room


My family and I live in a small house in a smallish city. Our home was built in 1903 with two stories, wood shingles, and a garage too small for our car. When friends visit from Tokyo or Manhattan, they marvel at the spaciousness and ooh over the lushness of our garden, but when people come from the country or suburbs, even their smiles look cramped.  

For us it’s perfect, though we’ve had to adapt. When our first daughter was born I became an expert organizer-simplifier and when our youngest arrived, I learned how to throw things away.  There is no more binging, but every day is a purge.  

At first, I felt deprived. In stores, I’d lech after things we didn’t need, as if I was decorating a dream house or assuming that one day, we’d upgrade to something larger.  

But I don’t do that any more.  Over the years, my spatial sense has adjusted to reality and, as a result, my entire aesthetic has shifted. My tastes, values, behavior, and even the way I write have evolved to fit the shape of my life.  For me, maintaining minimalism has become almost a spiritual practice.

As William Strunk Jr. said,  “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

I want everything to be meaningful.  If it’s not beautiful and useful at the same time, it better have some extraordinary significance because there’s no room for flab.  (To read more about my approach to creative home economics, read this.)  I don’t need adverbs, excess characters, or lengthy detail.  I don’t need to sound smart or repeat myself.  I don’t need most specialized electric cooking gadgets or clever tchotchkes or a hard copy of every photograph I’ve ever taken.  I don’t need.

Just as I was feeling virtuous and a wee bit smug, we decided it was time for our daughters’ to have their own rooms.  Until now, the girls have shared a room and it’s been fun and cozy but they are growing, and so are their interests and collections, so our family room (where I happen to write) will now be a bedroom.  Instead of purging, we must annihilate.  Let the killing begin.

Okay. I don’t really need a desk. We can put those paintings into storage.  Does anyone out there need a sofa?  I guess I can find somewhere else for my writing chair.  (Please see Schietree’s series about artist’s spaces.)  I can keep my important papers tucked under its cushion.  Maybe I don’t really need privacy to think– in our cozy house, privacy was always an illusion, after all. 

But the thing is–just wait a minute. Hey now! Hold your horses– the family room is where I kept my books. The thought of putting my books into storage enters my head like a dull rusted machete. Ouch! How can I live without Jose Saramago and Michael Cunningham and Toni Morrison?  What about Virginia Woolf, for god’s sake, what about her?  What will I do when I get stuck and I need to walk over to my bookshelf, pick up and open a book and read a paragraph to get me kick-started?  Where will I turn for inspiration?  How can I live without poetry?  Where will I escape?

It occurs to me now that my books were the last visual evidence of myself as an intellectual individual.  I have nothing else.  No room of my own, no personal space, no privacy.  My life before marriage and children is ancient history. Now, my thoughts are not my own and I finish few sentences without interruption. The Netflix queue is filled with Family Favorites.  I share a closet.  It’s not my bed.  Days are spent cooking, cleaning, driving, and entertaining others; my clothes are covered with finger-paint and my handbag is full of stuffed animals and fruit roll-ups.  I bathe with a 5-year-old and I rarely pee without an audience.  

(Take a long, cleansing breath.)  This will be interesting.  I will approach it as a scientific experiment.  Let’s see what I really need to write. 

Does it matter where you write?  What do you require in order to maintain your creativity (or sanity)?  

 

 

 

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About girl in the hat

aka Anna Fonté, writer of novels, short stories, personal essays, and bits about the neighborhood crows. The things I write want you to look at them.

44 comments

  1. i had to do this. I’ve been systematically moving my books from london, my now permanent home, back to bombay my childhood home. Its like cutting off an arm. My entire collection of painstakingly accumulated graphic novels, art books. All moved. Once a year I can look at them lovingly and dream of the day i have a wall to ceiling library all of my own. Books I truly deeply love, that i have to re-read at least once a year, I re-buy and refuse to let go. But when you suddenly crave a particular book you havent read in years, you just have to go without.

    Frankly I’m sick of this minimalist living. (Maybe I’m still in the ‘i feel deprived state’)
    I want things. Piled all around me in high columns. I want a big desk with space for stationary.
    I want space.

    • I hear you, sister. I want built-in bookcases and a bathtub big enough to keep two bodies submerged. I want enough walls for all the art I want. I want I want iwantiwantiwant. Don’t get me started because I might not stop. (For me, at this point, better not to go there.)

  2. Funnily enough, though I sort of understand minimalism, it doesn’t always mesh with my tastes. Sometimes I just want the extraneous, the tangental, the baroque, the rambling description of the landscape of a particular place. Woolf was pretty big on that sort of thing. Not Morrison though – everything that is there is necessary, it seems.

    It doesn’t matter to me where I write, so long as the place has light and is quiet and bedbug free (I do know about this, sadly, from experience).

  3. Mike

    The Arts and Crafts ideology. To quote another William (Morris): “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” I am quite sure you are better at living by this creed than I am. Case in point: I want to have a look at your sofa. :-)

    • Yes, exactly! But for me, now it has to be useful AND beautiful. Like my sofa. (Really, I actually managed to find one that is comfortable and good-looking. Maybe we could move it in to the kitchen? Now I’m starting to get depressed.)

  4. We live in an upstairs apartment (for lack of a better term – it’s a little more complicated than that – but I digress – oh these superfluous words, must fix that….) – it’s soon to have 3 bedrooms because we’re converting the family room into 2 bedrooms because we also feel that our offspring need their own space (like we don’t – life is SO unfair!) We’re using a ‘cubby’ bed (I can’t find the right picture with google but I’m sure you would love it if you saw it) solution and lots of nifty storage ideas stolen of the internets and each child will have a desk, closet and plenty of shelving, with enough space for a friend to pitch a camping bed for when the time arrives for sleep overs (which I remember so fondly from ‘the other side’ but now dread as a parent – urgh, other people’s kids).

    Apart from that, I write on my bed, mostly while the kids are asleep or when they prefer spending time with my co-parent. It’s not comfortable but once you’re in the flow of it you can barely feel your feet falling asleep and your back cramping from the hunched cross legged position behind a constantly overheating laptop.

    I envy minimalists – less dusting.

    And I haven’t seen my books for more than a year now – we are simply, In Transition. It will change. Everything always does.

    • A cubby sounds wonderful. I wish I had my own cubby.
      I like the tent idea, too. Hmm, maybe I could do that for some privacy. You’re full of good ideas!
      Yes, it will change. In six years, my oldest might be off to college, in which case I get my bookshelves back. Until then, I will be using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to get my fix.

  5. We also live in a small house, with two teens and one messy nine-year-old. My pleas for minimalism fall on deaf ears.

    I can write anywhere, but it has to be for a solid chunk of time, and preferably open-ended. If I know I’ve only got half an hour, I can’t even begin. I’ll spend the entire thirty minutes looking at the clock.

    • Averil! I’ve missed you!

      I know what you mean about the time. The longer I get, the bigger my thoughts become and the better my writing. In half-hour bits, I’m just going through the motions.

      I can’t wait to see/hear about the results of your time.

  6. TheOthers1

    I have my preferences where I’d like to write, but I can write anywhere if an idea strikes me. I also live alone so I have very few things to distract me or steal my favorite places to be when I’m feeling creative.

  7. So please to see my paper houses used in such a lovely post.

    Kate / Slightlyeverything x

  8. to answer your question Anna, i can, and do, write anywhere and everywhere. if not at home on laptop, at home with pad and pen, or in bed in middle of nite on pad next to bed, or in car with same, or gym, or restaurant, etc. surrounded by people, or alone. whenever i get a compelling idea i write it down no matter where i am. i require only an idea, a pad, and a pen. continue…

  9. There are lots of things I’d like to say and maybe will later, but for now: “I rarely pee without an audience” brought me a big LaughOutLoud. The days are mostly gone when I’d see a tiny little hand sneaking under the bathroom door, but I still get a “What’re ya doin’?” when I’m in there. p[n7567opyui890iuo;l (that was her covering my face with my cap and helping me type, so as you can see not too much writing gets done when she’s here!)
    This post deserves a FP, I think.

    • They are so helpful, are they not? My little one helped me move every item to her new room. Maybe the lesson is that there’s more to life than writing. I certainly would have less to write about if my little helpers weren’t around.

  10. Great photo and great post.
    Two years ago I started living in my little bus, about 20 feet long and 6 feet wide. Inside I’ve built a double bed, a kitchen including sink, fridge, pantry, and lots of bench space, dining table with 2 seats, 2 seater lounge (the lounge, dining table and seating converts into a spare single bed), a shower and toilet, storage for clothes, tools, a gym comprising two adjustable dumbells, a skipping rope and a football, also batteries, solar panels etc so I have free electricity, and plumbing for running water. And a two shelf bookcase that holds about 30 books. Also, I’ve got a miniature book collection, about 25 books that are 2 to 4 inches high.
    The coolest thing in it is the more than 100 year old dining table. It’s an old hospital table, from the days when people wrote letters, real ones. And with one simple movement it converts to a sloped writing desk. Very beautiful as well as functional.
    I love my little home, and it has everything I need. Although I am lucky enough that my mum and also my girlfriend let me store books and extra tools and stuff at their places.
    And yet, even having my perfect minimalist lifestyle ( for I too am a hoarder at heart who somehow found a better way), I can’t live it at the moment. Because I have so much back pain I’m unable to sit, and therefore to drive, I am temporarily staying in a….. house.
    And I have to stand or lie down to write. And, actually, I don’t mind lying in bed to write. If you set yourself up well, with your lower legs up on a few pillows, and write on the ipad, it’s great.
    Except…. and finally, I’m addressing the last part of your question… creativity is completely gone, painkilling meds destroy it. I have nothing. And I write stupid long blog posts and comments. Sorry about that.
    But the analytical part of my brain still works fine, and this was a great post.
    Never give up your books, not the ones that matter. They’ll fit somewhere.

    • Good God, that sounds like heaven– everything you need and mobile, too! I wish I could see pictures! Please include a link if you’ve already posted. (I didn’t even know they made books that small. I’ll have to look into that–)
      I once lived on an old houseboat handmade with a boat atop a large hollow concrete block. It had a canvas roof, leaky sewage lines, spotty electricity, a sump-pump running constantly, and it was the best place I ever lived. In the morning, I’d look out my window and see seals playing outside.
      But I guess we all feel like we have to grow up or get serious or something. Or maybe nature finally finds a chink to seep into. That sucks about the meds. Sucks!
      But your posts and comments are always a treat.
      I hope you still have your bus.

  11. Oh my Anna … I soooooooo understand. Six years ago we moved from Minneapolis to the South Bay (sticker shock!) and bought a house 1/3 the size we’d been living in. But I have to admit: it’s been a great adjustment. Like you, we can’t bring anything “in” unless we take something “out.” Period.

    I moved a lot as a kid, so I save nothing. My husband, however, is a pack rat. I tend to have 1-800-Got-Junk come when he’s out of town. ;-)

    I have no office. I write at the dining room table. The dining room, which is also our library. It gets a bit crowded in here, but at least it’s (a) full of books!, and (b) close to the kitchen.

    • Sticker shock for sure. My man (who is from Louisiana) keeps reminding me we could live in a mansion back home. “A McMansion,” I tell him snottily, but it’s true. We could have a completely different experience somewhere else. And while he’s not listening, I’ll admit that it might not be all bad.

      Go and give your books a little hug for me, won’t you?

  12. I don’t know what I’d do in your situation, but I do remember how love of family helps when spaces shrink.

    I’ve always been touchy about my own space being encroached. When I inherited this place from Mom, It felt even smaller and still doesn’t feel “mine.” It’s one of those brick bungalows with two microscopic bedrooms. (A tinier one is tacked on from half the back porch, enclosed; but since you enter it through one of the real bedrooms, I refuse to call it a bedroom anymore.) There are no storage solutions and the stupid closets were made for people who have maybe three changes of outfits and a winter coat. It’s hard to write here when life goes wrong, but it costs bus fare to get to a comfortable café and then I’d have to buy something if I did, so I don’t.

    I’d recently taken to writing out a plot synopsis for my book, chapter by chapter, so I don’t forget. That jump started a little creativity until I got another aggravating letter in the mail. I haven’t learned how to write what needs to be written when I’m aggravated, at least not when I’m aggravated here.

    • Closets? There is one (1) tiny closet in our entire house. I know people who have closets that are bigger than my kitchen.

      Aha! You’re beginning your outline! How exciting. The plot thickens… (sorry, could’t resist). How delicious and exciting, Re! I hope that for you, like me, the writing makes everything else bearable. Writing=mommy’s little helper over here.

  13. kb

    You don’t need it. What you have you need.

  14. kb

    You have everything you need. Most of the stuff you think you need is superfluous. Your core is intact. You can retreive what you need when you need it. With the exception of the precious talismans of your family. And even that is nothing but memory of love. And the love you have. And the rest is chaff.

  15. I love your authorship. I admire your Spartanship.

  16. This is so beautifully written and you know my heart breaks for you, the putting away of the books.
    At the same time, I read this and wonder if a cleaning out of excess might be just what my small house needs…starting with the kids’ junk…

    • It was exhilarating. Like cold water can be. But really, it was not so hard to get rid of some books– ones I can’t remember reading, others I honestly never will, some literary theory that I understood when I read it but don’t anymore, books I know I’m supposed to love but I just don’t, etc. It was an opportunity to tell the truth about who I am now.

  17. I like the way you drew an analogy between being space-efficient and word-efficient. And I so relate to how you feel about your stuff! We live in a not-very-big apartment and there are major storage issues so I have to keep de-junking to make space for new shoes/bags/clothes, it’s just sad!
    I feel a bit nomadic too. My husband works from home, so we end up sharing space. But where do I go if I need to be away from him? I want loud music from time to time and he needs peace. So I’ve found myself an out-of-the-way nook near the balcony door. It’s not what I’d call an ideal space because it’s so messy…but it’s something :| We recently moved a lot of things around too…and the lack of proper infrastructure has, I think, affected my creativity, for sure. Hmmm, this sucks :|
    I need a bigger house too!!!

    • I oftentimes think about how a person’s space shapes their perspective. Is someone with a long view more omniscient? If you live in an old city, do you think more about the past? Etc. I want aloneness and loud music, too. You’ll have to tell me if you find a solution!

  18. Ms. Forte (please excuse the missing accent on your name here!)—

    I’ve read many, many essays on asceticism, aesthetics, and artists (writers), but this essay is particularly well-written for a number of reasons.

    Firstly, the writing itself is exquisite here. Often writing that even hints at household matters puts the craft of writing itself behind the practical issues at hand.

    Secondly, should the writing be well-wrought (as it is here, most definitely!), the practical discourse gets lost in the prettiness of sentences. Your essay gave me some philosophy of aesthetics/ascetics to consider along practical application.

    Thirdly, I feel that I’m walking away with a bounty of ideas and experiences having read your piece. From this essay today, I will walk away thinking about how each choice we make leaves several other choices that we deny. And yet, they are still choices.

    My big point is— I love this essay. And I am so, so impressed. Thank you for writing this one. Thank you for sharing this one.

  19. Thanks for the lovely blog, I just started myself and my answer to writing is …. I need a desk! No matter how minute but as I like to be neat everywhere else my desk is often my only space filled with clippings, jotted down notes and that little bit of chaos that at times helps me be creative.

    • Welcome here and to the blogosphere– it can be very, very fun! I feel the same about a little bit of chaos. I’m going to have to find a way to cultivate a tiny plot of chaos around here. Thanks for stopping by!

  20. yetanothersinglegal

    The “literal” space is not the problem for me. The “metaphorical” space, or should I say, the emotional space presents the greatest impediment to regular writing. Writers have been whining about it since the dawn of time: I can’t find time to write consistently. Nicely written. The larger story about adjusting your space to suit your growing family fits nicely around the inner story – a room (space?) of your own in which to write.

    • I’m not sure if consistency is all it’s cracked up to be. Inspiration comes in waves, I think, at least for most of us. I’ll take what I can get. (I think it’s like any other exercise. It hurts until you establish a routine, and then your body craves it.)

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