Where I Write #22: A Room of One’s Own in the Middle of Everything

By

I’m writing on the bathroom floor, laptop on my knees. It’s tight in here; shower, toilet, and sink crammed together with just enough space left to stand, or in my case, sit, but even then, the door opens inwards and you’ll get whacked if you aren’t careful. It’s mid-afternoon, the essay I’m working on is due later tonight, this rewrite is fueled by panic, but excitement, too. I’m close. So close. I’ve figured out how it’s supposed to go. I can hear it. Taste it. And then—

“Mommy?”

“Mommy, why is the door locked?”

“Mommy, come out, I made you a spaceship!”

Here they are: the two halves of my heart.

 ***

Until recently, I never much understood the whole room of one’s own thing. Love me some To The Lighthouse, but I didn’t need my own space. I could write anywhere: library, coffee shop, the bar before starting a shift. In part, I preferred writing in public—the people, the action, the whitenoise—but mostly this nomadic office was determined by necessity. I lived in the city. Space is expensive, and a second bedroom was a luxury I couldn’t afford. Also, like many freelance artists/teachers/servers/twenty-somethings, I had three jobs; no time to spend in a second bedroom even if I had one. Also, I moved around a lot, apartment to apartment, neighborhood to neighborhood, relationship to relationship, so I learned to write whenever and wherever I could.

Aren’t you supposed to build your writing process around your life?

Or—wait. Is it the other way around?

 ***

I’m writing in the car, parked on a side-street, mid-Chicago winter with the heat blasting. I’ve got twenty precious minutes between running a faculty development workshop at one college and the fiction workshop I teach at another, and I’ve been writing in my head all day. Earlier, I jotted down some notes on the back of my hand; you can still see ink faded on my skin from notes the day before, and the day before that. Minutes pass and I type faster, trying to outrun them, outrun all of it, and I dread getting out of the car. Not because I dislike snow (I like it!), or the class (that, too!); it’s because finally the words are working. I can see how this part fits with that part, and I’d give my left arm for another twenty minutes.

Ten, even.

I’d take ten in a heartbeat.

 ***

It happened so fast: I fell in love, we ran away to Prague, eloped, and then returned to Chicago to resume, as they say, real life. It’s been eight years, and still, when my husband walks into a room, I wonder what I did to get so lucky. With him, I suddenly, surprisingly, desperately wanted the whole proverbial nine yards: marriage, kids, and, inevitably, owning our own place. Right? Aren’t you supposed to own your own place? Building equity? Next step towards adulthood? American dream and whatnot?

Thanks to a decade of working in high-end restaurants, I had a decent savings account. My husband had landed a design job that looked great on loan applications. Miraculously, neither of us carried any student debt, even with three and a half degrees between us, and we ended up being approved for a mortgage so ridiculously insane that I asked if someone had mistakenly added an extra zero. That can’t be, like, real money! It’s Monopoly money, right?

In the end, we spent less than half of our approved rate on a place we loved; a tiny, two-bedroom condo on Chicago’s North Side, 900 square feet if you count the back porch. We were near public transportation, bars, and the Montrose Beach. We shared an office, built bookshelves to the ceiling, and, at night, would sit on the balcony listening to shows at the rock club across the street: Flaming Lips, Pixies, Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Out there, we still felt like that couple who ran away to Prague. Out there, we were young and fearless and invincible. Out there, we eased into the adults we were supposed to become.

 ***

I’m writing at Chava, a coffeeshop a few blocks from home. It’s Saturday, early morning, and I have until noon to take the paragraphs I’ve generated here and there and turn them into something cohesive, something beginning-middle-end. I remember how I used to write, back when nothing felt sacred and I didn’t need sleep: read for a bit, write in my journal, refill coffee or wine, depending on the hour. What music should I listen to? Does this sentence work better over here? That word isn’t right, I’ll get more coffee and think about it, maybe watch Buffy on FX.

It’s a wonder I got anything done.

Now my eye is on the clock. 8am, 9am, 10, 11—four precious hours until my family joins me for lunch. Afterwards, my husband will remain for his work, and our son and I take off for an adventure. Maybe we’ll go to the lake, building sandcastles and screaming at seagulls. Maybe the Nature Museum, sitting as still as we can in the butterfly room. Maybe the gym, where he’ll play in the KidsCenter and I’ll take a yoga class, trying to breathe into this single, quiet hour; hear my own thoughts, my own heartbeat.

 ***

Like most parents, I could fill a library with stories about my kid. He’s four years old now. He wants to be a superhero when he grows up. He thinks he has seven brains. He says, “Mommy, that’s enough writing for today. It’s time to dance!” and I close my computer and remember to live.

The day I found out I was pregnant, after the screaming and excitement and jumping up and down, I went into the tiny office I shared with my husband, squeezing past his desk to get to my own. Soon, my stomach would be too big to squeeze. Soon, this room would become the nursery. Our books and desks and equipment would go into storage—Just until we sell, of course. Then I’d have a new workspace, a little corner all my own.

 ***

I’m writing on the Red Line, Harrison to Lawrence, on my way home from teaching a night class. My journal is open on my lap.

I’d love to say how great it’s going, how I’m so involved in the writing that I missed my el stop and had to backtrack, but that would be a lie. It’s not working. Nothing’s coming. I try and remember the pep talks I give my students—Keep trying! Trust yourself! Zen and the Art of Writing!—but fuck it. I’m too fucking tired.

***

Long story short: the recession hit. Four years on and off the market, and recently, we dropped our asking price to a number so ridiculously insane I asked if someone had mistakenly forgotten a zero. Eventually, we’ll owe the difference to the bank, so my husband and I work to save it, six jobs now between the two of us. Four of the six we like. Three of the four pay decently, two substantially.

I think of how fortunate we are to have the work.

I think of the American Dream and whatnot.

I think, again and again, of Woolf: “… a woman must have money and a room of her own.”

 ***

I am writing in class while my students write. We’ve just had an awesome discussion about Kafka or Marquez or Dorothy Allison or Ray Bradbury or Chimamanda Adichie or any of a thousand writers from whom we learn our craft. My synapses are firing. I want to write, to attack my bookshelves for answers, to teach my students to attack theirs.

There are other things I’d like to teach them, as well; like the balance of writing and living, and how do you write and pay a mortgage, and is it possible to have a room of one’s own without a room?—but I haven’t figured it out yet.

I’ll always be figuring it out.

 ***

There’s an envelope taped to my bathroom mirror. A reminder, if you will. It’s addressed to our bank and, for now, it’s empty, but when things get too hard, my husband and I talk about mailing back our keys and throwing in the towel. We’ve been having that conversation a lot lately; our home is one of the 11 million currently defined as “underwater,” which is a poetic way of saying that we’re drowning. A few weeks ago, my son asked to play Star Wars while I tried to finish an annual report for one of the jobs that pays substantially. “Five more minutes, baby,” I said, but of course, it wasn’t five more minutes, it was five five more minutes, and when I finally looked up, he was sitting on the floor holding a toy ewok, waiting. “Is it my turn now?” he said. I rocked him on my lap and cried. He didn’t know what was happening, and the truth is, neither do I.

Recently, I heard an accountant say, “If you want to know what you value, look at your checkbook.” Mine reads like this: Mortgage, property tax, assessments, back assessments, emergency assessments, listing fees, attorney fees.

I’d like it to read: Darth Vader costume, size 5T. Princess Leia buns. Plastic Light Saber, blue. Plastic Light saber, red.

***

I am writing from an artist residency, all expenses paid, far away from the city in a beautiful old house. I have my own room. My own desk. Zero responsibilities save for writing and reading. It’s so still. The sun is shining through my window. I can hear crickets. I can hear my own thoughts; my own heartbeat. I’ve accomplished more in two weeks than I have in six months, and the sheer force of my gratitude could power a small city.

But.

I keep glancing up, expecting to see my kid drawing pictures at my feet. A hundred different times, I’ve been sure I heard him laughing in the next room. Last night, I counted mileage: If I leave now, I could be in Chicago by bedtime. I could read him a story, wait til he falls asleep, and be back at the residency by midnight.

Once again, the two halves of my heart.

 ***

I have fantasies about my future office. It doesn’t need to be huge, a corner somewhere, with big windows and lots of light. There will be shelves up to the ceiling with a sliding ladder, something you’d find on bookshelfporn.com. You know how some people plan for their wedding, saving pages torn from magazines of dresses and invitations and flowers? I’m planning for my room of one’s own; desks and file drawers and paperclip dispensers.

And yet I wonder: will I be able to write there? I have friends with gorgeous work spaces and all the time in the world who still write in bed, on the couch, the kitchen table, the coffeeshop, on the go, go, go.

It’s not about the space; it’s about what you do with it.

Right?

***

I’m writing on my back porch, three stories above Lawrence Avenue. It’s late spring, warm enough to be outside but still safe from the infamous Chicago heat, and tonight is lovely in our tiny urban garden. There are popsicles made of lemonade. Asparagus on the grill. The rock club next door has its windows open for a sold-out Gotye show, and the bouncy, bass-heavy indie-pop floats in the air. Next to me, my son draws pictures of magic robots. Across from us, my husband is on his laptop, looking at art. I’ve just finished an essay I’ve been working on for weeks, arriving breathlessly at the end of the page.

Maybe this is all I need. A room of one’s own in the middle of everything.

Update Required
To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin.

Megan Stielstra is the author of Everyone Remain Calm, a Chicago Tribune Favorite of 2011, and Once I Was Cool, a book of essays forthcoming in May 2014. Her work appears in The Best American Essays 2013, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, PANK, and elsewhere, and she’s the Literary Director of Chicago's 2nd Story storytelling series. More from this author →