A transcript of this video is available here.
During the course of the play the table collects this and that…by the end of the play the table has collected an inventory of objects.
—Tom Stoppard, Arcadia
Our dining room table sits in the middle of our house, though to call it a dining room table endows it with an elegance it lacks. The “room” it occupies isn’t truly a room but a causeway, a semi-independent space that connects the living room—which doubles as a foyer, which triples as a play area—to the kitchen, to the bathroom hallway, and beyond. It is a dining room because it is the house-space in which we dine; it is a dining room table because it is the hard surface around which we gather to eat.
Like many a good dining room table, however, its functions vary. The coffee table, ten steps and one room away, holds toys, notebooks, cups; the built-in-desk, sandwiched between the bookshelves on the other wall, supports a printer, folders, and, when I can find them, my sunglasses and keys. Our dining room table serves as receptacle for all else: a shrine to abundance; the surface that catches the overflow of the overflow of life. This table is as I imagine Odysseus and Penelope’s arboreal bedpost, rooted to the foundations of our home, displaying accretions in lieu of rings: layers of spilled syrup, wayward marker, paint. It is where we do homework, draw pictures, read stories. It is where we eat pancakes and have Zoom meetings and pay bills. It is also where I write.
10 March, Table: jug of maple syrup; two school photos, framed; breakfast plates; pencil sharpener and associated pencils and pens (loose); copy of Peter Pan; notepad, various to-do items; copy of Hamlet; copy of the collected verses of A.A Milne; daily planner; vase of assorted roses, new and old; edited collection of scholarly essays (to be reviewed); manila folders and legal pad; child’s camera; shoebox diorama; copy of The New Yorker (issue number obscured); magic wand (a piece); copy of Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own; printed essay, “Viva Voce”; essay on Virginia Woolf, “Penelope at Work”; dishtowel; baseball cap.
Virginia Woolf may have lamented for me this fact. “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” Woolf asserts at the outset of her famous essay, an idea her narrator came to while sitting not in such a room but on a river’s banks. Indeed, her narrator is subsequently barred from the library that might have furnished such a room, because in her time “ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a [male] Fellow of the College.” Between the 1929 publication of Woolf’s work and my 2020 reflection on it, I see evidence of change: unlike Woolf’s narrator, I have professional security and a job, I feel, that pays me fairly for what I do. I have a library at school that admits me, and an office into which I can go and close the door. I have, occasionally, a babysitter I can hire, and even a garage at home where I can retreat. Still, at the end of the day, I spend much of my intellectual life at our table, in a room that is not a room, in a space with no doors to close.
This fact makes me consider everything from the status of feminism to the nature of the writing process itself. “Women never have half an hour…that they can call their own,” writes Woolf, quoting Florence Nightingale, describing me. And yet I’m conscious today of a more general frenzy, perhaps symptomatic of the technology and social media that make us all, regardless of gender, susceptible to interruption and distractions that we voluntarily seek out. Family structures are changing too, rendering the interruptions Woolf attributes to women’s parenting and domestic duties more gender-neutral, more equally shared.
Still, in frustrated moments as a writer, I feel Woolf’s resentment of my state. If I were a man, I think, or, if I had more money, more room, more time . . . perhaps I would emerge as Woolf’s cryptic Judith Shakespeare, my genius freed from the domestic labor of my life. I dream of that Platonic office—airy, sunlit, still—in which inspiration flourishes, and everything remains organized and neat. I crave more of the privacy that Woolf supports, that she feels women in particular have lacked.
12 March, Table: jug of maple syrup; two school photos, framed; associated pencils and pens (loose); copy of Peter Pan; notepad, blank; copy of Hamlet; copy of the collected verses of A.A Milne; daily planner; vase of assorted roses, new and now very old; box of pencils (Blackwing, very nice); copy of Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own; printed essay, “Viva Voce”; essay on Virginia Woolf, “Penelope at Work”; Transformer toy; plastic candle; sunglasses; clothespin with paper face attached; coffee cup; iPhone; dish of salt.
Interruption, Woolf asserts, has shaped the types of literature women write. One of my favorite Woolf contentions is that interruption has pushed women more frequently toward the crafting of “prose and fiction” rather than poetry or plays, since when one is writing fiction, “less concentration is required.” Yet even crafting fiction under such conditions amazes Woolf. She describes Jane Austen doing all her writing in sitting rooms, subject to casual interruptions, driven to hide her manuscript under blotting paper every time a visitor entered. Austen’s contemporary Maria Edgeworth also wrote in this manner, surrounded by the siblings and half-siblings who made up her father’s large brood (22 children he had finally, by four different women, a man prolific in every sense). These women wrote through chaos, though Austen and Edgeworth, like Woolf, never had kids of their own. In my life, I’ve finished many a memo, reader’s report, work email, lesson plan, and book review in a similar manner, at the dining room table, tilting my computer screen away from my boys. (This essay, too, their activities and presence in its very warp and woof.)
Interestingly, my multitasking has not yet transformed me into an Austen, much less a poet. It has, however, moved me to consider how the condition of “interruption” that Woolf indicates as characteristic of a woman’s life is not inimical to creativity, full-stop. Far from lamenting the narrative of chaos that surrounds them, women writers often mourn the isolating effects of the writing life. “I remember once . . . I was just in the solitary, melancholy state you describe, and I used to feel relieved and glad when the tea-urn came into the silent room, to give me a sensation by the sound of its boiling,” Edgeworth writes to a woman writer friend. “Would Pride and Prejudice have been a better novel,” Woolf muses, if Jane Austen had not had to do all her writing in a communal space? Interestingly, she feels that it would not.
I have such musings about my writing, too. For all my moments of resentment, I know I’ve wasted many an hour solo, in a room with a door that is tightly closed. I know, too, that I rarely feel more lonely than when I am uninspired. Writing is hard work, even when conditions are “perfect,” and perfect conditions have a way of making me feel guilty when the work is hard. What does it mean for a writer when, given time and opportunity, the words still won’t come? How much easier to attribute a lull in writing to external agency or another’s needs: the fact that the washing machine has gone off, or a child is crying, or a cup has spilled.
13 March, Table: jug of maple syrup; two school photos, framed; copy of Peter Pan; notepad, blank; copy of Hamlet; vase of assorted roses, some dead; box of pencils (Blackwing, very nice); copy of Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own; printed essay, “Viva Voce”; essay on Virginia Woolf, “Penelope at Work”; coloring book and markers; catalogues: Athleta, REI; sight-word flashcards, scattered; clothespin with paper face attached; assorted bills (dentist office); rose petals; dish of salt.
Interruptions, the very structure of Woolf’s essay suggests, are not always occasions to be mourned. Poetry lovers may regret that Coleridge, writing Kubla Kahn in a delirious, opium-induced haze, was interrupted mid-thought by “a person on business from Porlock” and never thereafter able to complete the poem. Yet for every Coleridge, there is a David Hume, who finds himself so tortured by an isolation-inspired “delirium” that he preaches the benefits of dinner, play, and backgammon for his philosophizing, not to mention his overall quality of life. Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose biography I read when in a flu-inspired, fever-induced state, would knock off at the end of the day to watch westerns and let his brain recharge. (Intriguingly, this is the main fact I remembered about him, once my own delirium had passed.) Wordsworth toggled between wandering lonely as a cloud and the “joint labour” of his friendship with Coleridge, his bouts of writing interspersed with their famous, frequent walks.
There can be something maddening, these examples suggest, about isolated focus—something maddening, and also punitive, about a room of one’s own. Scan the headlines for the toll taken by loneliness on mental health. Recall the titular yellow wallpaper that haunts the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story; recall the fits inspired in Jane by the Red Room in Jane Eyre. Consider Ramona, of the Beverly Cleary books, who finds herself tortured by the transition from a bedroom shared with her sister to one meant for her alone. Why else does Frances the badger persistently sneak out of her bedroom in Bedtime for Frances? Why else do children ask to sleep with the door ajar? Mary Shelley cues us to find Victor Frankenstein’s “workshop of filthy creation” suspect precisely because it is a “solitary chamber,” isolated at the top of the house.
The difference between Woolf’s room and these examples is the same as the difference between Wordsworth’s or Wittgenstein’s situation and my own: do we experience isolation (or its converse, interruption) by compulsion or by choice?
13 March, Table, night: jug of maple syrup; two school photos, framed; copy of Peter Pan; notepad, blank; copy of Hamlet; vase of assorted roses, dead ones now removed; box of pencils (Blackwing, very nice); copy of Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own; printed essay, “Viva Voce”; essay on Virginia Woolf, “Penelope at Work”; coloring book and markers; phonics worksheets (scattered, incomplete); iPhone headphones; fork and paper napkin; dishtowel; dish of salt.
Writing, I think, writing these words while the boys are in the shower and bath, doesn’t always require isolation so much as produce it.
14 March, Table: jug of maple syrup; two school photos, framed; copy of Peter Pan; notepad, blank; copy of Hamlet; empty vase; box of pencils (Blackwing, very nice); copy of Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own; printed essay, “Viva Voce”; essay on Virginia Woolf, “Penelope at Work”; coloring book and markers; one breakfast plate; copy of Frankenstein; Kleenex, lightly used; coffee cup; rose petals; dishtowel; dish of salt.
I’ve finally read that dining-room-table essay on Virginia Woolf. I tracked it down for the subject matter and because it was written by someone I know. I also flagged it for its title: “Penelope at Work.” What does Penelope, the heroine from Homer’s classical epic The Odyssey, have to say about the twentieth-century conditions of feminism outlined in A Room of One’s Own? One connection lies in the designation of women’s labor. “Take up your own work, / the loom and the distaff,” Penelope is twice told. Go back to those domestic tools of weaving and spinning, she is directed by men, go back to that inner sanctum in which these works take place—though those tools also represent the key metaphors for the telling of tales.
Penelope is, of course, famous for her weaving, or more accurately, for tricking her suitors by undoing her weaving every night. I’ll marry one of you, she tells them, once I’ve finished making my father-in-law a funeral shroud. And so for years, she weaves during the day and unpicks what she has woven after dark. By doing so, she postpones the need to choose a husband; she also postpones, I’ve always thought, the threat of death.
The other connection to Woolf’s essay has to do with how the weaving and the trickery happen in some private room, so that Penelope, although following orders, isn’t exactly banished or confined. Making—and unmaking—occur in her mysterious boudoir, in a manner that the common sitting rooms of Austen and Edgeworth could never support. She’s trapped with her domestic labor, yet her domestic labor becomes the creative labor I now miss. Maybe, she tells me, I can reclaim the work I resent as material. Maybe I can reclaim as privacy, or for narrative inspiration, an isolation that would otherwise feel enforced.
In the contemporary essay on Woolf that I read, the movement of Penelope’s weaving—two steps forward, two steps back—also finally becomes emblematic of “a woman’s work which is never done.” These days, as I juggle homeschooling my children with teaching my students, emailing my colleagues, and keeping my refrigerator stocked and my dishes mostly clean, the phrase hits especially hard. There is something in this idiom of the conditions of interruption, of Jane Austen’s blotting paper, of how the work of domesticity takes precedence over the other “work” a woman must hide. There is something in Woolf’s lament, as if without the disruptions, the extra chores, the daily-ness of laundry, lunches, teaching, and baths, other work might become complete. Yet there is also something wonderful in this phrasing: something that captures the consistency of parenting, or of devotion to one’s art.
Penelope’s loom, hidden in Woolf’s interior, contains a movement of the ocean, with its waves that come and go and come again. The interruptions of life are as transient as its moments of isolation. If weaving is writing, and writing is weaving, then how much more hopeful to say that it will be ongoing, without teleology, without morbidity, without end.
16 March, Table, night: jug of maple syrup; two school photos, framed; daily planner; notepad, blank; vase of roses (pink) with branches of rosemary, intermixed; copy of Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own; two placemats, Star Wars, one ripped; copy of Alice in Wonderland; book on Lewis Carroll; copy of Emma, very old; coloring book and markers; sunglasses; potholder; dish of salt.