A few hours ago I turned 38. I’ll be blunt. As I tear another page from my life’s calendar, I know exactly what I would like for my birthday. Forget silk ties, Over The Hill coffee mugs, and gift certificates to Sears. I would like five hundred a year and a room of my own.
Perhaps that needs some explanation. In 1929, British novelist Virginia Woolf wrote a now famous extended personal essay, “A Room of One’s Own.” In my opinion, it is one of the greatest pieces of the period: complex, layered, a beautifully crafted thought experiment with revolutionary cultural value. The essay—written ostensibly as a lecture to women about “Women and Fiction”—argues that:
“it is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry.”
I agree, and I would like both.
Now, I probably should give a couple of qualifications. First, by “five hundred a year” I don’t mean 500£. That’s not nearly enough. In the late 20s, labourers in England made about 100£ a year, and lower civil servants made about 200£. So I would like “five hundred a year” according to the standards of 1920s Britain, but translated into today’s economy.
Actually, doing the math, I don’t even need that much. I’d be content with “two hundred and a room of one’s own.” Yeah. 200. Bingley had 4000 a year. Darcy had 10,000. I just need 200. Pretty generous of me, I think.
Also, astute readers will know that “you” in this sentence is early 20th century women, not 21st century birthday boys. Woolf is writing about women, and reflecting on their personal place within public space—their “rooms,” if you will. She would have argued, perhaps, that men in 1929 could write successfully with a lower income and in just about any room they happened to occupy at the moment. All spaces were the domain of men, all economies were male. All rooms were men’s rooms, in that sense.
Although I’m not Woolf’s primary reader, I still would like two hundred and a room of my own. It is costly to maintain poverty, and so much of my writing and studying time goes into trying to generate income. If I had a patron or an inheritance that I could depend on, I really could spend so much of my time devoted to the craft.
And a room of my own. Seriously. Right now my office is a dark corner of the basement, squeezed between the woodstove and the bathroom. It doesn’t even fit half of my books. I do have a view. If I crane my neck I can see outside the window to the apartment building next door, where the guy often forgets his keys and squeezes into the bathroom window, inevitably falling into the bathtub head first and swearing loudly. So that’s the view.
But it isn’t just the darkness. It’s also the lack of space and the lack of privacy. My tinyoffice space is shared family space. There is no door to close, and my family life consistently bleeds into my creative life.
So: two hundred and a room with a lock. And a better view, if possible.
Now, as I put this birthday wish out to the universe, it would only be fair if I looked at things from the other angle for a moment. It is true that poverty is exhausting. My financial life is like my Volkswagen Golf in college: there are too many miles on its young motor and it is held together with duct tape and telephone wire. Poverty pushes me to the point of desperation at times.
But, if we are thinking about Virginia Woolf’s point—you can’t write without this much money and that much space—I have to be honest. In the struggle of the last few years I’ve written about 40 magazine and journal articles, a hundred or so reviews, a couple of hundred blogs, and 6 novels. In this period I have written a Middle Grade novel that has gone through two edits and beta readers. In six weeks Hildamay Humphrey’s Incredibly Boring Life will have its final edit and will be sent to publishers. Then, I have a High Fantasy novel to edit, and right after that a philosophical narrative. While I certainly have weaknesses in my work, I would be hard pressed to say that my financial situation made it impossible to write.
Even my office, such as it is, has a lot of benefits. I have a great desk, I can light a fire to stay warm, and—essential on coffee-fuelled writing marathons—there is a bathroom nearby. More than anything, the leaky nature of an office without a door lets me connect with my family more often. My son can sit and read in the oversized chair as I work. The activity of the house moves around me. I am still in my world as I shape other worlds.
On second thought, if I was asked whether I would replace anything I’ve done in the last five years, I would have to say “no.” What I’ve written—what I actually like, anyway—has emerged authentically from my context. If there is a patron or patroness reading this who would like to sponsor my next stage—pay my tuition or launch my next novel—I wouldn’t say no. But only because I have developed so much as a writer squeezed in the weekdays between paycheque and mortgage payment.
This birthday wish has kind of fallen apart, hasn’t it!
Well, now, I should be careful. I can always look forward to what is ahead. When I ease into the luxury of space and time that will come from this birthday wish—the inevitable rush of offers by sponsors and patrons that will come in the next few days—imagine what I can actually accomplish! If I have been this productive squeezing the spare minutes out of full days, I can only imagine what a life dedicated to the task will be like.
I guess it’s just a matter of waiting now.