“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
The first room of my own was a small upstairs room with a sloping roof in the Victorian-style O’Neill Literary House at Washington College. When I would sit at the rickety wooden desk, the room would shift and creak and settle, like a ship out at sea. These rooms were set aside for seniors working on a manuscript (often creative, but occasionally academic), so they could have a separate space on campus in which to do the hard work of writing. Though I had a dorm room with no roommate by that time, it was a wonder to have a completely separate space in which to write. I wrote badly but often, and the product was a terribly overwrought first novel that I still love for all of its flaws (but will probably never allow to see the light of day ever again).
Once I graduated, I moved in with my then-boyfriend and still-best friend to a small two-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring, MD. There, my desk was in the bedroom I shared with my boyfriend, so whenever I wanted to write, I hung a sign on the door letting him know that he shouldn’t enter. (Interrupting a writer is like waking from a dream; trying to re-enter the dream is difficult and sometimes impossible.) At this point, I hadn’t really learned to shut out all exterior noises and movements, and so I was continually frustrated by my circumstances.
It wasn’t until I moved back to the little town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where I grew up that I truly found a room of my own. When my new boyfriend (now my fiancé) and I moved in to our two-bedroom townhouse, we designated the second bedroom, upstairs, as a computer room. However, it was summer, and the air conditioning didn’t work very well upstairs (it still doesn’t), and he is a rather large, hirsute man, so he decided to keep his desk downstairs.
I put up my framed pictures and placed the books on my bookcase, and in just a few short days, the room transformed from the computer room to my office. I could walk upstairs, shut the door, and be completely and utterly alone. My desk was in front of a large window that overlooked a parking lot, a row of squat, red brick townhouses, and a cluster of trees that changed with the seasons. It was in this room that I began the serious process of writing fiction again and finally started to produce writing I could actually tolerate.
Just the other day, my fiancé mentioned possibly moving his desk upstairs someday.
“Oh no,” I said, “It’s far too hot upstairs, and anyway, I think it looks nice down here.”
He looked at me knowingly but acquiesced: By this point, it was a room all of my own.
In a long-distance relationship, someone is always going to be displaced. This summer, it’s me, and the displacement shows: My fiancé, a man of impressive patience, has endured me informing him since I got back into town that, among other things, he needs to make his bed, clean his bathroom, put dirty dishes in the dishwasher (not the sink), wash his windows, separate his laundry by color and by fabric, go grocery shopping with a list, vacuum, sweep the stairs, mow the lawn, and not leave nails or errant wood scraps on the patio floor. And, Rule Number One: Under absolutely no circumstances whatsoever is he to put things on my writing desk. Even standing near my writing desk or breathing in its general direction is suspect.
What can I say? I know it’s over-the-top, my obsession with this rickety card table that he hauled up from the basement for me and its accoutrements (Kleenex box, tea pot, writing book, basket of literary journals and pens, jar of animal crackers). But I can’t help it. I am completely out of my element, living in someone else’s house and with none of my furniture, pots and pans, books, or DVDs. It’s disorienting, and I need something that’s completely mine and completely ruled by me.
I don’t think James can help his confusion over my strange writing table behavior, either. Back in Illinois, when he comes to visit, my writing table is multi-function. Normally the oval conversation table my dad found at a tag sale and sanded and stained for me is covered with mismatched bits of poem drafts, whatever issue of Poetry or Arts & Letters I’ve been recently leafing through, pens, pencils, random sticky notes to flag favorite pages of Elizabeth Bishop‘s North and South, and tea cups with a ring of tea still in them — but whenever James comes to visit, I clean most of this off, washing the tea cups, limiting my books and writing journal to a small pile, creating just enough space for the two of us to eat dinner together. And while I don’t like it when he puts his car keys or wallet or loose change on my table, I’ve mostly quietly transferred these things to other spaces, like the green box where I keep keys, wallets, and loose change.
Several days ago, here at his place, I woke up in the morning and found two packets of hot pepper seeds on my table, smack dab on top of Kay Ryan’s Elephant Rocks. I was livid, but luckily I calmed down enough to ask him about it later.
“Where you in the upstairs room the other day?” I asked. I was probably making dinner, trying to sound casual as I stirred the tomato risotto.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I went in there to water the plants.”
With this, I took a few deep breaths. This wonderful, loving, good man had the forethought to water my plants in the room he had put together for me, placing the table near the window so I could look out over the hydrangea. And yet I was so irritated it was going to take all my strength not to lecture him on the etiquette of living with a poet.
“Did you put something on the table?” I looked at him, still stirring.
He smiled. “Pepper seeds.”
“I see.” At this point, I probably pointed the spoon at him. Hopefully it didn’t look too much like a weapon. “Could you, you know, maybe not do that again?”
James has been subjected before to my list of how-to-interact-with-a-writer rules. Mostly this means that I get up in the morning and stumble off to tea and my journal, and that when he gets up he is forbidden from talking to me unless I talk to him. Also forbidden is hovering or general loudness. Needless to say that our relationship, as well as my general mood, have improved since I moved my daily writing from his kitchen table to the card table in the spare room.
After work the other day he came in while I was finishing up some work; while talking, he placed a stack of Pepco bills on my writing table, just where the hot pepper seeds had been a few days before. I stared at them for an unnaturally long time, hoping he’d get the point.
Ever since college, where I write has been a sacred place for me — the place where I feel most myself, the place where I am not a graduate student or a teacher or the future Mrs. Vorhies, but just me. It’s the place in which I feel God’s presence easily, the place a sort contented communion washes over me, that this I what I am meant to do, to get up every day, make tea, read poetry, and write what I can. Some days that writing comes easily; most days it doesn’t.
A time zone away from home, I’m clinging to my writing table. Newly engaged, away from Illinois and my friends, immersed in a study of the 18th century that’s alternately tedious and invigorating, it’s this rickety, round little table that keeps me centered and reminds me that I am much the same as I ever was and will be.
Years from now, in some other house, at some other table, someone will wander into my office and leave a juice box or squeezy toy or more bills on my writing table, right on top of Louis Simpson or Mary Karr or Stanley Plumly.
I will be livid. Incredibly livid. But happy.