The phrase “writers at work” often conjures a vision of solitude, the writer alone at a desk with, perhaps, a cup of coffee or tea, typing, tapping, scrawling away. Virginia Woolf gave us the beloved essay, “A Room of One’s Own
,” in which she discusses the importance of both financial independence and work space in relation to a woman’s ability to produce prose. But Woolf also says in her essay, “When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant.” I think this is important to note because Woolf, never one to readily boil down a point to a single answer, is saying that she will give the short, quippy response requested of her — that women need money and a room — but that she has to complicate the answer. There is much more to the female writing life than just a room of one’s own.
Woolf felt compelled to note that the contemplation of women and fiction was burdensome to her. She had to sit and think in nature. “On the further bank the willows wept in perpetual lamentation, their hair about their shoulders.” And then, “The river reflected whatever it chose of sky and bridge and burning tree, and when the undergraduate had oared his boat through the reflections they closed again, completely, as if he had never been. There one might have sat the clock round lost in thought.” My personal interpretation of this is that Woolf says that beyond the room and funds, writing also requires observation of the natural world and the humans that inhabit it. She is saying we women writers need space in all its iterations.
I wrote The Wild Birds
over the course of a decade while working as an avian field biologist. My work kept me on the lowest rung of an obscure industry, a person contracted to hike over mountains, cross snowmelt streams, post-hole through the desert soils, crawl through invasive species, and kayak monsoon-swollen streams in the pursuit of data on the populations and predilections of birds. It is not usually well-compensated work, projects sometimes cobbled together with per diems, hourly contracts, and volunteer labor. So there I was trying to write a book while living in a tent, field house, or out of a backpack, with hardly a farthing to my name.
That is the beauty in writing fiction — stretching your mind and heart to fit into a fictional other being.
I absolutely believed in what I was doing — the science that could potentially lead to the preservation of wild places — and I loved living close to nature. The work also tore up my body, and sometimes my spirit. I was hungry and sore a lot of the time, but filled daily with the magnificence of the earth. Every day I had “aha” moments of the variety that stop you in your tracks and take your breath. A lifelong Woolf fan, I thought of her a lot in the field as I pieced together my novel, The Wild Birds
, a book that takes place in dots on the map of the West, a broken narrative that holds together by weaving together different characters’ stories over a period of 120 years. It is ultimately about interconnectivity and intersections, about plight and recovery. Much of it takes place in wilderness or wild spaces. In short, as a field biologist and woman writer, I was lacking both a room of my own and money. But space? I had plenty of that. And I reveled in it.
Many of my characters are outsider women searching for answers, none with any money, and most of them retreat into wilderness to find those answers. Aha! Write what you know
. But my characters are, like most good characters, very different from who I am as a person. That is the beauty in writing fiction — stretching your mind and heart to fit into a fictional other being. In this way, bird watching is good practice for writing fiction, as it also forces you out of your own head and into the narrative of what is going on in front of you. Birds are courting, they are fighting for dominance, they are lost or haggard from migration, they are quiet and peaceful as they forage on the forest floor, they are fearful and always on the lookout for predators. There are these various narratives at play in front of the birdwatcher. And so, the language of survival also made its way into my prose.
While I often longed for both money and a room while I tried to piece together the manuscript, I got used to jotting things down in my notebook on the go. My tough female characters became inspiration for me. If they can do it, so can I. I huddled in the back of our ’87 pickup, crouched by a stream or in a field, lay on my belly in a tent with a headlamp lighting my words before going to bed. I scribbled ideas knowing I had to wake up an hour and a half before dawn to work the next morning. In the process of writing I was chased by bees, attacked by swarms of gnats that eventually met their end in the sweat pouring down my face after a day in the field, chased from concentration by campfire smoke, distracted by birds in the trees overhead, overwhelmed by love for the places I was in, rattled at by snakes, consumed with grief for the characters in my books, lost in the glittering language of a stream. That language spoken by the natural world is something that after prolonged exposure begins to alter one’s own prose. It translates into English and onto the page like the pattern of leaves falling to the soft ground, incomplete but transfixing. A part of the whole.
In this way, I was for a long time a writer at work without a room of her own or much money. But then came the time when I was living in Portland with my new little family, returned to teaching part time, and weighted down by canvas bags of notes and photocopies from historical societies, full notebooks with scenes and chapters handwritten back in the field. I was lucky to fall into a studio share with my friend Melanie, a fellow traveler in art and field. The little room was connected to a storage facility and overlooked the train tracks, with windows that didn’t open. In essence, it was the exact antithesis of a wild space. But inside this box of concrete and glass, Melanie cultivated healthy, happy plants native to deserts and tropics. And there, finally, with a little room and a little time, I put all the pieces together.
So maybe Woolf was right: a room of one’s own and a little money. But for me, I would alter the phrase to say a woman needs space
. It is the space that the observation of the natural world creates in the brain, the awe and humility of witnessing biological systems, that make writing possible for me. It is time that lets it fall together on the page. What women writers need, then, is balance. I would hope that Ms. Woolf and I could agree on this as we strolled along the banks of a stream to discuss the ins and outs of a woman’s writing life.
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was born and raised in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but has lived all over the West and, now, the Midwest. For the last decade she combined teaching writing with doing seasonal avian field biology with her husband. While doing field jobs she camped and wrote in remote areas in the desert, mountains, and by the ocean. She is a mother to two boys, a naturalist, and writer. She now lives in Ann Arbor, MI. The Wild Birds
is her first novel.