Art & Architecture

When Virginia Woolf recommended A Room of One’s Own for women writers, she couldn’t have anticipated the open concept in architecture, or understand fully how children can interrupt a mother with their needs even when they’re not there.

I’ve always had a room of my own – it was a condition of cohabitation when my husband and I first joined households – and it worked well when the kids were in school. The problem with my allocated room wasn’t during the week, but during vacations, holidays and weekends, when I still had deadlines to meet, when the kids were home and would interrupt me, or when I had to give over my room to guests. I know this is bad parenting on my part – I tried to teach my kids the meaning of a closed door. But the fact of it is, when I was writing and they were home, I was always torn between needing to work and wanting to be with them. So for a while I switched from Woolf’s theory about needing a room of one’s own to Ursula LeGuin’s theory as put forth in her essay, “The Fisherman’s Daughter,” where she says that all a woman who writes needs is a pen and some paper.

According to LeGuin, the fisherman’s daughter is a mother and a writer who sits on the riverbank with a pad and pen and writes while keeping an eye on her kids playing nearby. If this sounds distracting – it is. But as I discovered with a room of my own, my maternal tasks were distracting whether my kids were banging on my door or at school. When my children were young and my concentration broken, fears rushed in. If the school secretary called mid-morning, I anticipated the worst schoolyard accident possible, and it would take a while for the poison of my maternal anxiety to subside and allow me to concentrate again, by which time the school day was over and my shift as chauffeur started, driving kids to the orthodontist and soccer.

And then, one day, the kids were grown up – in college, traveling to far reaches of the world and out of the house. I missed them, even as I relished the silence of the house and my genuine, satisfying, productivity, productivity that came to a grinding halt every time they came home for a weekend, or a week – and sometimes longer. And they came home with friends. Suddenly, I was running a youth hostel, complete with meals for voracious appetites.

I love having my kids and their friends home; and I hate it. No matter how early I creep to my desk and how late they sleep, those morning hours aren’t enough to accomplish what I need to, and outside of my office, chaos reigns. I find myself simultaneously urging the kids to take over the meal preparation and kitchen clean up while running a mental inventory of what’s on-hand and what groceries need to be fetched. I have trouble giving up household control. Even when the kids make dinner, it’s a production, and no matter how many sit down to dinner and how good the conversation, the sheer volume of people, food and conversation drains me. I collapse into bed before the dishes are washed. This is not a good way to fall asleep.

So I asked my husband for a room of my own – outside the house.

“You have an empty nest and you need a separate space?” one friend asked, with both incredulity and criticism in her voice.

“I need quiet,” I explained. “A place where I won’t see or be seen. A place out of sight of the front door, and a place where I won’t be oppressed by laundry or bills or household tasks staring at me from across the hall, or where there’s the phone and the internet to tempt me to distraction. To write fiction,” I explain, “I need quiet and solitude.”

Another friend asked why I didn’t just apply for writing residencies.

“Because I like to be home,” I said. Indeed, I moved to Vermont the summer after attending the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, because more than rubbing elbows with other writers, what I wanted was to live in this beautiful landscape I now call home. My ideal is a daily writing retreat.

After twenty-five years of marriage, my husband knows just how important this solitude is to my work and well-being, so last year, he and his brother started building me a studio in my own backyard.

We broke ground last May. Because my builders have other jobs, it’s taken ten months of weekends to complete, but it’s now done: a 96 square foot, free-standing studio about a hundred and fifty-feet from the house, with a meadow view. For the ten months of construction, I’ve been joking about digging a moat and stocking it with piranha. It’s my way of explaining that I don’t want to be disturbed there – at all.

I still have my room in the house. The Office, we call it. And that’s where I conduct the business related to writing: the queries, the filing, the bookkeeping, and my teaching materials. I can be interrupted when I’m taking care of business. But when it’s time to write fiction and essays, I can now retreat to A Room of My Own. Wouldn’t Virginia Woolf be proud?

Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of Into The Wilderness, “a fiercely intelligent love story,” set in Vermont in 1964. Luskin is a regular Commentator on Vermont Public Radio, an editorial columnist, and a free-lance writer. In addition, Luskin teachers literature and writing in prisons, hospitals and libraries; she holds a PhD in English Literature from Columbia University.

18 thoughts on “Art & Architecture

  1. Oh, Deborah!
    What a lovely little corner of the world you have. I’m envious. I’ve always envisioned creating just such a little retreat for myself, but – since I’m renting at the moment – it isn’t an option.

    I totally understand your need for that personal space. My daughter is only 7 and so very much still in need of me … all the time. Though I dread my own empty nest, there are days when I would give almost anything to be able to run away to my own little hideaway … someplace close enough that I can hop back into “real life” at a moment’s notice, but far enough away (physically and emotionally), that I can shift out of my usual roles and sink happily into the role of muse and creator.

    As a necessity, I have learned to do a lot of things amidst chaos. I often spend a whole day down at the local coffee shop – busily cranking away despite the chatter all around me. Friends are amazed, and – quite frankly – incredulous. But, I DO get things done. Creative writing, however, requires a different space … at least for me.

    Enjoy your tiny Shangrila! 🙂

  2. Jamie,
    Women – and especially mothers – do a lot of work “amidst chaos.” I’m always “writing” – sorting ideas and laundry, choosing words and groceries, driving the car and following rhetorical arguments . . . you get the idea. And we have to be able to work in so many different environments. But this place I call my Chapel of the Imagination is special. I feel very blessed. Okay, spoiled.

    • I agree – the mind is always multi-tasking … that can be a good thing, and it can be a bad thing.

      … but, being spoiled is always a good thing!

  3. Absolutely love this and with 6 kids of my own completely understand the need to get away from the distractions both present and imagined.

    Someday I going to get me one of these!


    • Wendy,
      As I imagine is also true at your house: my husband built me a classy chicken coop fifteen years before my writing studio. But as is said, good things are worth waiting for.

  4. Deborah – I am so envious of your space! That is a dream I hope to achieve one day. Like you, I am also a homebody, but the call of the household duties serve as a distraction: that which truly needs to get done and that which is a “good” alternative to getting into the writing… My children are still so small and to escape them is pretty impossible, but I do relate to the idea of sitting on the riverbank. Often, I take them to a playground and while they play, between the inevitable interruptions, I write away contentedly! Now if only the nice weather would (please!) return! Melissa

    • Melissa,
      It sounds like you’re doing incredibly well. The two main goals with young children, I think, is to keep the writing fire burning and mothering. For years I resented I could barely do more; now I’m amazed I managed anything at all!
      Keep writing.

  5. As I read your story, I felt the truth and the guilt of time with the kids home. It seems even harder now that they are older, with the grandchildren, and the knowledge that they know that my time is not spoken for, per se. I awaken early, but still there are never enough hours. My 90 year old mother and a developmentally delayed adult daughter also live in our home, so the thought of a Chapel of the Imagination seems a slice of heaven.

    • Mimi,
      It sounds as if you have multiple challenges to cope with. One thing I did even without my room of my own was simply to let everyone know when I was available – in an attempt to let them know that just because I didn’t have a job outside the house didn’t mean I didn’t have a job. It’s hard to set limits. I’ve found that asking people to help you respect your needs helps them respect them, too.
      Good luck!

  6. Even those with the greatest of multitasking skills need a haven! Kudos to you for managing to set the limits you did. I have no children, but the hubby, the elderly in-laws, the pups, the paying job, and a rather delayed foray into college, all vie for my attention at once most days. If I had children to add to that mix … wow. As it is now, I find myself pouting, pleading to the universe quite often for just a few months of 48 hour days per year 🙂

    I enjoyed this post very much, and look forward to reading Into the Wilderness soon!

  7. Kathy,
    FYI, I recently realized I’m not a multi-tasker, and multi-tasking makes me grumpy. I’m a single-tasker! What a concept! I just do one thing at a time. And that’s what my studio is for – staring out the window, looking for words.
    Best wishes,

  8. Oh what a wonderful idea! When we built our house my office was included in the plans on the second floor. My husband thought I’d want the attic, but I wanted to be able to hear what was going on. Oy! I need the office, but I also need a quiet space. A structure to hold our cars (a barn or a garage) is on the horizon. I’m hoping I can claim a few square feet in there for a desk and a window. 🙂

  9. Lee: “Oy” is right! It must be that “authorial” thing: hard to hear what’s going on and not try to give it direction . . .I’m hoping “out of sight, out of mind” is a successful strategy. As hard as it may be, I’m not even encouraging the cats and dog to follow me out. We’ll see how long that lasts . .

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