Today is one of those days when life “intervenes” and it feels impossible to write. I just accepted an offer to sell High Meadow, the house I’ve lived in for twenty years. My father gave me the down payment for it the year my mother died. Inside High Meadow is all the furniture I grew up with including the floral couch that I read hundreds of books on. I am leaving the furniture, too, although my partner Lynne is urging me to keep my mother Edith’s European writing desk. The top flips open and below are endless drawers for stamps, pens, pencils, erasers, and paper clips. Inside there is a wooden box to hold writing paper, and slats for envelopes and letters to be reread or sent.
I remember moving into High Meadow, afraid that I could never use all the space. I lived in the kitchen and my bedroom for the first few years. The other rooms remained uninhabited. Slowly, I took over the entire house, room by room. In the sunroom, there is a thirty year old Norfolk Island pine that an old girlfriend gave me when it was barely eight inches tall. It takes up so much space, there almost isn’t any place to sit. I’ve had to cut the branches back three times because they touch the ceiling. I’m leaving Mr. Tree, too.
I wrote three books in High Meadow, where I lived alone. Sometimes I stayed inside all day writing, editing, eating, and watching reruns of “I Love Lucy.” I kept thinking, Virginia Wolff got it wrong. A woman doesn’t need a room of her own, she needs a whole house. She needs to learn to take up space, spread out, live large. And this is what I did for twenty years. For the first time in my life, I felt safe. And I was.
Years before, when I was in graduate school, I came across Plant Dreaming Deep by May Sarton. It’s a memoir about the house she bought in Nelson, New Hampshire, that she renovated, room by room to make it hers. Throughout the book there are black and white photos of the rooms as she transformed them—with plants everywhere. The first time I read it, I was living in a one-room studio; it was small but luxurious to me. I couldn’t imagine living in a house all by myself. But when I read May Sarton I knew there was something about the relationship between a woman and a house that I didn’t fully understand. The idea, that I could think my own thoughts in every room; that there was endless psychic space; that I did not have to confine myself to one room was fascinating. I knew it wouldn’t matter how big the house was, only that it was all mine. For women in the US, the “American Dream” was never about a woman owning her own house; or that her house is her castle. It was always the man’s dream, the man’s house. But I knew from reading Plant Dreaming Deep that I was destined for a “castle” of my own. That was High Meadow. And it’s gone forever, sold to another woman writer with two teenagers who loves it.
Now I have to learn to write in a new home. I have a study on the second floor of the house where I live with my Lynne. The room is filled with sunlight but very small, smaller than my studio apartment. I feel cramped, unable to write long pieces. My psychic space has shrunk. I try not to feel hopeless. I love living with Lynne. I tell myself I will love my study, too, and learn to write fully in it. Yet the process is slow.
My imagination is confined to one room, rather than a whole house. Can’t a writer write anywhere? Theoretically, “yes.” But what about emotionally? Can I inhabit many rooms in my head, without needing my reality to reflect it? Am I a selfish capitalist maniac artist because I need hundreds of square feet to think and breathe? How much is too much? Or not enough? This is political. I’m not sure why can’t I just sit down and write. I know many people, especially women, don’t have their own homes, much less an apartment, so why am I complaining? It’s embarrassing. I know in the end, it’s about the psychic space in my head, not the room I inhabit. The question of psychological space overwhelms me. As I write those words, I wonder if they are true. Friends of mine share the same study! A couple I know even have their desks right next to each other: one long table with two chairs, side by side. How is that possible?
What if Lynne and I lived in New York City in a tiny apartment? How would I survive as a writer? I don’t know. So today, I am learning to write in a small, beautiful space, word by word by word. Page after page. Perhaps they will fit themselves into a new long piece.
Jyl Lynn Felman
Jyl Lynn Felman is the author of three books, Hot Chicken Wings, Cravings, and, Never A Dull Moment: Teaching And The Art of Performance. Her many performance pieces, include “Burning In Cuba,” and “Silicone Valley” about lesbian sex after breast cancer. “If Only I’d Been Born A Kosher Chicken” is available on C-SPANS’s performance series. She is currently touring with “Girl Kicks Girl” about her experience in Israel and Palestine. She can be reached at www.jyllynnfelman.com.