“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her extended essay of a similar title, A Room of One’s Own.
If I had to pick one quote which sticks with me as a writer, then it is this. A Room of One’s Own is widely regarded as a feminist text, and indeed, the crux of Woolf’s argument is one based on observations about the different opportunities afforded to men and women, and the impact of this upon literary tradition. Virginia Woolf lived in the early twentieth century, a period regularly hailed by historians as a time of great change for women. Removed from the domestic sphere by the necessities of war, de-corseted and delivered of the vote (albeit not universally), by the time Woolf published her essay in 1929, the lot of women seemed much improved.
Nonetheless, Woolf’s words express a concern about the place of women in literature; an awareness that a lack of financial independence teamed with lack of access to education had prevented women from taking a space in the literary sphere. For me, Woolf’s argument is worth more than casual consideration. Just imagine for a moment how different literature, and indeed history, might have been if more women had been afforded the opportunity to pick up their quill and ink, to record their experiences, to write their own stories.
Thankfully, nowadays I don’t think Woolf’s argument stands up so starkly in terms of gender. But it does still apply in some quarters. The stereotype of the impoverished creative might not find such literal application now, but nonetheless, many writers – male and female – find that they cannot live by their words alone. The technological age might have ushered in a time when it is easier than ever to publish your own work, but that doesn’t mean it is any easier to make money from it. Indeed, the self-published author is a small fish in an infinite ocean of writers, all trying to get their work noticed, bought and read. It’s as tough a market as it ever was, if not tougher. As Oscar Wilde so wittily put it: “Genius is born, not paid.”
My favourite aspect of Woolf’s words, however, is the consideration she gives to the space required in which to write. Her discussion of the space to write has a definite feminist slant, tied up as it is with her consideration of women’s space in literary history, yet her arguments can have a wider application. She refers to ‘the room’, a term which is both literal and figurative and which, for me, transcends both time and gender. Every writer of every generation has had their own set of challenges when it comes to establishing the writing space. Where is quiet, or if it suits you better, where is noisy? Where can I find space to think, to reflect, to create? Some find their space at the kitchen table, or in a dedicated study, or in an armchair, or in a cafe. Others find theirs in the more unusual places, such as Roald Dahl, who found his in a traditional Romani wagon parked in his garden!
I find that I do my best thinking when washing the dishes (what would Woolf make of that, I wonder?) or on the treadmill in the gym. I do my best writing in my house, but where I sit depends on both my mood and the whereabouts of my lovely but noisy children! My space to write is governed by pragmatic, usually family considerations – if my kids fancy an hour at the soft play on a Sunday afternoon then so be it, my laptop comes too. As a twenty-first century woman, thankfully my space is not likely to be disrupted by the march of patriarchy. However, I can’t guarantee it won’t be interrupted by the phrase ‘Mummy, can you…?’. But of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way!