Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Place That Works, or, A Room Of One's Own

Elizabeth Berg is an acclaimed author who has penned several novels. When she writes an essay telling you what you need to be a writer, her words are worth heeding.

What advice does she have?

You should feel things, she suggests. Have you ever read an account of some incident and found yourself burning with anger? It was anger that started Katie Hanrahan on writing THE LEAVEN OF THE PHARISEES, and her anger comes through in the powerful emotion of the story. Children taken from their mothers for the crime of being poor? The government deciding which women were of suitable moral character to raise their children, and which were overstepping the bounds, as determined by a parish priest or a visiting nun? Young women enslaved for the crime of being pregnant out of wedlock, for the crime of being pretty? There is strong emotion running through the novel, and it came about from casual reading of newspaper reports that inspired a driving outrage.

That a writer has to notice things fits with the image of a writer as that person in the corner watching everything but saying little. John McGahern had a reputation in his hometown of mingling with the locals, watching them as they went about their normal activities, but always observing. His observations of small town Irish life fleshed out his novels. Readers can relate to characters that are familiar to them. As a writer, if you bring that element of reality, you have done well.

Wasn't it Virginia Woolf who said a writer needed a room of one's own? Elizabeth Berg reiterates that requirement, and if you are a man with a wife to do the housework and maintain you in comfort, you are a step ahead of everyone else.

To have a space to work is not asking much. You don't need an entire room. A corner somewhere. A desk where you can prop up your research documents, your pens, extra paper, maybe a laptop if you're doing writing the modern way. But what you need, as Ms. Berg points out in her essay, is uninterrupted time to think about words and then put them down before reading them and listening to them and starting over again.

What woman has that kind of luxury?

If you work full time, your day is filled. Then you come home and throw food on the table, monitor homework, entertain your spouse who has to tell you about something that happened during the day. Maybe you and your husband argue about finances and the need to squeeze another drop of blood out of the financial turnip that month.

After all that, are you going to sit down and work on a novel and not expect to be disturbed by a phone call, the husband looking for the packet of crisps he thought he saw in the back of the cupboard, or a whining child?

Is there a writer out there who does not write full time, or work in academia where they don't work much at all, and who can tell female writers how they manage to write with all the normal distractions that a woman faces because, let's face it, if a man is working on a novel it's something of earth shattering importance. If a woman is trying to write, well, it's charming, what is it, dear, a nice romance like one of Cecilia Ahern's stories?

That attitude is even worse than the constant rejection you face when you try to get that novel published after all those years of squeezing in a paragraph here or a chapter there. Any writers out there who have advice on how to overcome that sort of frustration?

A supportive family could be of far greater importance than a room of one's own.

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