“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Virginia Woolf.
In all my 54 years I have never had a room of my own. Until now.
I have wanted one all of my life. But there’s always been something in the way. As a kid I shared a room with my sister, to be honest that was harder on her than it was on me. I was messy, she was tidy and her makeshift room dividers consisted, at various stages of our childhood, of a line of cupboards down the middle of the room or masking tape and if neither was available, an imaginary barrier marked out by herself held in place by threats. None of these methods worked for long. We both felt ripped off.
At 19, I had a daughter on my own and not much money to say the least, so anything extra went into trying to give her as much as I could with what I had. I had an old table for a desk in my bedroom but as anyone who has coveted a room of one’s own will know, it isn’t the same. I was working too hard to think about it much.
A proper room of one’s own is more than an area in a house. It’s an attitude, a decision, a philosophy, a political act. It’s making space and time for yourself, having even the most humble of means to do it, without the relentless pressure of something else or someone else being always more important. It is massive privilege on myriad levels. For many women, this is the story of our lives.
So here I am, 54 years old and for the first time I have created a room of my own. How did that happen after so long? I’ll tell you.
First, I gave up my job last year. It was a great job, and I’m immensely grateful, it just stopped being a great job for me. It took all my time, left nothing for my family or my friends let alone myself, more energy than I had to give and I had done it for so long it didn’t excite me in the same way. I had stopped feeling occasionally afraid in that way you do when you try something new and you don’t know what you’re doing. The kind of afraid that reminds you why you’re alive. Which is not to say I had nothing left to learn, I had just stopped wanting to learn that job at that time. I wanted to learn something new. And when a series of opportunities came along to do that, with a small income, not huge by any means, but enough to mean I wasn’t setting my life on fire when women my age are in the fastest growing demographic for poverty, I took it.
Then I started trying all the new things I did want to have a crack at. Some of which made me very nervous. I gave a keynote speech, took some writing classes, wrote some short stories, submitted them, accepted a part time job, made marmalade, picked my granddaughter up from school and took days off to stroll into Freo on a weekday for breakfast, holding hands with my husband.
Another step was a writing competition I won. Hurrah! It paid just under two-thousand Australian dollars and I bought myself a writing desk. It wasn’t an expensive piece, I bought it from a Swedish chain furniture shop but it was mine and I bought it with money I earned doing something I love for no other reason than I wanted to. My story was inspired by my grandma, Molly, who suffered severe depression and died when I was four. She had no room for herself, even in her own head. In a way I can’t articulate, I felt connected to her through this process.
Slowly I have taken over the spare room, and I’ll note again, a spare room and a room of your own have very little in common. I cleared out the junk, put up pictures I love, arranged the furniture how I like it, placed my desk by the window where the northern light streams in, it’s the only room in the house that gets that glorious sunshine. I bought a cheap day bed and a bright yellow rug. I buy myself flowers (the first hyacinths of winter this week) and arrange them in a vase on my desk. And on Monday I drove north of the river to buy the glorious quirky secondhand bookshelf you can see in the picture. A hundred and fifty bucks and I did not haggle. The fact that my husband looked at me quizzically when I proudly unveiled it because it is not to his taste, only makes me love it more. I love the home we have built together, but I also love having a small place where only my opinion of the furniture counts.
What I have is not just a room in a house with my stuff in. I have taken space for myself. It could be a corner in our bedroom, or a regular trip to the library if needs must and circumstances don’t allow anything else. Even that small shard of freedom is beyond many. The point is it’s deliberate, I can, without apology or explanation, do what I want to do with some of my time. Well mostly without apology or explanation, I am still new to this. Which is not to say being a mother or a wife prevented that, my husband and my daughter are the loves of my life, and would be the first to applaud. Because I have more time in my day for everything I love, it’s been easier to add myself to the list of things I need and want to take care of. And now I’m there, I think it would be really hard to take myself off that list too.
Virginia Woolf in her essay, A Room of One’s Own was making a complex point about women finding their way in a literary space dominated by patriarchy, essentially summed up by that enduring quote above, it’s among the most significant contributions to gender equality in literature. My own particular interpretation here is not an urgent feminist manifesto or anything close but more a quiet realisation and a series of small personal observations I have made in the last year or so.
As it happens, this is the first time in my entire adult life I have have been able to make some big choices based on what I want to do, not what I have to do to get by. The only thing standing in my way now, is myself. I have been interested to see how ingrained old habits can be. And what a difference small changes make. Like buying hyacinths and cheap second hand bookshelves just because I like them. Small things, profound privilege. And a very full heart.