What’s More Important Than “A Room of One’s Own”? This.
by Lisa Brunette
I was standing there under the fluorescent lights, sniffling a bit from the inherent and persistent dust hanging in the air, and I saw it: the desk of my dreams. It was a hulking mass of heavy wood, sturdy as the hospital from whence it came. Built in the 1940s, this desk was as fat as a Volkswagon bug, with a file platform that slid out and then accordioned upward on a huge, spring-loaded metal arm. The drawer handles were made of Bakelite, and I didn’t mind that two of them were busted in half, hanging from the drawer like forlorn commas.
For the low, low price of forty bucks the desk was mine. It had been reclaimed from Tacoma General Hospital by an organization that works to divert construction waste from landfills. Most of their stock was the stuff of both institutional construction projects – bowling alley planks, massive window casings, high school lab tables – and residential – ductwork, bathroom tiles, and odd bits of old lumber. So the desk was a rare find, even here. I was convinced that, sanded down and repaired, it would be worth hundreds.
But more than its monetary worth was its emotional value to me, as a writer who’d worked so hard to get her own writing space. This was the first real desk I’d picked out and bought for myself, you see. Having what Virginia Woolf called “a room of one’s own” was important to me as a woman writer, and it was something that I’d always had to finagle around to get.
Growing up, I never had a desk or other place to work in the family home. There were always four of us kids divided between two bedrooms, and my parents were single-income – my father a military enlistee – so there was never money for anything so frivolous as a desk. I’d used moving boxes as bookshelves wherever we went. You did your homework at the kitchen table, which was a challenge with the TV blaring in the next room, or even in the same room.
I bought an old cast iron Smith-Corona typewriter for six dollars at a yard sale once. It was an antique (I’m not quite that old). The going thing in the Eighties would have been an IBM Selectric, but I could only use those at school. For privacy, I sat on the floor in my bedroom, crouched over that Smith-Corona, typing research papers on onionskin paper.
In high school, my boyfriend took pity on me and gave me his castoff desk, a very old factory-made desk that was so tiny I banged my knees on the sides all the time. I took that little desk with me from St. Louis to Miami to Tacoma. The glass top didn’t survive the move to Miami, and the only chair that fit between the drawers on either side was a casualty of the cross-country move to Tacoma. I hadn’t been using it much as a desk all this time, anyway; I ended up sitting at old kitchen tables, just like I did as a kid.
But I tried to make sure I always had a room to work in at least – an easier feat in the Midwest where space wasn’t so much a premium. My then-husband and I decided to arrange our home-life to reflect the importance of creative work in our lives, so I took the dining room as an office, and he sprawled the length of the basement for his art studio. In Miami, we took turns using the lanai for our workspace, as it had a bank of windows on three walls, looking out on poinciana trees. I shouldn’t have signed on for loans to pay for a house to rent while I was on a grad school stipend, but I did.
When we purchased our first home in Tacoma, we bought it with our workspaces in mind. He had a split-level upstairs with adjoining attic, and I had a family room, once I ripped out the carpeting, which had been saturated with dog pee by the previous owner’s pet. I set that massive hospital desk on top of painted sub-floor. And I spent hours scoping out antique stores for replacement Bakelite handles, never finding them.
Ironically, I never wrote a novel at that desk.
The artist husband and I never made it. Throughout our eleven-year marriage, his art studios and my writing offices were always awkward fits, whether it was ceiling height in an attic or the lingering aroma of dog pee in the family room. They ended up being metaphors for our failed marriage: two creatives, equal but separate, in opposite wings of houses that never lived up to our dreams, caught up in solitary struggles to find our visions and voices. He never stopped complaining about the shortcomings of his spaces, or desiring more space. I never stopped striving for something better, to make the magic work.
It took moving again and having that not work out either, then hardship, then divorce, then a long stretch of solitude before I was ready to create again. And the magic I discovered wasn’t a desk at all.
It wasn’t until years later, in a small apartment where I had neither a desk nor a room of my own, that I finally wrote and finished a novel. I’d given the hospital desk away to Goodwill – in contrast to the hundreds I believed it would fetch once good-as-new, a consignment shop refused to take it, saying it was in too bad of shape. That made me a little sad, but I gave it away gladly, hoping someone would delight in the find, as I had.
The reason for my sacrifice of both desk and room? Love.
I’d met someone wonderful, and he came with an equally wonderful kid in tow. Seattle being the spendy city it is, we had only two bedrooms. I’d been living alone for years pretty luxuriously in a two-by-one, my old hospital desk filling the second bedroom, and yeah, we could have splurged on something a lot bigger, but in contrast to my ex-husband, this guy and I could discuss money and make practical plans for the future. A three-bedroom didn’t factor into those plans. For he and his boy to move in, the desk would have to go.
So it did. And I turned around and wrote a novel anyway, because this time, I wasn’t just an artist in a house with another artist, the two of us working in our own heads and landscapes. This time I was part of a family, and I had their constant, rallying support. They are two big, smelly boys, neither of whom could find a roll of toilet paper if it were hanging around their necks, but they believe in me even when I don’t believe in myself. They are quiet when I need them to be, knowing when to leave me alone and when to distract me with their boisterous presence. And their love makes me soldier onward, even in the middle of the living room with a computer on my lap. The only room of my own here is a state of mind.