Friday, October 30, 2009

A Room of My Own

By Kim

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction
. – Virginia Woolf

Growing up as an only child, I always had my own room. At times I had my own bathroom, even my own balcony. When I was nine the entire top floor of our condo, which included two rooms and a loft, belonged to me, though I usually played in the storage nook halfway down the staircase, which I also claimed. At our house in Maine, the basement was mine, though it may not have been such a prize as I shared the space with the wood stove and had no door until my dad built me a proper room down there.

Dorm life in college was miserable. With parents who lived overseas, all of my things were with me, and I had to share a room a fourth the size of what I was used to. My roommate and I agreed an off-campus apartment was in order the moment we were allowed to have one. I had my own room again, and eventually my own apartment. Heaven.

Then I got married and had kids. I’ve accumulated more things over the years and my personal space has shrunk. I have to wonder what Virginia Woolf would think of my ‘room’ today.

Here is my desk. It’s a bit cramped, but it’s mine, at least until one of the kids commandeers my computer to play Webkinz or leaves artwork or trinkets they’ve made for me on one of my piles of papers. During the day, it’s a little oasis in an otherwise chaotic house. Beside me, I have vintage postcards of Roycroft and other places featured in my work in progress, The Oak Lovers. Look up and there’s a stunning portrait by Edmund Wyly Grier of my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens, the protagonist of my novel. From my chair I can see several of Carl’s paintings. (Note the bright pink earplugs sitting near my monitor. I’ll get into why those are an important fixture soon.)

To my left is a wall of photos and sketches of the women of generations past and present, other than for a lone photo of Carl by the lamp. The cabinet, not generally left open, is where I cram correspondence and research material related to my book. What doesn’t fit in there fills filing cabinets under the printer, the lamp and my desk. Things I've not yet found a home for wind up stacked behind my monitor. That pile is frightening. Yes, I can find things, but only when I don’t need them.

To my right hang examples of the artwork my great-grandmother, Madonna, did at Roycroft. On the bookshelf rest a menagerie of family photos and rocks plucked from the spot where Carl and Madonna met and the Ojibwa reservation where Carl once lived. One of Carl’s paintbrushes is in the vase, though I often fiddle with it when the words don’t flow. It still smells faintly of turpentine and I love running my fingers over the patches worn smooth from long use. In case you're curious, the nude woman in the one photo is Madonna.

My most constant companion through the day is the dog. If only he would always be as sweet as he is in this photo. While writing this he’s attempting to hump one of the cats. Seeing she just spent the last 20 minutes sharpening her claws, I imagine she’ll win this battle soon. In the meantime, I have earplugs.

My space is cramped, but manageable, at least until three o'clock on school days. After that, all hell breaks loose. My room is not a room at all, you see, but one wall of a living area in the middle of the house. This space is also occupied by three animals and three kids. The 39-year-old boy may not look like a kid, but he’s the loudest and has the biggest toys.

Here is his space. Keep in mind that I took this photo while sitting in my desk chair and no, I did not zoom in. The corner of his desk is 52 inches from the back of my chair. He’s a gamer, so when he’s home, he rarely leaves this desk unless one of the kids needs him or I present him with a list of chores. Now, out of courtesy to me, he does wear headphones. This prevents me from hearing the incessant music, gunfire or other sound effects. A drawback of his chivalry is that the children always come to me to fix drinks, snacks, malfunctioning electronics or out of boredom. Another negative is that his new headphones are equipped with a microphone, in which he frequently talks to other players. Imagine what a disruption it is to be immersed in the world of 1908 Toronto and have the guy behind you pipe up with, ‘Can I blast this one away with the regular machine gun or do I need the vaporizer?’

Hence the bright pink earplugs. Yet, if I wear them while children are home, who will notice when heads are bonked or the verbal sparring comes to blows? Even on those occasions when I put my husband in charge of his offspring for a few hours, I can't escape the household melee because I don't have a laptop. Volcanoes built in the kitchen erupt to squeals of delight uttered less than ten feet away from me. When the phone rings, I hear it in triplicate. If a visitor should push the doorbell, it chimes directly overhead. Just seventeen feet of echoing laminate floor separates me from the big screen TV, fully pimped with surround sound, a Play Station 2, a Wii, and an Xbox.

Sometimes desperation allows me to tune it all out enough to work. I wrote a heated argument scene to the soundtrack of Dora the Explorer. A pivotal romantic scene got penned while my husband and a neighbor jammed to "American Woman" on Rock Band. Madonna was indeed an American woman, but Carl was decidedly not telling her to stop knocking round his door ‘cause he didn’t want to see her shadow no more.

Clearly I need a proper space of my own, but my only option is to take one of my daughter's rooms. I can’t ask an eight-year-old to share with a four-year-old, especially since she's had her own room since birth. Doing so would rob them both of a private place to dream, something that was vital to me as a child and helped shape me into the writer I am today. There’s no place for a makeshift office in my bedroom, and I’d never sleep if my computer were there anyway. A room could be built above the garage but at great expense. Right now I’d settle for a little shed in the backyard, provided it had electricity and a window air-conditioning unit. Texas summers are a little toasty after all.

When I expressed my desire for my own space to my husband, he smiled, kissed my cheek, and told me I could have anything I want if I just sell a couple of million dollar books.

Yeah, I’ll get right on that, Honey. Now, go watch the football game in our bedroom.


  1. Dena Fender30 October, 2009

    A bit on edge today?

  2. Just a tad, though dear husband's talking on the microphone has improved a bit now that we had a serious 'Come to Jesus' talk about it. Not only could I not work the other night, but I could not hear the TV over his yammering on.

  3. Girl! You need a laptop!

    I'm in the same fix you are. Right this very second I'm in my bedroom, door locked, and laptop in hand. (The kids are off today for a teacher workday.) Later, I might be taking the laptop out to the park for my office space, or the coffeehouse, or the library.

    It's so totally worth it. And it's really how I keep from murdering members of my family. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Sara Gruen said she wrote her first novel (or three?) in a space she cleared out for her desk in her master bedroom closet. And the rest, as they say, is history ... :) She can probably afford a room of her own now.

  5. Joyce Bischoff30 October, 2009

    A laptop comuter should be at the top of your wish list. It would make all the difference in your life. You could go someplace quiet, away from hubby and the games. My laptop is a vital piece of my life and I take it all over the world with me.

  6. Melissa O'Neal30 October, 2009

    And I've been feeling sorry for myself because my husband retired and is home twenty-four & a half hours a day.

  7. Yes Elizabeth, Julie and Joyce, I desperately need a laptop, but having just purchased a new bed and a new computer (for dear husband, so the eight-year-old could have his old one as she was always on mine) we can't afford one at the moment. I'm asking around now to see if anyone has one they don't need that they could sell cheaply. I don't need anything fancy - Microsoft Word, internet, USB port...

    Melissa, if he were home all the time, I think I would go completely mad within a week.

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  9. Hey Kim, I agree with everyone who said get that laptop so you can have some peace. What struggles we women have to overcome!

    A room of ones own is a lovely thing.

    Lorna in Canada (can't figure out how to post as anything but "Anonymous")

  10. Thanks for sharing about this topic with us this time. Were you inspired by my questions about your office and how it is set up? The images helped me to picture exactly what your office (ie where all the magic happens) really looks like. We have such similar taste and organization preferences that it's chilling.

  11. It's in the blood, Dan.

    Lorna, I remember your room, and envy you. Even though it's nearly winter in Kitchener, I'd rather be there! I'll house-sit when you go to Mexico...

  12. Kim, you can have the spare bedroom here. It's large, for an old house, with two closets. Bring several power strips for your electronics - there are just two outlets in the room - part of the old house "charm." The house is fairly quiet, given I work nights and sleep days, but with the closure of two of the three entrances into the Iowa Veterans Home, traffic on Jerome Street can be crazy. Your old stompin' ground in Ames is just 40 minutes to the west, exciting Des Moines is 45 minutes on four lane, and sometimes, on bitterly cold windy days in February, you can smell Canada!

    Mike Ahrens in Marshalltown

  13. Hi Mike,

    You have no idea how tempting that offer is (though I'd need a laptop first.) I know from experience that winters in Iowa encourage people to remain indoors, and thus would keep me working! Great Plains Sauce and Dough Company in Ames (only 40 minutes away!) would be a great draw. I miss their pizza! And, of course, you'd be the perfect housemate for a writer, as you are either sleeping or not at home. Ah, I can dream...

  14. I was the only girl of five kids - so I had my own room most of my childhood. But, five kids - well - it's loud, even if you hide in your room!

    I love my laptop because I can take it anywhere in my little log house. Mostly, though, it's here in the study where I can sit in my leather chair and look out the window to the smoky mountain view.

    Nice post here!

  15. Kathryn,

    Five kids? I can't even imagine the noise, especially since four were boys. Both of my kids are girls and they are loud enough.

    I envy you that view. Dallas isn't very scenic...

  16. Jeanette Ahrens01 November, 2009

    Hi Kim,
    Thanks for the glimpse into the life of a real writer. It's not at all the romanticized idyllic process I had pictured wherein you retreat to your immense study with it's own crackling fireplace in the winter and sit in quiet and contemplate the whispers of the ghosts or fairies with whom you have communed when following the footsteps of Carl and Madonna.

    Of course, I should have known those beautiful daughters of yours weren't quiet and docile. That doesn't run in the family genes and their eyes are dancing even in still photography! Lol, you wouldn't have it any other way. As you know all too well, life is short and some things, like your family, are the most treasured and important.

    Those ghosts or fairies will just have to speak up!

  17. Your wit, as well as your frustrations, come out in this well written piece. Personally knowing just how high the noise level can get in your work area, I'm truly amazed at the quality and quantity of writing you've done there. A laptop is a must for you. Sure hope you can find a good used one.

  18. HI Kim:

    I liked your blog and photos and have thought of sending you some of my work space which is similar but maybe larger (sorry!) and with multi shelves both in and out of the closet. So far no time to take the photos... When we moved to this house in 2000 and I knew I needed space for my "work" I had the (small) clothes closet fitted with shelves on which I could store my (at that time) 69+ photo albums/binders. I still have "real" photos that I want to keep.

    My situation is a lot different from yours -- no kids; only grown-ups and gran'dogs; do do some writing though. Keep "fighting."

    I have always had laptops and love them. Now I'm ready to move to a larger one. I could save this one for you. When are you coming to K-W again :)

  19. Laptop prices are not that bad if what you are looking for is word processing more than the bells and whistles of video, etc. If you can do your research on the desktop, with the aid of a cheap flash drive ($30), to move your files back and forth, you can write on a laptop for $500-600. I'd give you my old HP but I did promise it to Nonna when I get home.

    Love you, Dad

  20. Hi Dad,

    I got a netbook yesterday, drastically on sale at Fry's. It has a larger screen than most and I can easily hook up a full sized keyboard and mouse. It even has WiFi and a built in webcam. Now I just have to have Max set me up so I can access the internet.

    I know the old HP is for Nonna, and she needs it even more than I do. No worries!

  21. Marion,

    I wish I could come up to K-W today. I have a netbook now and so I think this will drastically help. I'll at least be able to be portable and escape the mayhem of the living room.



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