and everywhere – sitting up in an old apple tree, on the beach, on car trips, first with my parents, then later with my husband. I've written in my son’s pediatrician’s office, at his basketball and choir practices, at airport gates, on planes, sitting on a sidewalk waiting for the Fiesta Bowl parade to begin, in the woods on camping trips, and, before I had an actual office, most often at the kitchen table, which meant, of course, I’d have to clean everything off the table whenever anyone wanted to eat.

It wasn’t until I decided to become serious about becoming published in book length fiction that I actually claimed a room as my own. It was an extra bedroom being used as a storage room. At ten by ten feet, it was the smallest room in the house, but by the time I cleared out all the boxes, painted the walls a soft sky blue, and bought myself a pretty cherry French Provincial desk, that cramped little room was suddenly transformed into a refuge, a place where I could tell my stories in peace and quiet. (Relative peace, anyway. Once school let out for the day, I’d be writing with the booming sound of adolescent boys blasting away at video game aliens on the other side of the wall. )

I’ve had three more offices since that first small room. And they’ve gotten progressively larger. When I moved into this house, I was thrilled with my spacious four-hundred square feet, the vaulted ceiling, which is edged with bright white double-crown molding and soars up 13 feet, along with large windows on three sides of the room. Since the room's on the second floor, I look down on gardens or directly into the canopy of leafy green trees, which gives me a feeling of writing in a park. Continuing the outdoor nature theme, two walls are grayish-sea blue, two are a soft sea green, a compromise I came up with after struggling for weeks to choose between the two paint chips. Framed counted cross stitch and needlepoint -- created to look like Impressionist paintings -- hang on the wall, along with a framed poster of Irish cottages and Celtic wood carvings my sweetie made for me. At six feet, my desk is larger than that first desk -- although way smaller than Sue Grafton’s twenty-four foot (!) desk -- but somehow, during the course of writing a book, it still ends up covered with mountains of research texts, magazines, mail, and different colored ms. drafts. I am firmly convinced that the amount of clutter that accumulates is in direct proportion to the amount of flat surface I have in my office and by the end of a book those piles have spread to the floor around my chair.

My matching credenza manages to stay somewhat neater; while the space behind the closed doors is jammed with boxes of paper, except for a couple book posters and a stack of covers, the top is mostly my lucky baseball shrine, with, among other things, a model of Yankee Stadium; my autographed Mickey Mantle baseball, which was a birthday present from my husband years ago; a mug from Mickey Mantles in NYC, and my Yankee Barbie (wearing her pinstripe uniform, complete with warm-up jacket, mitt, and tiny Louisville Slugger), who, because of an unfortunate difference in scale, towers over the House that Ruth Built like a very stylish Godzilla about to attack Tokyo.

Because I can't edit in the same place I write, I have a pretty flowered couch on the far side of the room, but it's mostly where my dogs sleep. Heaven forbid they’d ever have to sleep on the floor, like, well. . . dogs!

I've been very happy in this bright and airy room, but then a few weeks ago, pal Cindy Gerard sent me photos of her new writer digs, and I immediately came down with a serious case of office envy. Her walls are a soothing moss green, there’s a white fireplace (which I suspect she needs more in Iowa than I do in Tennessee), and leafy green plants, which, if they’re actually real are even more impressive. She has a loveseat with gorgeous pillows (which even come with a live cat lounging atop one of them) and a pretty rug, which her dog appears to have claimed.

The room is so neat that if I didn’t like Cindy so much, I’d have to hate her, but the most enviable thing about her office is that it looks so cozy. Just the type of place a muse would love to come visit. And better yet, even stay awhile, perhaps sharing a pot of tea while telling you all sorts of fabulous secret plot twists for your story you hadn’t begun to think of. In fact, the room looks like it should be photographed for a magazine. Did I mention that if I didn’t really, really like Cindy, I’d hate her?

The pictures got me thinking about other writers’ offices. Which segued into the idea that all women, not just writers, need a room to call their own. A private room (with a lock on the door!) that’s a sanctuary. A place where a woman can do whatever she wants -- write, read, dream, play free cell and spider solitaire, and yes, do absolutely nothing, if that's her choice.

So, if Virginia Woolf’s spirit suddenly appeared and could, with a flick of her wrist, create your own personal dream room for you, what would it look like? And what items would be “must haves?”


Pam Payne said...

Any chance we can talk Cindy into posting pictures of her office? I'm always looking for inspirational office photos to show the dh in an effort to get him to understand how badly I need a space of my own. I currently share part of the enclosed back porch with 2 dogs, 60 gallon jugs of water, and stuff no one can figure out what to do with.

My dream office sounds pretty much like JoAnn's, except I'd opt for rose colored walls with bright white trim and light oak floors, a U-shaped desk, and the pictures on the walls would be water scenes. I'd have a large fountain in one corner so I could listen to running water, and green plants would fill the other corners. A set of French doors would open out onto a large deck where I'd have a lounge chair and a picnic table so I could write outside on pretty days.

If I'm really going to dream, beyond that deck would be a vast lake with sailboats and speed boats passing by.

Did I mention that I love the water?

Great post, JoAnn. But we need pics! :)

JoAnn Ross said...

Pam -- Actually, I have the light oak floors, with beveled planks. And no one's seeing pics until I get this book turned in. Right now it sorta looks like the inside of a goat's stomach. LOL Which is partly why I so lusted after Cindy's ever so neat one!

60 gals of water? Actually that will probably come in handy during your TX summers. And yes, I think it'd be cool to have a lake outside the window, too. But only with sailboats. We were considering a water house here and noticed that depending on where you live, you can get a lot of noise. (Especially if people are using those obnoxious jet skis that sound like gigantic leaf blowers!)

And I'm definitely with you about writing outside. My old laptops were easier for that. I even used to write on camping trips, but the newer screens don't seem to work in sunlight as well. I do like to sit out on my deck -- which has a waterproof green awning, like the ones at restaurants and look out over my wooded gardens. (Which can get noisy when my dogs chase squirrels.) And in the distance, I can see the Great Smoky Mts, which is cool. They're usually blue, but at dusk they tend to turn a really pretty pink.

Nancy Morse said...

Years ago (too many to count) when I started writing, I set up my typewriter on the kitchen table. Then my husband built a desk for me in a corner of the den. But it felt cramped and not private enough. When we moved to FL, I got my own room. An actual room with four walls and a door that I could close. My husband built an L-shaped desk that holds my computer, printer, scanner, copy machine, fax & file trays, with cabinet space beneath, and a big bookshelf on the wall. The walls are a calming shade of blue with cream-colored trim. I have a couch where I can sit and think and a window that looks out onto palm trees and green grass. It's wonderful to have this space that's all mine, and while it's as close to my dream office as I'm going to get, I can't honestly say that I write any more or any better than I did at the kitchen table.

Allison Brennan said...

Yes, I am jealous. Very, very jealous. Sigh.

We're still in the house we bought when we only had two kids. It seemed so huge at the time. Since, we had three more kids and I lost my den (which had a built-in desk and bookshelves on two walls. It wasn't the perfect room (too dark) but it was mine :)

Now I write in the living room. Brighter, and it's functioning okay, and I still have my bookshelves :) but I need my own space.

We're moving next year (we would have moved this summer but having to write three books didn't give me any time to pack up a house of seven, find another house, research schools, etc) and there are two priorities: first, that my older daughters get to have their own room (cut down on the fighting!) and second, I get an office with a DOOR.

I'll take what I can get now, but my dream office would be a library with built-in bookshelves and a ladder that runs the length of one wall so I can get to those books high up (I would LOVE Henry Higgins library in MY FAIR LADY) . . . I need a large desk (for stuff :) and comfy couch or chair for reading. One wall of windows at least. Any view would make me happy . . . a lake, trees, mountains . . . no desert, though. A fireplace would be nice, not required. A built-in bar with a refrigerator and a wine cooler. Vaulted ceilings.

But most important, a door. With a lock :)

gailbarrett said...

I'd like a view. I have a nice enough office now but the only thing I can see is a view of my very ordinary front yard. What I'd really like is a view of the mountains, a river, some fields, etc. I find nature really relaxing.

JoAnn Ross said...

Allison -- Re the door with a lock -- When I first got started in this business, Maggie Osborne's author photo showed her in the bathtub editing. (You have to remember, those were different times. There were also many pics of authors in their hot tubs.)

But I digress. . . anyway, the reason she used that picture was because it represented where she worked. In the tub. Where she could be alone. And where, I presume, she had a lock on the door. ;)

Didn't you say, on my writers' group, that you've been working at Starbucks? How's that working for you? Is it, by being away from your house, like your personal room? I mean, obviously no one at Starbucks is going to suddenly crash a love scene and ask you to referee a fight. Or at least I shouldn't think they would. (And if they did, you'd probably want to be considering changing to a different Starbucks. Which wouldn't be difficult in CA. You'd probably just have to go across the street. LOL)

Nancy Herkness said...

JoAnn, like you I took over a small unused bedroom in the attic of my house when I started writing seriously. Before I sold my first book, I just had a desk in the corner. After I signed that contract, I got rid of the bed and took over the whole space.

I love it up here in what I call my "garret". I have one arched window with a view of treetops and my backyard (if I choose to look down). Because it's up so many flights of stairs I don't need a lock on the door; no one comes up without a really good reason!

The one thing I'd like to add is more shelves. I have one tall bookcase and one low one; both are overflowing. Of course, if I just cleaned out a few things, I might not need more space but you know how that goes...

If anyone wants to see other writers' spaces, go to and click on The Cave. Paige has lots of photos of where writers work (including mine). It's great fun to sneak a peek!

Gail Dayton said...

My current office is pretty much my dream office--though the windows look out into the front & side yards. The only think I'd like would be more book cases--though I got one new one after the new desk & rearranging, and just got two more right outside my door in the living room--all the hardbacks are going in there...

The only other thing I'd like to have would be a door. There are two ways into this room. One has a double louvered door. The other has Nothing. It's just an opening into the den. TV noise comes right in--and the son (just home from college) does not know how to turn it off. We're going to have to have lessons.