Necessary Conditions for Creativity
Virginia Woolf was wrong
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Welcome to Spirit: Notes for the Creative Contemplative, where I discuss the role of literature, creativity, and mindfulness in culture through personal essays. I’m the author of What Will Outlast Me? (Unsolicited Press 2023), and I’m the founder of Writers’ Studio, an online literary arts education program.
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“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write,” according to Virginia Woolf. She gave this advice in a lecture that was published in 1929 as A Room of One’s Own.
The myth that to produce art, literature, or to receive Divine revelation one must have the ability to retreat from the world and be financially provided for continues to persist. The artist retreats to her studio, the monk to his cell, and from this space of quiet and solitude, a painting emerges, or a conduit to God is forged. While this may be true, to some extent, it’s a narrow view.
I’ve romanticized having a room of my own to write in since I was in sixth-grade. I’d read in a Writers’ Digest book from the public library that is was crucial for a writer to have a dedicated workspace, and I lamented that I’d never become a real writer until I had a room to write in.
Looking back, this reminds me of the Velveteen Rabbit. The rabbit wants to hurry-along becoming real, but the Skin Horse explains that it doesn’t happen all at once, “You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.”
Doing the work of an artist or a mystic is an on-going process that takes a lifetime. The conditions from which creativity spring are as various and richly nuanced as the people creating. It’s a process that involves necessary hardships, and if one is too isolated (too carefully kept, too easily crushed) then nothing much happens.
It’s easy to get frustrated by less than ideal conditions. If I just had a month at Yaddo, if I just had free childcare, if I could take a paid sabbatical, then surely, I’d get my great American novel written. How quickly logic devolves: Woolf became a world-famous novelist because she had servants. That’s the missing piece in my writing life: someone to cook and clean so I can write!
I do not want to argue about inequality. It’s a problem. There are under privileged people everywhere who are not supported by our social systems, whose labor is not valued, who are exploited. I am lucky. I now have a room of my own. I have a home studio that is mine alone to write and create in, and yet, ugly self-pity still sneaks in. I have the room, but how do I make the time? I love my job as an assistant professor, but it’s demanding work that takes time and energy away from my creative writing. It’s also a necessity. (Unlike Woolf, I do not have an aunt that willed me an annual income that, today, would be the equivalent of $41,000).
I recently attended a writing conference at a fancy private school. (Fancy meaning that tuition there is over 10 times the cost of tuition at the college where I teach), which is a lot like the disparity of the women’s college that Woolf compares to the men-only Oxbridge (a fictional Oxford) in A Room of One’s Own. The women get watery soup and prunes, the men steaks and wine. Among other elitist claims, Woolf argues that fine-dining helps one think well and create well. Maybe. Over a $7 iced latte one morning, I lamented to a friend. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to have that level of wealth those students have. Life would be easier.” She replied, “I know what those college students are like: my company used to interview them for internships, but we didn’t hire them. They were just too smooth. They have no texture.”
Sometimes our very life struggles fuel our most profound creative and spiritual work. If my life was smoothed over—by say a trust fund—it might also be erased of its inspiration. One requirement of my MFA program was to write an apologia, from the Greek “speaking in defense” of my writing. In it, I wrote about how growing up poor, in the rural Midwest deeply influences my writing. Michael Ryan, in his essay, “Tell me a Story,” describes this well:
“How deeply we are formed by what happens to us, whom we’re born to, the previous generations who live in us. We are probably also what happened to them, even if we don’t’ know what that is or even who they were, shards embedded in stories and chromosomes.”
The notion that isolation is a necessary condition for creative and spiritual enlightenment is also a myth. Even anchorites like Julian of Norwich didn’t live in absolute solitude. Her small cell attached to the church had a window on one side, through which she could participate in communion, and a window to the public on the other, which she could talk with people passing by.
While solitude is helpful, and necessary at times, I find I work best when my writing is baked into my life, kneaded into and worked alongside the nonnegotiable in my schedule. It’s notebook writing in the lobby of AquaTots while my son takes his swimming lesson. It’s setting the alarm for 30 minutes earlier so I have a bit of time to dash off my morning pages. It’s carrying a reporter’s notebook when I go to the park or on walks, so I can catch stray thoughts. It’s It’s squeezing in writing time while Stanley plays at a messy kitchen table. It’s writing alongside my students in the classroom. It’s setting appointments with myself, to yes, write in my own room.
Once a week, I meet on Zoom with my Writers’ Support Group hosted by Writers’ Studio. We commiserate about our busy lives, our struggle with our manuscripts, and we share the creative, inventive ways we’ve found to make our writing an integral, baked-in part of our lives, and it looks different for every writer.
Even Woolf’s financial privilege didn’t make her life easy. Like all of us, her life had ragged edges, and a painful struggle with depression caused her suicide.
It’s not an easy life, this writing life, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s labor that makes one loose in the joints, a bit shabby around the edges because it must be earned through the living, through experience, and through a lot of hard work.