Through the Portal to A Room of One’s Own

Star Trek: The City on the Edge of Forever

It’s been a while since I’ve read Virginia Woolf‘s A Room of One’s Own. Her title has become a writing aphorism, a quip that people say without, often without knowing the content of the slim volume that accompanies it. Here she is talking about the difference between how women are portrayed in literature and how they are viewed in real life:

“Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance … She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband.”

Sadly, her argument for the need for a literal and figural space for women writers within the literary tradition is still relevant. For a more recent example check out Matt Debenham’s recent post, The Gilmour(s)* Down the Hall.

What I’m thinking about today is that title. The idea of a room of one’s own. Woolf’s posits that a woman must have a room of her own in order to write. I don’t have my own room, and neither does my husband, yet we both manage to write. Charles Bukowski also refutes Woolf’s idea with his poem Air and Light and Time and Space. When I write at home I usually do it at the dining room table or on the living room couch. I also write in coffeehouses and waiting rooms and sometimes on the bus. I write in my journal, on my computer, and on the cloud.

Yet, the title continues to resonate because it has an internal logic not entirely connected with the concerns of Woolf’s essay. I see a room of one’s own as a kind of portal. The one that all storytellers step through in order to first experience and then create a story. (Of course, the Portal story is an especially popular fantasy trope, and nothing new.) I think this trope is so attractive to writers because it represents the experience of writing a story. Karen Russell, for example speaks of staying “zipped into” a story. Because the story you’re telling is a kind of place, something you can, and must, get inside.

Alice and the looking glass

Instead of a door or a looking glass or a magic wardrobe, my portal is the blank page. On the other side is a safe place where I can leap and fall, where I can try and fail. Behind closed doors is where I write the zero draft. The one no one but me gets to see. The empty page is not daunting to me. Its blankness invites me to step through into that room where anything can happen.

Virginia Woolf

 * Ironically, Virginia Woolf appears to be the only woman writer Gilmour does like.

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