Make room for writing

If you really want to write, you will do it anywhere: under trees, on the bus, in the bathroom, or in a booth at a noisy cafe.

First published in 1929, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf is often reduced to a catchphrase for writers and architects who have not even read the book. Originally penned as two lectures, Woolf’s landmark essay asserts that every woman writer should have a substantial income and a room of her own if she is to produce literature worthy of publication and readership.

Furthermore, Woolf said, women who want to write ought to be given the freedom to travel and they must have plenty of idle time for daydreaming and creating. That was very progressive talk for the 1920s.

And while it is not exactly earth shattering today, A Room of One’s Own is still considered a major milestone for women writers. Whenever I am asked to name 10 books that changed my life, this one never fails to top the list.

Excuses, excuses!

Not surprisingly, the subject of finding or creating the perfect writing space” always comes up in the writing workshops I teach. Sadly, not having a room of one’s own is the most popular excuse for not writing anything. I have met a few self-described procrastinators who have an extra guest room, for instance, but insist they cannot work there because it is poorly lit, uninspiring, too small, too cluttered, too close to the neighbor’s window, or cursed with bad feng shui.

But sooner or later, every serious writer arrives at this truth: If you really want to write, you will do it anywhere: under trees, on the bus, in the bathroom, or in a booth at a noisy cafe. Serious writers need only a pen and a notebook to get started. And nothing – not even a bad view or ugly curtains – will stop us.

That said, I believe Virginia Woolf made an excellent point about the need for peace and privacy, and she did not even have kids to distract her.

Setting boundaries, closing doors

Working with little ones underfoot is another challenge entirely. When my own son was a toddler, I began freelancing in the damp basement of our 1920s home. If you are a younger parent who is eager to combine writing with motherhood and homemaking, setting up shop at a kids craft table next to the laundry room might sound convenient.

But I quickly discovered this was not what Virginia had in mind.

Working in a murky basement became a metaphor for the way I undervalued my career at the time. Aside from the fact that the ambiance was vaguely reminiscent of Freddy Krueger’s boiler room, my desk was typically littered with construction paper or my preschooler’s science experiments. Settling in to write, I would find blue finger paint or Play-Doh oozing from my paper-clip container. My scissors and rolls of tape mysteriously disappeared.

Meanwhile, the clothes dryer kept buzzing, which did not exactly impress editors when I phoned to pitch stories.

A year later, I moved my office upstairs to a sunroom with windows overlooking the yard. Not so coincidentally, I started taking my work seriously then. My writing became both a career and a vocation. I established a tighter writing schedule and contributed regularly to several local newspapers and national magazines.

Two years ago, my husband generously agreed to renovate my office-sunroom, adding shelves and counter-top space for books, a printer, and office supplies. Most important of all, my home office has a glass door to help establish my boundaries.

Clearing your own space

Every writer is different, so you will have to experiment until you find what works for you.

Not long ago, I met a parenting columnist who was also the brave mother of four little boys. She could not afford to rent a class A office space so picked the cheap office space just ten minutes from her house, which seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. But after three months of commuting back and forth to work and trying to coordinate an awkward breast-feeding schedule, the columnist admitted her new office was not so ideal. The clamor of family life is what kept her energized and motivated.

If you do not have the luxury of a spare bedroom or an attic with a desk, claim a corner of the house where you can focus on your work. Use the area just for writing (or your other creative projects) and keep supplies within easy reach. Put up a folding screen for privacy while you work; or use it to conceal your works-in-progress. Creating an official space for your creative life will dignify your goals and intentions. You will find it easier to follow a routine – and harder to keep making excuses.

If you do not already have a room of your own, can you describe your ideal space – right down to the supplies you would need? What would you have to do to make it a reality?

-Cindy La Ferle

Note: Part of this essay is excerpted from a previously published essay “Home Sweet Office” — which appears in full in my book, Writing Home.

Top photo: a glimpse of my recently remodeled home office in Royal Oak.

Notes from Janus

And now, let us welcome the New Year/ Full of things that have never been.” — Rainer Maria Rilke

janus-statue-in-vatican-wc-pdIt’s perfect — how the month of January is named for Janus, the Roman god of gates and entrances, beginnings and endings.  With his two heads facing opposite directions, Janus inspires us to look backward and forward as we step over the threshold and begin again.

Last year was a year of change and transition for me and my small family.

My only child, who moved to Chicago after graduating from college in 2008, purchased his first condo in the summer. On moving day, his dad helped him haul boxes up and down the elevator of his new residence while I organized his kitchen. Unpacking my son’s dinnerware and utensils, I recalled other “firsts” in his young life. First day of kindergarten. First formal dance with his girlfriend. First day of driver’s ed. First day of college at Notre Dame. How quickly those days flew off the pages of our family calendar.

Meanwhile — almost overnight — my widowed mother lost her old spark. Independent for years, she began forgetting things. Important things. She forgot that certain people in her life had died. She forgot phone conversations we’d had the day before. When tested by the neurologist, she couldn’t recall the name of the county we live in, or what day of the week it was.  Not surprisingly, in November she was diagnosed with early stage dementia — a diagnosis that immediately reordered my priorities and changed the shape of my days.

Looking forward; looking back. My son moves ahead with his new life in Chicago while my elderly mother’s world grows smaller and smaller. Clearly, the seasons of family living are unfolding exactly as they should. And despite the inevitable heartache, I find myself feeling deeply grateful for every step, stumble, or leap that brought me to this path, this life of mine.

As a freelance writer with a supportive husband, I’m lucky to have the flexibility to help my mother when she needs me. Impromptu trips with Mom to the doctor’s office or the emergency room aren’t fun — but they’re not as much of a challenge now as they would have been when I had office jobs.

Still, there’s no denying that it’s been a very tough year for every writer and journalist I know. If there’s a silver lining in any of it, the sad state of journalism here in Detroit forced many of us to try markets we’d neglected or overlooked when we were employed full-time or working other assignments. Out of necessity in 2009, I developed new writing workshops. I worked harder at promoting Writing Home. I outlined a viable idea for a new book project. Several of my personal essays were published in national anthologies and magazines. Best of all, a piece I wrote about my Zen garden was accepted for the March/April 2010 issue of Victoria — a lifestyle magazine I’ve read and admired for years. Regardless, freelance writing is a crazy business, so I’m forever grateful to my local writer pals and support groups for keeping me (somewhat) sane last year.

Typing these notes, I’m also overcome with gratitude for all of you who read my reflections here. Your comments and support always cheer me. And I apologize for not visiting (and commenting on) your blogs and Facebook walls as often as I wish I could. Too often lately, real life has made it impossible to spend as much time on my computer.

I’ll be offline for most of next week too. It’s time to pull down the Christmas decorations and begin the ritual of clearing out things I no longer need — holiday treats and leftovers; old clothes and grudges; bad attitudes. Getting started this morning, I opened our front and back doors to let the old year out and welcome the new one inside. It’s an old Celtic custom that’s still praticed in parts of Ireland and Scotland, and it makes perfect sense to me. The first cold blast of January wakes me up and hurries me back to work.

So there you have it. Doors opening and closing. Endings and beginnings. I wish you all a peaceful, healthy start for your own new year. — Cindy La Ferle

Now on exhibit


“A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.” — Henry David Thoreau

While I’m taking a break this week, I wanted to share a small piece of good news with you…. Earlier this month, I was honored to learn that one of my altered books, “Nature,” was chosen for inclusion in the annual Michigan Fine Arts Competition at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center.

For me, there has always been a mystical connection between writing and art — just as there is a connection between my gardening and cooking. Like many of my altered art and mixed media projects, “Nature” was inspired by a favorite work of literature — in this case, Thoreau’s Walden.  It was crafted from an old children’s board book and rebound with the cover of a turn-of-the-century leather insurance ledger from a thrift shop. The cardboard pages in the book are collaged and embellished with ephemera, nature quotes, and found objects collected from flea-market visits and, of course, nature walks. The exhibit runs through April 17. For more information, click here. — CL