In grad school before I was married, I had my own studio apartment. I wrote at a small, wooden desk that I had painted pink and fuchsia. Above the desk, I’d framed a poster of a painting by Jane Evershed called “If you believe in woman, hold my hand.”
During that time, I took a seminar from Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Ph.D., called African American Feminist Theory. Once a week, she drove across the city from Spelman to Emory to meet with twelve of us, a mix of races and classes and genders and sexualities.
The readings we did in the course would become the anthology Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought, a volume of writings that would establish that the first feminist consciousness in the United States did not start at Seneca Falls but long before. And this idea would become the foundation for my understanding of feminist thought.
It was during slavery, many of these writers demonstrate, that African American women theorized many of the feminist ideas that white women would develop in later historical periods.
In fact, it was the very fact of having to survive under slavery that created the internal conditions for a philosophy of freedom for these women.
Marriage was outlawed under slavery. So for African American women, the right to marry and build families while also working outside the home was both about desire and economic necessity.
This created a very different situation from the one experienced by many middle and upper class white women for whom the divide between work and motherhood was, and continues to be, a wedge issue both between women and within our very being.
One of the African American feminist theorists we encountered in that course was Gertrude Mossell (1855-1948.) In her 1908 essay, “A Lofty Study,” which was published 22 years before Virginia Woolf’s much more famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, she argues for the importance of a physical and mental space in which women writers can feel safe to work.
I’d like to introduce you to this essay as a way of expelling the ghosts in the attic, the angels in the house, of Virginia Woolf’s legacy for women writers. Her suicide in the river is, by now, a cultural memory and a collective warning – this is what can happen if you allow your writing to take you all the way.
Unlike Virginia Woolf who did not have children, Mossell, in addition to being a journalist, columnist, and author, was married and had two daughters. She was working on The Work of the Afro-American Woman at the time of her wedding, and published the book under her husband’s initials. She lived a long and happy life.
We did not learn these personal details in the African American Feminist Theory class, and I only discovered them in doing research for this column. It’s important to know this context, however, in order to understand the complexity of the attempt by historical and contemporary mother writers to do as Mossell did to balance (juggle! lean in! hoola hoop!) the apparent conflicting demands of marriage and mothering and work and writing.
While visiting the home of a friend, Mossell relates, she asked for a place in which to write, and found one in the attic – the “lofty study.”
It was a small space with sloping roofs, two windows, and a skylight. It also had open shelves and a large desk built into the wall. There was an easy chair and an old-fashioned sofa.
What I like about the way Mossell introduces us to her concepts in the essay is that she grounds herself in her experience – the visit to a friend, the walk through the house to find the right space, and the description of the physical space.
I, too, have felt the effects of such a space on my life. In 2008, when I opened my Co-Creating Studio, it was just a room at the back of my house, but with two French doors, five windows, a table, an easy chair, and a loveseat. I was planting the seeds for the rest of my life and work.
“Neatness, order, and comfort reigned supreme,” writes Mossell. “Not a sound from the busy street reached us. It was so quiet, so peaceful, the air was so fresh and so pure, it seemed like living in a new atmosphere.”
I, too, have felt this air. The land outside my Co-Creating Studio holds a wooded creek that I face as I write, and right now in April, I am surrounded by pink flowering cherry trees and white apple blossoms.
The dishes in the kitchen from last night’s dinner are still unwashed, the sheets on the bed upstairs need to be changed because my cousin Bobbie and his family are coming from Michigan for a visit, and I need to get him and his wife some cases of Bud Light. My daughter, on spring break, sleeps the deep sleep of a teenager in a room that quite literally looks like a pig sty, where a bunny runs around hungry.
But here, in my studio as I write, the candle glows, my shoes are lined up neatly, my notes for Marie Forleo’s B-School are piled and organized on the table, and colorful, handmade blankets and women’s art surround me on every wall.
This is the thing about a room of one’s own that I have found many of my women clients who come to me for writing coaching struggle with – we often conceive of what is possible for ourselves on much too small a scale.
We think – oh, the dining room table is fine. Or, I’ll just use this nook in the kitchen.
We do it out of guilt, maybe, or genuine desire to make our families the most important priority in our lives.
Or we do it because we are afraid to invest in ourselves in big and imaginative ways.
Mossell doesn’t do this: “I just sat down and wondered why I had never thought of this very room for a study.” She starts to daydream right away, right there, without hesitation, about painting the woodwork “a darker shade of yellow,” widening the window, and adding flowering plants.
She doesn’t even live there! She is only visiting the home of a friend, and yet, she allows herself to dream.
She goes on to say that women definitely need a study of one’s own. Note that she calls it a “study,” as I call mine a “studio,” and that both words are very different from “room.” A room could be a bedroom, kitchen, or even a bathroom. A study and a studio are for studying, reading, writing, learning, and creating.
Mossell then states that the library, if there is one in the home, is often dominated by the man in the home. She writes, “Men are so often educated to work alone that even sympathetic companionship annoys.”
Mossell, however, is not annoyed by sympathetic companionship – she is at her friend’s house. Remember, from the passage above, that she writes, “Not a sound from the busy street reached us.”
And finally, in this companionable, supportive, and peaceful place, Mossell finds herself to be much more productive. As she concludes in the last paragraph of the essay, “Besides this, one who writes much generally finds that she can write best at some certain spot. Ideas come more rapidly, sentences take more lucid forms.”
From this account of a peaceful, beautiful place of working together rapidly and lucidly in a regular way, Mossell’s essay modeled for me what would become my Co-Creating Studio where I write and run my coaching business, working with long-distance clients from all around the world to teach them ways of writing and creating in more flowing, productive, peaceful and powerful ways.
And you can do this, too. Mother writer, you can create a “lofty study” from which to plant the seeds of yourself and your work, and in so doing, you can invest in yourself in big and imaginative ways.
Watch a recent news feature about my Co-Creating Studio and see the cherry trees, the art, and the candle as I work and say, “It’s a tiny little room, but you know what? It’s the whole world.”
In the tradition of Gertrude Mossell’s “A Lofty Study,” I invite you to submit a short story or creative non-fiction piece of 800-1200 words on the theme of claiming one’s own space as a mother writer. Please email your submission to birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by April 29th. Be sure to put “Birthing the Mother Writer: 2” in the subject line, include a brief bio and place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within two weeks.