When I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as a freshman at Kenyon College, I heard the siren call of subject: I wanted to write about my mother and her struggle to create a life as a writer. The only problem was that my mother was alive and her struggle was not mine to write about because it would be touching on my mother’s unhappiness, a thing we lived with as a family but did not discuss because it was the air we breathed.
That kind of air. The I am fine, but can you please find the matches so I can light my cigarette kind of fine.
I was able to write about these things after my mother died. I waited thirty years.
Telling my mother’s story within my own story was grounding for me. The words I pulled from inside my body and put on the page brought me, finally, to the ground. My love for my mother had tethered me to the planet but because I hadn’t been able to talk or write freely, my feet and sense of self had dangled above ground until my mother died and I fell apart and rebuilt myself through language and brought myself, finally, home.
A Room of One’s Own is a long essay based on a series of lectures Virginia Woolf gave to two different women’s colleges in the 1920’s. I was eighteen years old when I read it, and it went straight into my spine and has stayed there ever since. I took it as the voice of experience whispering to me vital information my mother, despite her Smith and Columbia education, had missed. It hit me with almost the same velocity as the time I first looked at my father’s Playboy collection. Both times I realized the world was not at all as I saw it. There was so much more going on below the surface.
But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what, has that got to do with a room of one’s own? I will try to explain. When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant.
Growing up, what I saw was that my primary job was to try to provide enough space for my mother to find her happiness, for her to write, but it was like trying to stop a river by throwing sand into it. The rush of my Type A mother’s to-do list quickly swept away any gaps of freedom in her busy life. It didn’t matter if I cooked dinners or cleaned the house or took care of my brothers. My mother did once for a few months lock herself into a coat closet she’d converted into an office and attempted to write a Harlequin romance because she figured any dummy could write something that came with such a detailed and formulaic outline, but she was too smart to be a dummy, and her book was not published, and so she came out of the closet and got to work on other things, things less close to her heart than words, things that would help put a new room on the house and food on the table. Things called jobs.
All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.
Virginia Woolf talks about what a woman needs to write fiction, but I have always read her essay to cover what a woman needs to write anything. A story is a story is a story.
My mother needed money and a room with a lock on it so no one could bother her. She didn’t get those things, or she didn’t claim those things, until she was in her sixties, and that’s when Louisa Catherine, The Other Mrs. Adams was finally born.
In the May 2, 2014 New York Times Book Review, Virgina DeJohn Anderson wrote about my mother’s book: This biography concludes abruptly with Adams’s 1825 inauguration, 27 years before Louisa’s death. It thus ends prematurely, but so too did the life of its author. Heffron, an independent scholar, succumbed to cancer before finishing a project that engaged her imagination for more than 30 years. Readers will nonetheless be grateful for this fascinating, if partial, portrait of an exceptional woman, and regret that its talented author fell silent too soon.
I had been sitting by the banks of the river of myself ever since I could remember, trying to figure out what certain words meant: Anne, daughter, mother, father, story, writing, life, hunger, love, adopted.
If Katherine Stockett had not given me the space to write my book, and if Citibank had not given me that credit card, I may have died as my mother did: a partial portrait, a person with unfinished business. I may never have explored my deepest questions; I many never have named what mattered most to me in my life as defined one word after another in a book I called You Don’t Look Adopted.
Now it’s your turn.
I have wonderful news for all of you who think that because of life’s pressing needs you will be one of those women (or men! Leap in!) who never gets a room of her own and who therefore will never be able to write the book she (or he!) carries inside.
I figured something out.
After writing my own book and helping many others write theirs, I realized the room we need is in the body we inhabit. When you close your eyes, the world disappears. All that remains, if you listen closely, is the sound of your own breath filling your body. Your room. Your place of limitless potential and creativity.
I understand that money and an actual room with a door makes writing so much easier than sitting in a parked car scribbling notes on an index card between going to the grocery store and picking your mother up at her chemo appointments but, in that car, scribbling, no matter how scattered your soul and brain may feel, the fact is you are writing.
So I went back to my inn, and as I walked through the dark streets I pondered this and that, as one does at the end of the day’s work. I pondered why it was that Mrs Seton had no money to leave us; and what effect poverty has on the mind; and what effect wealth has on the mind; and I thought of the queer old gentlemen I had seen that morning with tufts of fur upon their shoulders; and I remembered how if one whistled one of them ran; and I thought of the organ booming in the chapel and of the shut doors of the library; and I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; and, thinking of the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other and of the effect of tradition and of the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer, I thought at last that it was time to roll up the crumpled skin of the day, with its arguments and its impressions and its anger and its laughter, and cast it into the hedge. A thousand stars were flashing across the blue wastes of the sky. One seemed alone with an inscrutable society. All human beings were laid asleep—prone, horizontal, dumb. Nobody seemed stirring in the streets of Oxbridge. Even the door of the hotel sprang open at the touch of an invisible hand—not a boots was sitting up to light me to bed, it was so late.
There are so many reasons not to write. Harvey Weinstein. Food stamps. Constipation. Fear. But here is the truth, at the end of the day, you have a choice. You can pick up your pen, you can sit at your computer, and you can write.
Or you can just live your life.
It’s a win win. Living a life is a pretty wonderful thing, unless, of course, you feel you carry a story inside that you want or need to tell.
Then you better get to work. Make your space holy: honor your body, its needs. Listen to it. Live in it. Write down your life just because you can.
Grab those flashcards and those five minutes. Write down one thing that matters to you.
And then just keep going.