A Room of One’s Own: How I Am Finding My Creative Space

Meghan Hollis
May 24 · 11 min read
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

“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

I love to read, and I love to write. The time I spend lost in a book or lost in my writing is euphoric. There is just one challenge: I don’t have a space that is mine where no one else can bother me — where I can just read and write and think and be. I don’t have a room of my own.

I have moved a lot. I lived in the same house from the time I was born until I was 19, but I have spent the rest of my life leapfrogging from one place to the next, from one state to the next. The house that I grew up in was not a small house, but I have three sisters and we lived with both parents. We did not have much room. I did have my own bedroom growing up though, and that room was my refuge. Then, I got married.

We moved from apartment to apartment and from house to house. We were moving once every 6–12 months. At one point, we separated and I moved back in with my parents. This was about a year after my daughter was born. We worked through that, and I moved back in with my husband (at the time). Then we returned to moving about every 18–24 months — often moving to different states. In all of this time, I never had a space of my own or a room of my own. When my second child was born and my daughter was 3, I went back to college. I had to go online. I had a small space in the living room where I studied and did my homework, but my family was always around. Often, I waited until they were sleeping to read and to study.


“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Throughout my marriage, books stopped being as important to me as they were when I was growing up. I stopped reading as much, I did not have as many books. I didn’t have the space to enjoy reading. I got very depressed.

When we moved to Boston, this pattern continued. Then we separated for the second (and final) time. I moved into a large apartment; he moved out of the country. The kids stayed with my parents until I could get settled. I finally had space of my own for a short period of time.

By this time I was in graduate school and pursuing my Ph.D. Books and writing were a part of my life again, but it was work. It was serious. It was not the fun that reading and writing fiction had been. I started reading fiction again when my dissertation advisor started talking to me about James Joyce one day. This is when I returned to reading fiction regularly.

I found a house and a steady job (or three), and my kids moved back in with me. I got divorced. My kids and I shared the house. I had one room all to myself — a study. But, I never used it. I wanted to be around my kids. I worked at the kitchen table during this period.

I graduated and took a job in another state. We moved again. This house did not have space for me to have a room of my own, but I had a bedroom to myself. Two years later, I met a man, moved across the country, and took another job. I was back in a townhouse and back to not having a room of my own.

I spend much of my time reading and writing in the living room. I typically have to read and write before the rest of the family wakes up, when I get home from work but before the rest of them get home, or after they go to sleep. I have to search across time and space to find a place of my own to organize my thoughts.


I am only just now starting to write again. I am struggling to find the time and the space to read and write as much as I want to. I quit my academic job to take a “normal” job. I thought this would help structure my time in a way that would free me to work on my writing. It hasn’t.

I started a book several months ago. I never finished it. I lost my momentum. I am trying to read more, but sometimes I struggle. I take books to work, but never find a quiet moment during my lunch to read and relax. It is a high stress job, and I am finding that I need that moment to take a breath and shift my focus.

When the family is home, they constantly interrupt my reading and writing. I lose my momentum. I can’t find the thread once it is gone. I am frustrated. I need a room of my own.


Reading Virginia Woolf

Recently, I decided to re-read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I hoped that she had some advice for a person like me. In the foreword, Mary Gordon states: “Woolf is concerned with the fate of women of genius, not with that of ordinary women…her passion is for literature, not for universal justice.” (p. viii). I do not know if I am a woman of genius, but I am a woman who aspires toward genius. I kept reading.

Frequently, Woolf’s book becomes an ode to feminism, but it also provides an exploration of women in fiction and the history of women’s literature. Surprise, surprise — that is a rather short history. Early on, she reflects on the difficulties that women face and how these present challenges for a woman who could be a woman of genius:

So I went back to my inn, and as I walked through the dark streets I pondered this and that, as one does at the end of the day’s work. I pondered why it was that Mrs. Seton had no money to leave us; and what effect poverty has on the mind; and I thought of the queer old gentlemen I had seen that morning with tufts of fur upon their shoulders; and I remembered how if one whistled one of them ran; and I thought of the organ booming in the chapel and of the shut doors of the library; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; and, thinking of the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other and of the effect of tradition and of the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer, I thought at last that it was time to roll up the crumpled skin of the day, with its arguments and its impressions and its anger and its laughter, and cast it into the hedge.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

This quote highlights a few themes of the book: poverty, access, restrictions, and lack of tradition.


Poverty

Some might argue that Woolf’s view here is classist. She explores the impact of women’s poverty on their ability to write and create. This poverty comes in several forms. For many centuries, women could not have money or property of their own. They might be married to, a child of, or live in privilege or privileged environments, but this certainly did not mean the woman was wealthy or well-off. Women did not have access to the formal educations that men had access to and were less likely to learn to read and write. If they did learn to read and write, their male relatives and spouses typically restricted what they read about:

“Here I am asking why women did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated, whether they had sitting-rooms to themselves; how many women had children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night.”

— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

The history books trace the history of man — the history of women exists in the fringes and shadows. What we do know, or perhaps what we assume, is that conditions were not great for creative women. How frustrating it must have been to have a creative spirit, but no means of expressing that. We need to understand poverty as more than financial poverty. Poverty includes lack of access to an education, the ability to access books on a variety of topics, and the ability to purchase paper to write on (or today, a computer to type on):

…we must accept the fact that all those good novels VILLETTE, EMMA, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, MIDDLEMARCH, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman; written too in the common sitting-room of that respectable house and by women so poor that they could not afford to buy more than a few quires of paper at a time upon which to write WUTHERING HEIGHTS or JANE EYRE.

– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


Access

At one point, Woolf discusses the challenge of access. She describes how she attempted to walk into the library at the fictional Oxbridge:

“…but here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.”

— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

For centuries, women have been denied access to the creative spaces that men have occupied. In Virginia Woolf’s case she merely wanted to access the volumes of books that men were reading, but that access was denied. I began to wonder: How many creative spaces have women had access to?

Women who had access to their father’s library or their husband’s library were often restricted in what they were allowed to read. Political books were certainly off limits. Men were concerned with harming the delicate female sensibility with books that they might not comprehend or that might upset them. Access to books was severely restricted for women for much of the history of civilization.


Restrictions

Women continue to face restrictions, but those restrictions are far less severe today. Women were not allowed to go out and explore unsupervised, or if they did go out they were often restricted to the gardens around their homes. They could not head off to the neighborhood pub or gathering hall to participate in neighborhood life. Women were restricted to their sitting-rooms where they sat together reading, sewing, practicing their instruments, and idling their days away. Women did not have their own studies or their own spaces. They shared a collective space, and that space was not protected from the intrusions of men the way men’s spaces were protected from female distractions.

“But for women, I thought, looking at the empty shelves, these difficulties were infinitely more formidable. In the first place, to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.”

— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Women were also restricted by the customs and manners of the time. Women were expected to be sensible, and to behave in a particular way. For a woman to be found working on a novel in her sitting room was considered inappropriate. Women had, however, been trained in observing the subtleties of character and interaction that can only be gleaned from being forced to sit and watch the nature of human interactions. We find a remarkable study of the nature of human interaction in the writing of Jane Austen:

Jane Austen hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting-paper. Then again, all the literary training that a woman had in the early nineteenth century was training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion. Her sensibility had been educated for centuries by the influences of the common sitting-room.”

— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Restrictions on acceptable activities of women continue today. I grew up being told that many things were “unladylike” or inappropriate. There are spaces that are still largely male spaces. Look at the criticisms of many of the female legislators who dared to occupy that traditionally male space with confidence. Although we have slowly increased our physical access, full access and acceptance is a long way off. Expectations grounded in tradition limit true access for women in many traditionally male spaces.


Lack of Tradition

The final challenge that women face in writing or demonstrating their genius is a lack of tradition. Women have not had the time and space to develop a literary tradition. But this does not stop with literature. Women’s work has only recently emerged in many fields:

“But whatever effect discouragement and criticism had upon their writing — and I believe that they had a very great effect — that was unimportant compared with the other difficulty which faced them (I was still considering those early nineteenth-century novelists) when they came to set their thoughts on paper — that is that they had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help.”

— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Our tradition is found in men’s literature and in men’s portrayals of, assumptions about, and views of women. In both literature and history, the male tradition dominates. The histories that are written about the world are the histories of men. Women are largely absent or, when they are mentioned, are used to highlight the experiences and views of men. Women have been barred from history and literature for centuries.


Finding a Room of One’s Own

After re-reading A Room of One’s OwnI find myself thinking about the symbolism of that room. What does it mean for a woman to have her own space and the support of a solid income? But the challenge goes beyond a woman having her own space to write and create. Women need access to traditions, to books, to spaces.

I am considering following Virginia Woolf’s path and going to the library to explore the volumes that have been written by women. While Virginia Woolf discovered that women have created a disproportionate share of literature and other work, I think it is time to consider what types of work women are creating. Have we expanded beyond the study of sitting-rooms and the study of characters around us? Is women’s literature and writing still dominated by the study of relationships and character? The trivialities of a female existence? How much have we branched out from our tradition?

Woolf comments multiple times about the impact of female anger on the quality of writing. She highlights how the truth of a literary work is interrupted when too much of the writer’s emotions bleed through into their writing. How would Woolf view the writing that is being produced by women today?

I continue to search for a room of my own, or a space to create. For me that search is not just a search for physical space, but a search for time to think and create. Time that is not interrupted by children or coworkers or needing to make sure my family continues to have my income and health insurance. Perhaps one day I will find that delicate balance that allows me to create in the way that I want to without allowing my emotions to bleed into my writing and disrupt the truth that my reader perceives.

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Meghan Hollis

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The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +477K people. Follow to join our community.