a clean well-lighted space

It’s Wednesday, June, 27, 2012. 8 a.m.

Time to go to the office.

Oh wait, I am at the office! I have finally arrived at a place I have fantasized about — a room of my own for writing — and freedom from the 9-5 job world. Much as I loved having a career, I often coveted the life I imagined writers to have.  Now is the first time in my life that I get to see how the fantasy matches up with the reality.

Will words come?

In her famous extended essay on creativity and the woman writer, “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf asserted that until women have had enough money (500 pounds) and space (a room with a lock on the door), over a long enough time (one hundred years), they would not be able to produce great literature to match their male peers. The dominant literary genre of her time was the novel, and her focus was on the woman novelist.

Woolf herself, ironically, had in fact inherited 500 pounds a year, and, presumably, she had a room of her own. She wrote beautifully yet walked into the River Ouse with a large stone in her pocket. She struggled with her demons as long as she could in order to become a mother to other women writers. She herself said it best:

“A woman writing thinks back through her mothers.” Virginia Woolf (Tweet Me)

The Anxiety of Influence

Woolf wrote to decry the absence of mothering in the literary tradition, an insight likely heightened by the fact that her biological mother died when she was just thirteen years old. She knew the feeling of being a motherless child, just one of the psychological burdens of the writer.

Harold Bloom, speaking about the male literary tradition, named another burden: the anxiety of influence.

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar challenged Bloom’s oedipal theory for its male orientation and renamed it to fit what they saw as the universal dilemma of the woman writer, still struggling for legitimacy within the tradition. They named their theory the anxiety of authorship.

Does it help a woman writer that she knows these things as she gazes out her window?

a wondow to memory and mountains

Not really.

Writers will always feel anxiety. If they feel motherless, they are lonely. If they have mothers as magnificent as Virginia Woolf, they feel intimidated.

So what’s a writer to do?

Get in the chair and write!

Many of us crave the conditions ideal for writing. Then, when they arrive, we fear that we don’t deserve them or lack the gifts to take full advantage of them. It seems the Fates can get us any way we turn.

So let’s not turn, shall we? In the space below, please share one idea that helps inspire you to action rather than paralysis, whether you are a writer, a parent, another kind of artist, or just an ordinary human being trying to live a creative life. We want to know your secrets!






Shirley Showalter


  1. Tina Barbour on June 27, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    What inspires me to action: the desire to share my stories and my ideas. I must ponder them and write them before I can share them and connect with others over them, so I best get to work!

    Lovely post, Shirley. I long for the time when I will be able to write without the 9 to 5 job, but then I wonder if I’m perhaps over-glorifying what I think it will be like to write full time. I’ve been considering that lately and wondering if I’m giving enough attention to what is my life right now.

    • shirleyhs on June 27, 2012 at 1:11 pm

      Thanks for offering the first comment, Tina. In Turkey, they say, “First customer. Good luck. Good price.” 🙂

      Your motivation and your process are very inspiring. They will be wind in your sails.

      You are wise to suspect, as I do, that the fantasy of the writing life may not be any better than the enjoyment of whatever other opportunities and challenges we have in the present moment.

      I’ll try to report what I learn from this time of focus as I go along. And I love hearing from you in your life now also.

  2. Joan on June 27, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    I love the taste and feel of words as they as appear across the page, saying what I need to share. I’m especially drawn to write in the morning with bird song playing against a cool, gentle breeze or on rainy days with the sound of dripping from the eaves.

    After a tough couple of weeks I’m back at it and more exicited than ever about the process. The Inner Critic has vanished again for the time being and it all seems to flow freely. Thanks Shirley for this great post.

    • shirleyhs on June 27, 2012 at 2:13 pm

      What beautiful images, Joan. Taste and see! Tomorrow morning as I listen to the birds singing lustily, I will think of you and send you a blessing.

      Good-bye, Inner Critic. Hello, Joan!

  3. karen French-hall on June 27, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    showing up. I write 3 pages every morning as recommended by Julia Cameron. Write without thought or connection, just let the words come.

    so happy for you Shirley.

    love, Karen

  4. Jeremy Garber on June 27, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    What’s spurred me to be super-productive in the past couple months is to write every day for … 30 seconds. That’s it. That’s the expectation. Then you overcome the psychological barrier of “I…MUST…PRODUCE” that leads to writer’s block – and anything more than 30 seconds is bonus!

    • shirleyhs on June 27, 2012 at 2:43 pm

      The 30-second rule! I love it, Jeremy. Are there any days when you only write for 30 seconds, or, once you are “over the hump,” do you always write longer?

      • Jeremy Garber on June 27, 2012 at 2:55 pm

        Shirley – the 30-second rule ALWAYS leads to more writing than 30 seconds – sometimes hours! It’s getting over that initial hump that’s the secret.

  5. Laurie Gray on June 27, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    My best writing comes through contemplation. I love using the Socratic Method, stepping back and asking myself the bigger questions, and then moving back in for a closer look at things. Shifting perspectives always makes me wonder. Sometimes I wonder why, but more and more I finding myself asking, “Why not?”

    • shirleyhs on June 27, 2012 at 2:20 pm

      Laurie, you have really allowed Socrates to teach you. I am in awe of how you take the method and apply it to so many aspects of your life. You would love traveling to Greece and Turkey with a classics scholar some day. Maybe you already have? I’ll think of your questions as I write. And rewrite. Thank you!

  6. Clif Hostetler on June 27, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    I presume that if I ever set out to write my own memoir it will be for the personal therapeutic benefits that may come from recapitulation of life’s experiences. Once started I hope that the joy of capturing memories into words on the page will provide its own incentive to continue the project. If I’m ever driven to finish such a project it will need to develop into a compulsion similar to my present compulsion to write book reviews which I’ve concluded is my way of holding on to the past. In the case of my book reviews, the past I’m attempting to capture is the memory of the reading experience. In the case of my memoir it would be the memory of living.

    While I’m on the subject let me mention two letters that my mother received late in her life from people who were kind enough to write notes of appreciation of how their lives had interacted with hers. One letter was from a former elementary student of my mother’s over 60 years earlier. The other letter was from a retired business executive who had worked for an organization of which my father had served on the governing board. The former student expressed appreciation for my mother’s teaching, and the business man expressed his appreciation of having worked with her husband (my father was no longer living at the time of the letter). Both of these people knew they were nearing the ends of their lives and wanted to make sure that their feelings of appreciate were made known to those concerned. They didn’t write full fledged memoirs, but instead they wrote letters recalling small portions of their lives to those who had shared the experience. The writers of these letters were probably not thinking about me (the next generation) while writing the letters, but nevertheless I still appreciate their thoughtfulness very much as I am sure that my mother did also.

    • shirleyhs on June 27, 2012 at 3:15 pm

      There’s so much to learn from this comment, Clif! Thank you. I rely on you for fresh angles, and you never disappoint.

      Book reviews as a way to capture the experience of reading. And memoir, likewise, the experience of living. Yes.

      And letters as a living form of memoir. Thank-you notes to the world. And to those who have helped us. I love this idea. Will be able to share it with those who are afraid of undertaking a book project.

      Yes, the multi-generational impact of one sincere moment of praise and appreciation. One can hardly overestimate the power of it.

  7. Marilyn LeFeber on June 27, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    When I am facing a daunting writing project, I take the swiss cheese approach. Do a little bit here, a little bit there, and with a little time you can generally turn a solid blockage into swiss cheese! And I’ve always said that desparation–and an impending deadline–are strong motivators.

  8. shirleyhs on June 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Ha, Marilyn.Love the approach. And love the name even more. Thanks for mentioning the value of a deadline. I’m afraid I wouldn’t accomplish very much without them. That’s why I signed a book contract that stretches me and then put the ticker on my website. Scary but effective.

    I appreciate your comment. Thanks! I’m sure many others do also. Swiss cheese is my favorite kind.

  9. Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living on June 27, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    What inspires me to take action is when I notice the interest people have in my travel memoir and want to hear me speak. Then I feel motivated to keep going.

    • shirleyhs on June 27, 2012 at 5:37 pm

      Sonia, I’m eager to hear reports about how the speaking and marketing is going now that your book is out. I am heading right over to your blog to find out. Hope other readers of this post will join me.

  10. Linda Hoye on June 28, 2012 at 9:17 am

    Your office is beautiful, Shirley. I am looking ahead twenty months until retirement from corporate life but I refuse to put my passions on hold until then. For now, I write in time I carve out for myself. That time is sacred. As I shared recently on Kathy Pooler’s site, I get motivated when I purposefully pack up my writing and head to the library or a coffee shop.

  11. shirleyhs on June 28, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Twenty months will speed by, Linda. And you can do so much in those little pieces of time every day. I know you will be ready to plunge into the deep end when you move into your own writing room full time.

    I also enjoy writing in a coffee shop sometimes. You have inspired me to make doing that a reward for X pages of draft. Do you play those little games?

    I have a coffee shop and a DQ right down the hill from my house. All of them have wireless. Hmmm.

    I think Hemingway started the idea, for Americans at least, of associating writers with coffee houses. Did you see Midnight in Paris? Loved it.

  12. Kathleen Pooler on June 28, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    What a lovely writing space you have,Shirley! Now the key will be to sit in the chair and make it work for you. I’m inspired by solitude and nature. My writing space on the second floor overlooks the woods so the beauty of every season surrounds me. My challenge is to carve out the time to be there and when I am, stay focused on what’s right in front of me. I have also been inspired in our local coffee shop when I can go off in a booth in the corner and write away.
    I can relate to your sense of fulfillment about being retired from the corporate life (which does not mean not working!). Linda, you have so much to look forward to and Sonia, since I tend to be a homebody, it is a pleasure travel to so many places with you. Next stop -Belize and I can’t wait! It’s so nice to see my friends here and to meet new voices as well. Clif’s comment about how a few kind words can echo into the next generation and Marilyn’s swiss cheese-approach to writing are very enlightening. Delightful! 🙂

  13. shirleyhs on June 28, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    Kathleen, you know me so well. I have my chapter open, but here I am on FB. Your comment, as always, takes into account the whole picture and the good ideas of others in this comment section. I hope my readers will check out your latest post on structure, one of my big bugaboos. You rounded up so many different explanations of story structure, all of them valid and helpful. Just like you.

    Now back to being in junior high. And no more FB until I finish 500 new words! Seat in chair. Eyes on manuscript.

  14. Rhonda Langley on June 28, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    I’ve discovered that having time to write is more a frame of mind than a matter of schedule. If you have something that needs writing, you can think it out while doing something else, and jot it down on anything, and the very act of writing in the midst of everything else gives me joy and a feeling of empowerment and allows me to get up early or stay up late to create writing time. My “room” for writing is my inner self. (And thanks, Shirley, for the review of my book in the Mennonite Weekly! What a nice surprise!)

    • shirleyhs on June 28, 2012 at 9:07 pm

      My “room'” for writing is my inner self. Beautifully stated, Rhonda.

      So good to have your comment. Hope you will return.

      And I enjoyed reviewing your book. Stay tuned for another post here, possibly on Monday.

  15. Friday Fave Five on June 29, 2012 at 8:54 am

    […]  There was good conversation on Shirley Showalter’s blog about inspiration for writers. I’m inspired by the photograph of her […]

  16. Madeline Sharples on June 29, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    I treat my writing as if I’m going to work. It’s what I became used to during my professional life so when I retired and became a full-time writer it makes sense for me to go to my home office (my writing room) every day and work there until I feel finished for the day. And I get a lot of writing done as a result. I never consider it a chore because I love what I do. I, like Shirley, wrote a piece about creating a room of my own. Creating that room was very motivating for me. Here’s the link.

  17. shirleyhs on June 29, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    I just read about how you converted your son’s room into your own office. What a painful thing that must have been and yet, as you say, motivating. From tragedy to work that heals. Blessings.

    I try to treat my writing like a job, too. In fact, I just changed my LinkedIn profile to reflect my new job.

  18. Madeline Sharples on June 29, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Thank you, Shirley. Yes, it was painful but a way of healing. Writing has always been healing for me.
    I think I’ll change my LinkedIn profile too.

  19. Richard Gilbert on July 2, 2012 at 8:47 am

    A Room of One’s Own is one of my favorite books. Her use of narrative (and limited but effective use of scene) to show the development of her ideas is flat brilliant—we can follow, we can share, we are there. And her riff on Shakespeare’s sister she imagines is also brilliant, because not just a great idea but so grounded. And then the long essay-book becomes deeply not about gender differences but about the opposite, how men and women are at base alike, reminding me of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. A Room of One’s Own is a sacred text!

    I have found that focusing on enthusiasm for the work and trying to cultivate that quality, the love of the work, of making sentences and trying to convey truth and authenticity, is the key. Not discipline, which as Annie Dillard says is very weak next to love . . .

  20. shirleyhs on July 2, 2012 at 9:17 am

    Thanks so much, Richard, for directing our attention to the way in which Woolf so skillfully brings us to a transcendent place not apparent when she tackled the “woman writer question.” She never says that there is no gender difference, only good writing and bad writing, but what we are lifted into by her sentences is love for good writing. Such a subversive place to take us. 🙂

    I wish you could have heard Ray Bradbury speak about the power of love as the driving force for the writer. I was in my seat in the audience, tears streaming. But really I was up in the clouds with Virginia Woolf and Ray Bradbury, watching them dance together.

Leave a Comment