I just finished rereading Virginia Woolf’s classic A Room of One’s Own. I first read this book in my early twenties, and my admiration of it was more academic than actual. I agreed with the premise that women, at the time when Woolf wrote the book in 1929, required a fixed (dependable) income and a room of their own (with a lock on the door) in order to become writers. But in actuality, I had no experience with not having these things, since I was still in college, still supported mostly by my parents, and certainly with my own room and the accompanying time and space.
Then came marriage, and a period of time when I had three children under the age of four. No room of my own, so I did my writing at the dining room table after the boys went to bed. At this point in my life, the elusive room of my own was a very practical need for a constant physical space. However, I managed to write nonetheless, and eventually was published, although whether it would have happened sooner with more space and time, or if the determination required to write with young children in the house fueled my success, is debatable.
I revisited Woolf’s book largely because of several conversations I’ve had lately about the issue of having a room to oneself, and I wanted to re-familiarize myself with her perspective. This time, I read Woolf’s words with a vastly different viewpoint. I do have a room of my own, where I conduct my writing career. And I am loathe to lose it, not in actuality, but if I should be forced by economics to return to the world of “real” jobs and the noise and frenetic activity of an office workplace. Our world today is one that does not value quiet, contemplation, and the richness of reading and thinking at a slower pace. We don’t get to think about who we are and what we might be and our place in the world, to generate the ideas that make for good writing, and more importantly, to consider what makes for a thoughtful life. Modern life is tech driven, frantic, fast-paced, and focused on the race to some vague goal of money or status. Woolf’s world, the world of personal spaces and private rooms, is perhaps now an even more foreign concept than her original premise was when she published her book. Women have certainly achieved the ability to have a room of their own, but its importance for a rich, contemplative life has been swept aside as women largely seek to be a part of the extremely masculine world of business and the breakneck pace of modern life. Time to be quiet, to rest, to simply be, without scheduling every single moment of our existence, has become something we look at with nostalgia, something no longer possible, and something that our world does not value or reward.
I am aware that I have been very fortunate to be given the opportunity to work from my room and write, rather than going to an office every day. I have been given the moments to revel in the idyllic life of Woolf’s writing, with time for contemplation. And having had that, I find that the prospect of moving back into the rushing cataract of the working world brings me a sense of mourning, because I have loved the richness and privacy that I currently have. For good writing, writing of importance and substance and meaning, takes time and space, something that Woolf was well aware of.
A room of one’s own is no longer just something that women seek, a physical place to establish their independence and autonomy. In today’s world, it is actually symbolic of having the time and space simply to be, to think about the world in all its richness and wonders, to listen to our own voice, so often muted by the roar of modern life. We all need this room, women and men alike, perhaps more so than ever.
By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.
-Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own