March 21, 2021: Creating the Room to Write

In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself. –Susan Sontag

It’s been over a week since our second introductory workshop on writing and health offered through Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research.  We are now launching a six-week expressive writing series for those living with heart failure and other cardiac conditions beginning mid-April—a chance for 12 – 15 participants to explore expressive writing and its benefits more deeply.    As I look forward to the series, I’m also thinking about some of the writing tips discussed in our February and March sessions, especially how to begin to use expressive writing on one’s own. 

               .  Find a place where you will not be interrupted.

               .  Set the timer for 15 minutes.

               .  Try using a prompt to get you started or just a single line, such as “Today I am feeling…”

               .  Write for 15 minutes 3 – 4 times a week.

               .  Reflect on what you’ve written; underlining words or phrases that seem to stand out.

               .  Use one of those phrases or words as your prompt for the next day, exploring more deeply what was written about the day before.

Finding a place where you will not be interrupted, the first requirement, may seem challenging at first.  I know the feeling well.  In the first year after we returned to Toronto, my husband and I, having intentionally downsized our lives, moved into a two-bedroom apartment.  It was a new experience in “togetherness” for both of us.  For the duration of our thirty years marriage, we had always owned a house with ample space to each have a space to ourselves, however small.  But in the first months of apartment living, my writing routine suffered.  I was challenged to reconsider how I could make room for my writing.

I was reminded that there’s a distinction about having a room of one’s own–as Virginia Woolf wrote famously described—and having room in your life for writing.  I recalled an article I’d read in an old issue of Poets and Writers’ Magazine nearly eighteen years earlier.  It described how many famous writers had very different preferences for how and where they wrote.  Hemingway, for example, famously wrote standing up; Thomas Jefferson wrote in bed, while Ben Franklin was said to have preferred the bathtub.  Patti Smith wrote in a favorite coffee shop at a particular table.  Carol Shields, as a young mother, wrote while her children napped, while Toni Morrison, while her children were small, wrote in a little motel room.   Jane Austen, however, wrote her novels amid a very busy family life. 

I reminded myself that when I was a single mother with two young daughters, I most often wrote at night, propped up by pillows in my bed—a habit that followed me into my years of being an executive by day, but finding solace and relief in writing in the quiet of the night.  It was only after my daughters grew up and left home that I finally acquired a room of my own, and for several years, I had the luxury of writing with few interruptions, my desk placed at a window where I could look out at treetops and a canyon. 

In the first year of apartment living, we rearranged the second bedroom three or four times to finally create a little nook for me, placing my desk at the narrow floor to ceiling window, and a comfortable chair in the opposite corner, separated from my workspace by IKEA storage units.  It’s small, but my routine is to wake early, before my husband and write in the solitude of early morning.  It’s precious time for me:  the opportunity to be quiet, reflect, remember, and explore new ideas, insights, and write whatever I choose in the stillness of early morning. 

In solitude we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us. —Virginia Woolf

Stillness, the author Pico Iyer wrote, is about “sanity and balance…a chance to put things in perspective.”  We all need time to ourselves: time for quiet, reflection and express whatever is in our minds and hearts.  In her delightful book of writing invitations, Room to Write (1996) author Bonnie Goldberg explains her title choice as thinking about how to create room for your writing:  making room in your life to write.  Think about it.  We devote rooms in our homes for many different activities:  eating, family life, sleeping, exercising, watching television or even tackling the papers or unfinished business that accompanies us home after a full day of work.  What about making time and space to enjoy your own solitude and time to write? 

It is less about what kind of space you find for your writing, whether a corner of a bedroom, a nearby coffee shop, library cubicle, or simply sitting up in bed to write.  What matters most is that you make writing a habit, feeding it just as routinely as you feed your body.  Think of it as “writing medicine”—writing for healing or “spiritual nourishment.

Writing can be done anywhere, it’s true, but it needs to be done without the interruptions and distractions of daily life.   You can create that “sense” of a room of one’s own by making the time and space in your life to write.   “Making room in your life to write,” Bonni Goldberg adds, “generates even more room for your writing.” How you create that space is as unique to you as your writing is.

We have to create and protect the space—the time– you need to write, whether your writing is a meditation, a prayer, to nurture your creativity or to help you heal from life’s difficult experiences.   Finding that corner, table, or space that is, for a time, free of interruptions and distractions, is important for important for any kind of writing.  It doesn’t take much in the way of requirements if you make the room in your life to write. 

“Writing,” Bonni Goldberg says, “has only one direction—deeper. The most important action you can take is to show up on the page…making room in your life to write generates even more room for your writing.  The only true obstacle to writing…is a lack of faith that appears as fear and self-judgment” (from the introduction,(Room to Write, 1996).

Writing Suggestions:

*Write about writing. What helps you find the room to write in your life? What hinders you? What do you need to change or alter to help you write for 3 or 4 days a week–and just for 15 minutes?

*What role does writing play in your life and your health?

*If you could create the “perfect” space for you to write, what would be the requirements?

*Are you fearful of writing? If yes, try to express why that is so.