The Public Square

Laura Marland on A Headroom of One’s Own


My name is Laura Marland. I'm a free-lance writer and artist, newly settled in Broadlands, Illinois.

My friend Carol and I have, once or twice, gotten into a minor tiff about what it takes to be a writer. Carol was my high-school history teacher many years ago, and she does, bless her heart, tend toward a certain all-knowing maternalism, which, at times, drives me nuts.

The tiff develops when she points out to me that to be a writer, one has to write every day, for a significant length of time.

"Get real," I say. "If that were true, no one except the wealthy would ever get out a book. People who do dishes, change diapers, work as firefighters, clerks, bartenders, bankers, they write."

I get impatient with talk about What It Takes to Be a Writer because I think it's based on Romantic notions that place more importance on artists than on art and argues for an irrelevant perfectionism that dwells uneasily with creativity.

But there is, famously, an argument about another "requirement" of the writing life that has influenced me-Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. She points out that a writer must have what few women of her day had--a place to engage in that most unfeminine activity-thought.

In the spring I married the man of my dreams; last summer we moved to a house in the southeastern edge of Champaign County, Illinois. The floor's bare; nothing matches; it's crowded; it's home. But there's a problem. It's just one big room.

We've got plans. My husband has begun designing the attic, says it's got plenty of room for a separate study for me. A Room of My Own, where I can retire and write.

But for now, I write at an old farmhouse kitchen table, inches from the big table at which we spend most of our time. Beyond the window in front of me there's a crabapple tree, swarming with robins. They make quite a picture: the birds, the berries, the clear blue sky of early autumn.

Of course, I haven't written anything when anyone's around-neither my husband nor my two stepchildren, who come to stay every few weekends, and are, like their father, bearers of light and laughter and joy.

They are a great gift to me, the only children I will every have.

But I get tense when I hear they're planning to come.

My husband knows why. He says it's because I act like their arrival is the Second Coming. I cook; I clean; I treat them like honored guests. He says I need to learn to treat them like children, who understand that grown-ups have things to do. And really just want to be around.

So last weekend, while they were here, I popped Beethoven into my Walkman, sat down at my little blue table, inches from where my new family gathered, and wrote.

The Pastoral filled my head; the birds perched; the keys of my laptop clicked. I had achieved something that wasn't available to Virginia Woolf: an electronic space. Headroom of My Own.

Between my last marriage and this one, I had plenty of time to be alone. I had an apartment overlooking Lake Michigan where waves crashed on the beach across the street. I had, my friends said, Taken Control of My Life and My Space. I didn't write a word.

It will be spring before the attic space is finished, spring before I can climb to my perfect little writer's retreat, sit among my books, be alone, and create.

I'm going to get lonely and go downstairs to work.