Poets and Writers
A Room of (Almost) My Own
Finding space, and permission, to write.
WHEN I was single, I never needed a room of my own. I wrote whenever I wanted, day or night, in my tiny studio apartment, where I lived alone. Drafts of poems and stories and books would be strewn about for days, undisturbed. My clerical job didn’t require me to take work home; I could even write at my desk when business was slow.
My unencumbered writing life changed considerably twenty years ago when I earned a graduate degree and fell in love in the same year. After graduation, my boyfriend—now husband—Jorge and I moved into an apartment together. I soon joined the ranks of adjunct instructors commuting across congested Southern California freeways to teach at community colleges and universities.
My writing suffered.
I used the dinette as an office and stole two or three hours a week to write on our small dining table, when it wasn’t being used for eating, lesson planning, grading papers, paying bills, or other activities. I had difficulty switching from my hectic life into writer mode. My creativity needed to be eased into gear, and I couldn’t escape reminders of the tasks waiting for me to complete—grading, cleaning, and more. I longed for a room of my own where I could shut the door and immerse myself in the world of the piece I was writing. I wanted a room I could decorate to express my eclectic taste and inspire me.
Ten years ago Jorge and I became first-time homeowners. Finally I had a room of my own—almost. We lived in Long Beach, California, where home prices were rising. All we could afford was an old 765-square-foot house with two bedrooms and one bathroom in a working-class neighborhood. The guest room, its size more suitable for a child, doubled as my writing and schoolwork room. To make it welcoming for overnight guests, I decorated it in neutral blue and brown hues, not the bright aqua, hot pink, Prince purple, and tiger orange I prefer. I did not display many of my cherished decorations. My doll collection, images and sculptures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and ofrendas for dead loved ones might seem odd, tacky, or even frightening to guests. Although I couldn’t fully express myself in the
décor and had to frequently relinquish the space for visitors, I relished having a separate place to write.
A scientist by day and musician by night, Jorge turned the bonus room behind our detached garage into his music room and bedroom. I’m a night owl, and he wakes up at 4:30 in the morning to get ready for work, so we’ve slept in separate bedrooms since we first moved in together. He sealed and painted the bonus room, laid laminate wood flooring over the concrete, and installed bars on the windows and a security screen door.
Within a few months the local newspaper ran articles about recent break-ins in the neighborhood, and I felt unsafe sleeping in the house alone. Jorge was happy to move into the guest room—my writing room. He had grown weary of walking across the backyard to the house to shower on chilly winter mornings.
We decided to share the now-vacant bonus room. Jorge rented a small storage unit for the music equipment he used infrequently. We hung long curtains from the ceiling to divide our spaces. One side was his rehearsal space; the other was my office. Because of our different schedules, we each had the room to ourselves: I used it during the day before teaching night classes and Jorge used it at night after work.
This arrangement didn’t last long. Jorge has many good qualities, but neatness isn’t one of them. Whenever he prepared for an upcoming music performance, it looked like the Santa Ana winds had blown through the room. He left electric cords and gadgets scattered on the floor, my desk, and every other surface. His mess often remained there for up to a week, until he had time to put things away. I soon gave him back the bonus room. We needed the money he spent on the storage unit anyway. I stored my office furniture in the bonus room and garage and moved my writing materials into my bedroom.
The living room became my work space, where I used a laptop cart that I rolled into my bedroom when I finished writing for the day. Again I had difficulty switching into writer mode. This time I didn’t have a table on which to handwrite ideas and early drafts, nowhere to set the materials that were integral to my writing process— multicolored pens, a writing journal, and literature and images that inspired me. My creativity stifled, I focused on writing short poems and accepted that they would evolve slowly.
Working in the living room sufficed until three years ago when I began developing two historical creative nonfiction book projects: one about my maternal grandmother’s experiences growing up as a Mexican American in San Bernardino, California, and the other about my maternal grandfather’s experiences growing up in the Midwest as a Mexican immigrant—both in the early 1900s. These were the most challenging writing endeavors I’d undertaken. The works had to honor my grandparents and do justice to the unheard Mexican and Mexican American history in their stories. To be as productive as possible, I needed a space where I could drop into the world of the piece I was working on, have my research and writing materials handy, and work without interruption. I tried to make a writing space work in every possible room. The kitchen nook was tight and drafty. My desk fit in my bedroom but not with my chair. I turned one-third of the already cramped living room into a writing space and worked there for a few months. The drawback was that I had to tidy my desk whenever guests came over, and I had to stop working when Jorge watched TV. I returned to working on the laptop cart in the living room, moving it and my materials to the bedroom at the end of my writing sessions.
By June 2019, I had grown frustrated and despondent because I had made little progress on my book projects. I was turning sixty in August and felt my mortality catching up with me. My father had died in an accident a few days after his twenty-fourth birthday, when I was three; I know how uncertain life is. Finishing my two
book projects before I died became a priority.
The only solution was to move back into the bonus room. I knew Jorge wouldn’t mind. He has always been supportive of my writing. He also hadn’t been able to rehearse in the room for more than a year because his equipment and boxes were crammed into it. I called it the abyss.
I presented him with a plan for how to rearrange his stuff. He would continue rehearsing in his bedroom. We would hang the divider curtains again and store his temperature-sensitive equipment behind it. And we would hire a handyworker to seal the garage so he could store his other things in there. He agreed and promised to be mindful of not leaving his belongings in my part of the room.
Eager to start working in the bonus room, I asked Jorge to free up a corner for me. While cleaning the window frames, I found termite debris. Thinking the frames required only spot treatments, I scheduled a termite inspection, moved in my desk, and set up my materials, including enlarged maps and images of the areas where my grandparents had lived. Having a space where my creative spirit could finally unfurl, I made more progress on my projects in one week working in that room than I had in three years. Jorge also accomplished a lot that week—moving his boxes to the patio, purging, and organizing.
Our work groove ended the day the termite inspector came. The bonus room and garage needed tent fumigation. We decided to get the garage sealed before getting the back structure tented, so we could move Jorge’s things inside. Over the next week I researched, called, and interviewed handyworkers. We hired a guy with rave reviews on Yelp and Facebook. He didn’t have an opening for three weeks, but we thought he was worth the wait. During this time, Jorge’s schedule got busy, and he left his things spread out on the patio and in the bonus room. His messes looked like the piles of junk people dumped in open lots. I could no longer work at my desk and found myself back at the laptop cart in the living room.
To distract myself from my disappointment and to get ideas for how to arrange and decorate my room, I streamed videos of authors and poets giving tours of their writing rooms. A series that featured prominent British authors appealed to me most. Novelist Wendy Holden refurbished a garden shed the size of a small cottage. She decorated her “writing hut” with a record player, frilly
lamps, and a chaise lounge. Her desk sat beneath a window that overlooked a verdant valley and rolling hills. Author Lady Antonia Fraser’s “aerie” was on the fourth floor of her home. She had it renovated to resemble an Edwardian country bedroom. She could sit at her desk and look out the window into the treetops or relax on her rose-patterned couch that matched the wallpaper and read a book she pulled from her floor-toceiling bookshelves. It struck me that if best-selling authors needed a personalized sacred space to create, a struggling writer like me could use one too. My passion to have a room of my own was intensified.
THE morning the handyworker was scheduled to come finally arrived. We woke up early to clear out the garage. An hour after his scheduled arrival time, the handyworker at last replied to Jorge’s multiple texts and voicemail messages asking where he was. He said he had a bad case of the flu and had to postpone the job. We gave him the benefit of the doubt and rescheduled for the following week.
I could handle waiting another week. But when he was a no-show again, I began the search for a new handyworker.
The setbacks got to me. I took them as signs that I didn’t deserve to have a writing room because I wasn’t financially contributing much to the household. I made only a meager income from my writing, and most of it was from giving readings, not from publishing. Shortly after I began working on my book projects, I resigned from my adjunct teaching position at the local community college due to debilitating chronic migraines. Almost every day I experienced a severe headache or migraine that left me drained and my head full of fuzz. Our finances took a hit. So did my ego. For most of my adult life, I had been self-supporting, which was a source of pride for me. I was raised by a self-sufficient single mother of four daughters and valued my financial independence.
Meanwhile, Jorge started making extra money by running sound for events. He assured me that he accepted the jobs because he enjoyed the work, not because he was concerned about our finances. I took his side jobs as more evidence that I didn’t deserve the space, especially since he, the breadwinner, had to give up a room of his own so I could have one.
I told Jorge I wanted to return to our original arrangement: He would keep the bonus room, and I would use the cart in the living room. He wouldn’t have it. He insisted we keep going and continued moving his equipment onto the shelves he had arranged in the garage. I moved forward, but my enthusiasm was gone. We interviewed a few more handyworkers and hired another stranger. This handyworker signed a contract and fulfilled his commitment with no problems. Next, the garage and
bonus room were tented for three days. The first week of August, two months after we began the process and three weeks before my sixtieth birthday, our move was complete.
I posted a call on Facebook for free or cheap tall cabinets to store my research materials. Michael, a friend and Chicano elder in the arts community whom I revere, offered me his deceased mother’s custom-built hutch. For free! The shelves had sliding glass doors that would protect my research books and deep cabinets for my archives. Jose, a neighbor and my favorite local visual artist, borrowed his brother’s truck and helped Jorge and me pick up the hutch and carry it into my writing room. My room was coming together better than I had imagined. Jorge’s, Jose’s, and Michael’s generous support of my writing emboldened me to treat myself with the same care.
In the following weeks I organized my books and writing materials and unpacked and displayed my curiositos. Jorge helped me with my final task: hanging images on the walls. When I stepped into my writing room the next morning, a sense of gratitude overwhelmed me. For the first time I had a writing space of my own. It was filled with gifts from friends and family members who have supported my writing over the years: a print of a painting inspired by my first poem; an artistic broadside with an excerpt from another of my poems; the hutch that kept my research materials safe; images of Our Lady of Guadalupe; curiositos, such as the pen with a holder that Jorge brought back for me from his music tour in Japan and gave to me on our first date; and my grandfather’s desk, where he wrote his memoir about growing up as a Mexican immigrant in the Midwest.
I treasured these gifts and never questioned whether I deserved them or not. They inspired me and reminded me that I had loved ones who believed in me and supported me without judgment or expectations. Today they remind me to value myself and my writing.
Now I’m all about putting my nalgas in the chair. I’ve been taking a new medication that has decreased the number of days I’m in too much pain to work. I get as much accomplished on my projects as possible on those painfree days. My self-doubt still gets to me now and then, and I curb it by writing.
Jorge has been mindful of giving me advance notice when he needs to get his equipment out of the room, and he rarely leaves things around. Through this experience I’ve grown to understand that it’s an honor to share the room with a person as generous, thoughtful, and talented as Jorge. I hope some of his good energy rubs off on me.
I don’t have a view of a verdant valley or of treetops in a posh neighborhood, but my view enthralls me nonetheless. The window above my desktop frames the garden we’ve created over the years: fuchsia bougainvillea that monarch and painted lady butterflies alight upon, a nopal bursting with prickly pears and paddles that nourish me, a purple Mexican sage bush that bees and hummingbirds feast upon, and a fragrant, bountiful Meyer lemon tree that gives us fruit throughout the year. Overhead, hummingbirds, finches, and black phoebes perch on the power lines one at a time and chirp. I couldn’t afford to paint the walls Prince purple or change the boring blue and brown hues of the throw pillows and sleeper sofa cover, but I gifted myself with inexpensive aqua cotton gauze curtains that greet me whenever I enter the room. Before I sit to write I draw back those curtains and drink in the view of my backyard paradise.
My room of almost my own is not nearly as tony as those of the wealthy authors. My furniture is beat up and mismatched. My décor is a hodgepodge of different styles, themes, and cultures. Some of my curiositos are cheap, chipped, crooked, or glued back together. Nothing is of significant monetary value. Yet this room is invaluable to me—a place where I can read, think, research, stare out the window, meditate, do yoga, journal, make crafts, dance, and, most of all, write.