You do not need a room of your own
A pep talk for writer's block.
I cannot tell you how many hours I have spent googling and simply thinking about writing sheds.
You know them, those cute wooden outhouses with big windows, maybe painted a misty sage green, and inside is a desk and a swivel chair and a boho rug. The walls are dotted with mismatched frames and post-it notes. A cup of coffee breathes soft steam on the desk’s top.
Virginia Woolf, all her faults and flaws aside, is one of my favourite writers, but I must admit that I think her essay, A Room of One’s Own, has done me some irreparable damage.
Broadly, Woolf’s infamous essay looks at how societal expectations and misogyny stifle women’s creativity and creative prospects. In essence, the argument of her essay boils down to this one line:
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
I can still remember the seminar when we studied A Room of One’s Own. I did an English degree, something I look back on with some regret. I would love to go back and study that degree again with all the knowledge and emotional maturity I have now, but at the time there was never any question whether I’d study English at university or not. English had always firmly been my subject, but English at university is a whole other kettle of fish. You’re unceremoniously thrown into the deep end, and if you’re already struggling to tread water, weighed down by all those social expectations that come with your late teens, your young brain not quite ready to navigate the adulthood you’ve found yourself thrust into, an educational environment where you’re suddenly forced to think for yourself after years of regurgitating textbooks can be overwhelming.
So, for my third year I picked a course on Virginia Woolf on a whim. I had studied Modernist literature in second year, believing I probably liked modernism, and had read Mrs Dalloway as a result. I found Virginia Woolf herself fascinating, so once more struggling to decide for myself what I’d like to study, I settled on studying Woolf.
I think the idea of having ‘a room of one’s own’ to write in particularly appealed to a space-starved university student. I was living in one tiny, rented, messy room that was definitely not my own, with a desk I couldn’t really work at because it was dominated by a hamster cage (a necessary sacrifice). I certainly couldn’t work in the shared living room because there had been a falling out amongst housemates. I couldn’t work in any of the university libraries either as that meant actually getting out of bed and trying to look presentable, along with looking like I was meant to be there as a budding academic, all things that are hard to do when you’re depressed. I was left with my bed, where I would inevitably always end up falling asleep.
The idea of having a room to myself to work in appealed. Because of course, the reason I was no longer writing creatively or even really writing for university was all down to the fact that I did not have a cosy little room to write in, with a big desk and a plush armchair and shelves crammed with books. The vibes in my rented room were decidedly off.
Then I graduated and moved back home. I still wasn’t really writing. I had written ferociously for years whilst practically stitched into my favourite sofa in the living room, but now it just wasn’t the same.
I wrote a little on my own sofa when I moved out of home for good and in with my now fiancé, but the flat we shared was mouldy and the temperature was either set at Arctic or Mordor. Vibes still decidedly off.
Then we were lucky enough to buy our house. We went from a grim one-bed flat to a brand-new three-bed house, with the idea of turning the box room into a home office. Finally, I could pick an adult desk, put up some artwork to set the right ambience. I imagined squirrelling myself away, finally in a room of my own, curated for the sole purpose of nurturing my creativity.
You know where this is going. I don’t think I have once written in our “home office”. Why? Well, there are many reasons I tell myself. The main excuse my brain usually conjures is that I don’t want to write all alone upstairs, despite the fact that I get annoyed if I’m interrupted when writing downstairs. I also tell myself the desk chair isn’t that comfy, even though my back starts to hurt when working on the sofa anyway. The ambience is also still definitely not right in the room (hence those inverted commas) for a myriad reasons, the main ones being that both Mark and I are terrible at DIY and, very selfishly and pathetically, the desk in there doesn’t feel like “mine” because Mark works from there in the daytime, being the one with a job that requires far more Zoom calls and presentations.
I have the two things Woolf said I would need to write fiction, money and a room of my own, and still it’s not enough.
The problem is not money and space, but mentality
Of course, you cannot accuse a struggling writer without money or shelter of laziness, but you could possibly accuse a struggling writer with both those things of something akin to laziness.
I say “akin” because I don’t believe laziness exists. I think laziness is always the outward manifestation of an internal feeling or state like fear, depression or fatigue. The reason I am still struggling to write is not because of a lack of money or space or inherent laziness, it is because of fear. I lack the conviction, the basic self-belief, required to write.
Not all the time, of course - I’m writing now and the words are flowing - but I mean doing the kind of writing I always imagined myself doing. That is, writing fiction.
I know for a fact that if someone gifted me that dream writing shed tomorrow, I would go in there, shut the door, and spend the afternoon spinning in my chair or scrolling on my phone. I might write this newsletter, but I would not write fiction. The thought of working on my novel fills me with feelings of inadequacy and dread. What if it’s rubbish? And what if I can never publish it? In short, I am afraid of putting in the hard work only to see my childhood dreams dashed.
I know what you’re thinking: but if you don’t try at all, then you’ll definitely never see your writing published! You’re right, but fear isn’t rational.
I’ve read a lot of interviews with authors over the years, many of whom have had a writing room of their own and strict rituals, and equally many who have written in any medium in any scrap of time they could steal. The one thing all these writers have in common is the drive to write, to create, to tell a story. You do not need a room of your own to do that. You do not need a desk and you do not need a lot of money.
Right now I’m writing this on my laptop on my parents’ sofa - my least favourite of their two sofas, in fact. The song playing right this moment is Inordinary by Hayley Williams. Sometimes, I argue with myself that I can’t listen to songs with words whilst writing as the words distract me. Sometimes, even instrumental music is too much, and it’s silence I require. But then the silence is stifling, and I sit there wishing for the perfect conditions so I could just write. Except those perfect conditions do not exist. The conditions I am currently writing in would certainly be imperfect to some iterations of past-me. For other me’s, and for other people too, they would be nothing short of perfect. All that matters is I’ve met the one condition needed to write - the desire to do so, inner or outer critics be damned.
I am trying to unlearn the notion, then, that a woman needs money and a room of one’s own to write fiction. She needs the education and the freedom that Woolf argues for of course, all those basic conditions for living a good life, but when, like me, she has those, what she really needs is simply her own will. If you have everything you need to live a comfortable-enough life, then you have everything you need to write. You just need to show up for yourself.
I would love to hear your thoughts on motivation and the conditions necessary to write, so please do comment if you have something to say.
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You can also see my previous posts on perfectionism, climate anxiety and self-trust by clicking the button below.