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Sunday, December 13, 2009
A Room of One's Own by Gillian Roberts
Gillian Roberts is a figment who employs Judy Greber (the author of four mainstream novels in which people die, but nobody cares whodunit ) to ghostwrite for her. “Gillian” titles include two mysteries set in Marin County, Time and Trouble and Whatever Doesn’t Kill You, a how-to, You Can Write a Mystery, a short story collection and the fourteen books in the Anthony Award winning Amanda Pepper series.
Judy’s taught writing at College of Marin and Book Passage, and was adjunct faculty in USF’s MFA in Writing Program for a dozen years.
Currently, Judy is working on a ridiculously-difficult-to-research historical mystery. What Gillian’s been doing these past few decades remains a mystery.
A Room of One's Own
by Gillian Roberts and Judy Greber
Virginia Woolf famously said “a woman must have a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” She also said she must have money, an (inherited, she meant) income.
Nonetheless, I wrote my first book, Caught Dead in Philadelphia, without a room of my own, and my income was a (small) paycheck for teaching an overloaded roster at a private school. When I could steal an hour from my crowded life, I wrote at a small desk in a corner of the bedroom.
This worked well enough, but only when nobody else was around. Family members--well-meaning, loving though they be--have an unconscious need to take remedial action when they notice that you are totally happy without them. This is inborn--infants instinctively know how to do it. (Ask any mother what happens when she makes a phone call. If needs be, the formerly contented child will smash his own body parts if that’s what it takes to get her full attention back.)
So there I’d be, totally happy in my stolen moments with only the Selectric and the pictures in my mind, which should have set up a red flag. Because too often, a child would wander, as if in a trance, into the room and turn the typewriter off because...well, he wasn’t sure why. And one infamous sunny Saturday afternoon, when I was writing, the bedroom door opened and in came my husband and our two sons--plus a deflated basketball and a bicycle pump. The trio seated themselves cheerfully on the bed and proceeded to pump up the ball.
After I had regained the ability to speak (okay, the ability to screech) I asked, “WHY? WHY INSIDE? WHY IN HERE?” Their reactions were straight out of a cartoon. Mouths agape, eyes popping, they looked at each other, at me, at the basketball, at their surroundings, even more bewildered than I was.
We worked on that and reached a shaky peace, but naturally, when we moved again, I was thrilled to acquire a room of my own, even if it wasn’t quite a room yet. My office began life as a diminutive deck off the kitchen. The next owner turned it into her pottery workshop, but it was a peculiar half-inside, half-outside sort of place as if she couldn’t commit to clay vs. porch. The walls were brown shingles, the original exterior sliding glass separated me from the hallway, and an enormous window looked into the kitchen. It is a weirdly uncomfortable experience to do your thing in a room with three glass walls, unless you’re a guppy.
Over the years, we removed the shingles, made the kitchen dividing wall solid, put down wood floors, and created a normal interior doorway. To cap it off, and my husband built me my (enormous) dream desk. The former porch has no subflooring, so it’s the hottest place in the house in summer, the coldest in winter. And the desk apparently isn’t sufficiently enormous to avoid being cluttered 99% of the time. Doesn’t matter. It’s mine.
I’d always heard that a writer should face a blank wall in a spartan room in order to avoid distractions, but I’d rather eat glass than stare at a blank wall all day. Bad enough I stare at a blank screen and try not to think about my blank brain--adding to that emptiness would be masochistic overkill.
I therefore work in an absence of blankness. In back, glass doors face a garden bursting with life. And even if that were not so, I’ve filled the room with a medley of chatchkes and treasures. Above my desk, a poster of Georgia O’Keeffe scowls down at me. I look up at her amazing weathered face and I hear her saying, “I’m ninety and can barely see, but I’m still painting. How are you using your time, Missy?” Pinned to the poster is a tin angel that quotes James Michener with the words, “I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” On the bookshelves across the room, I can see my past work, and on my bulletin board, a book-shaped milagro. I’m therefore surrounded by all the varieties of help I can find--nagging, encouragement, a reminder that I can do it (or at least, could), and most definitely, miracles.
Near Ms. O’Keeffe, there’s a photograph I bought at a street market in Argentina. It shows a well-groomed member of the public looking down at a seated lump of a man, his beard unkempt and his pathetic possessions in a shopping cart topped by a hand lettered sign that says, in Spanish, “Poetry for Sale.” They didn’t have one that said, “Mysteries for Sale,” but I feel a kinship with that guy and am also afraid of becoming him, so he’s another prompt to get to work.
There are lots of things that amuse me. Frogs of many shapes and materials. Souvenirs from trips, gifts received and treasured. A charcoal drawing I did of my husband. The girl and boy bookends that were in my nursery, several millennia ago. A clock with no numbers. Instead, in place of the 12, it says, “read a book, ” and “read another book” at 12:15, and “read yet another book” at half past the hour and “buy more books” at a quarter of anything.
And then, there’s my waste paper basket. When I sold my first book, I spread my world-class collection of rejection slips out, chose only one per publication and glued them to an industrial-sized basket. For the twenty-nine years since then, I’ve looked at the collage: J. B. Lippincott, Young Family, The Saturday Evening Post, Atheneum, Girl Talk, McCall’s--so many others--where are you now? Maybe if you’d published me...? Probably not, but it still gives me pleasure to use it for my rejects.
One caveat: it isn’t truly a room of my own. I share it with an aged, ill-tempered tabby cat, Mehitabel, who keeps me company while I write. I am sure she does this is out of love and literary interests, not because I have a heating pad on ‘her’ chair. She’s named after the wild, sluttish tabby in the terrific Archie and Mehitabel books, which I hope you already knew. If not--highly recommended. I, of course, am Archie, the typing cockroach. I think of her as my muse. She thinks of me as her amusement. It works.
Virginia and all the writing experts would disapprove of what I’ve done with my room. They’d see a small, cluttered space with too many distractions, and they’d be right. But I see a room truly made my own. And I see stories everywhere around me--the stories of my life.
Virginia Woolf was a genius, but still a bit wrong about the necessity of a room of one’s own (let alone the income.) It is indeed lovely to have one (lovelier to have both), but the truth is, despite all the distractions around me, at those miraculous times when a brand-new story takes shape in my imagination, I barely notice the walls and shelves. Not even the wastepaper basket.