Every woman who has proclaimed herself a writer has heard Virginia Woolf’s requirement that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. Since the nonfiction/essayist/graphic novelist roles weren’t fleshed out in Woolf’s time, I think it’s fair to broaden her original statement out to all of us genre-hybrid misfits. What doesn’t need altering is her original sentiment, that personal space + financial security make it a hell of a lot easier to write.
Writing takes time, tons of it, time that you could be spending on activities that pay you. I prefer not to talk about how much I’ve made on writing (nothing) because it invariably turns those who are not writers (or haven’t been actively writing, submitting and publishing in the last 10 years) twenty shades of incredulous. When I think too much about it, yes. It is kind of humiliating to think of the hundreds of hours I’ve spent writing in the last three years compared to the thousands it has plunged me in the hole (student-loanwise—I haven’t reached the level of participation in workshops and conferences to guzzle even more non-reimbursed fundage from my bank account). Since you’re not making money, and likely spending a bunch of it, a reliable supply from another source is important. It keeps you functioning. As glamorous as the starving artist lifestyle seems in that wistful, bohemian sense, it’s nice to eat. And have a computer to type on. And internet access to send out your work and keep in touch with your community. And feel well-rested enough to get some work done, because you didn’t keep waking up through the night panicking about which checks cleared through your account.
This is why I work a full-time job on top of attempting to make my writing a full-time, whole-heart endeavor. As unsexy or fascist as it is, being an artist isn’t free, and I work better with food and a lack of threatening letters arriving in the mail from the power company.
When we were planning our move to Tucson (all six-ish weeks of prep), I thought it might be fate strong-arming me into the writing life. I had vague, disembodied dreams of living in a city I couldn’t picture in an unseen home, maybe working part-time at a cafe or teaching a class or two in-between hours and hours at a desk of my own, doing what I was meant to do. In Portland, I couldn’t afford to give up my day job to pursue what I actually cared to do. But forced to quit and leave, perhaps it was the chance I’d been wistfully dreaming of since working through the MFA program.
Fortunately? Unfortunately? Most likely for the best, a Tucson job fell into my lap just as unexpectedly as the whole moving situation had. I’m lucky in multitudes of ways: it’s a much lower-stress gig than I’ve had in the past, meaning I don’t take actual work or cannibalizing work thoughts home with me. It’s stable and pays well with admirable benefits, which goes a long way. Without these, I couldn’t travel to AWP or apply to conferences or keep up with the MFA blood money payments.
But what I’m blessed with in opportunity and security I lose in my time. My commute is almost an hour each way, so I don’t get home from work most nights until around 6. Which is the same hour I get up in the morning. Half of my day is spent at work, and I’m a girl who needs her eight hours of sleep. That leaves four measly hours to make dinner, unwind into a semi-creative state, and try to write for a while. That leaves out doing anything with my husband, cleaning, watching The Daily Show and Colbert, or sitting out on the patio, drinking a bottle of wine and reading a book (wine is strictly off-limits on writing nights because it makes me pass out before I can get a paragraph in). And as the nights I earnestly head into the room of my own (“The Beats Lab,” Matt calls it), everything else seems to fall apart. I don’t pay enough attention to Matt, and he wanders into my room to show me funny cat videos or Game of Thrones memes friends have posted on his Facebook wall, so desperately trying to connect with the only other person he knows in this city. I start making lame, quick dinners that satisfy no one, a rutted rotation of sandwiches, hamburgers and spaghetti. Last week, trying to finish an essay, the laundry pile grew into an Everest of unfolded clothes. I keep the light off in the dining room because I don’t even want to look at the dirty tile floor.
So then I leave my room, abandon it for a binge with the Shop-Vac and the Method spray cleaners and Soft Scrub. I open up the cookbooks and make something that involves thoughtful ingredients and tastes real. I watch all of the stuff I’ve missed on my DVR and sit with my husband while he watches football and we make snacks, and I drive to the store and pick at crap, and make a long trip to the other side of town for my favorite salad, and plan a weekend trip together so we can get away from these damn walls.
And I know I’m neglecting the page, and I loathe myself. I think of all the missed potential and opportunity, my education and dream circling the drain because I can’t keep my ass in the chair. I’m falling behind, falling away, giving up.
I think Woolf left out the essential catch-22 of the puzzle; you can’t have it all. You’ve got to pay rent on that room, leaving it vacant.