This is where crime writer Patricia Cornwell writes her novels. Look at those gleaming hardwood floors! The built in bookshelves! The daylight streaming through the spacious room. Can you even imagine getting up in the morning, making yourself a cup of coffee and then padding into that room to start working?
Virgina Woolf famously said that women who wanted to write fiction needed money and a room of one’s own. I’ve never had the former. And I have always lusted after the latter.
I’m very territorial. I like having my own space. Even if it’s just a sliver of a corner of a room. When I was very young, it was a corner of my bedroom, just under the window that looked out into my backyard. I had a pink formica table with two white pleather chairs. My little sister and I played office there, pretending to type and file important papers. (I’ve always been obsessed with sitcoms based in offices where a character says something like, “we’ve gotta get these files ready for the Johnson account!” It was usually a show like Dick Van Dyke or Bewitched, where the fathers were in advertising..)
After I moved out of my parents home, it was college. My roommate Victoria and I configured our room in a million different ways over the course of two years. At one point, we even had our desks pushed together against one wall. But my back was to the door and I was always paranoid about people coming into my room and seeing what I had popping on my Brothers Word Processor, (you know, the one that showed you TWO WHOLE LINES of text at a time).
My first real space came courtesy of my single room during my junior and senior year. I had two beds in my room: one to sleep on, and one I fashioned into a daybed of sorts, with pillows piled on. That was my first space. I wrote in my journal there. I stared out of the windows of the South Tower over the campus at Rutgers and daydreamed. It was my very favorite spot in my room.
Over the years, through Brooklyn apartments, back home to my parents, a tiny room in Cambridge, Massachusettes for a summer at the Radcliffe Publishing Course, apartment shares…I’ve always tried to have a room of my own. In one apartment in Fort Greene that I shared with two other girls, I had a room that was literally the size of a closet. And it was in that tiny room that I wrote my very first news feature for Marcus Reeves at The Source, (on my two high school friends Vada and Kilo and how they had to sue Lauryn Hill for not crediting and paying them properly for their work on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill).
My first apartment all to myself was in Newark, New Jersey, a studio on the top floor of a three family house. I could palm the ceiling while standing up. And I’m only five feet five. There was no sink in the bathroom and I didn’t realize it until I moved in. So I had to brush my teeth in the kitchen.
But it was in that apartment that I set up my first proper writing space. It wasn’t a room of my own. But it was a start. I got my AOL account. Got Verizon to set up my dial-up. (Buffering…buffering………buffering.) I learned to IM. (I actually IMd with strangers. Can you imagine?) And then I quickly blocked all that mess.
I moved three times over the next five years, finally landing in a three-bedroom apartment after I got married. Finally! A room of my own!
Our apartment in the ‘hood was deceptively large. Huge even. Twelve foot ceilings and old-school crown molding. I loved it. But I was quickly intimidated by my office. I bought a big ass desk from Ikea, a bunch of bookcases, tons of files and folders and boxes and index cards and printers and scanners and paper clips and notebooks and more boxes…
Before long, my room looked more like a supply closet at Dunder Mifflin. And I worked more in the living room on the sofa then I did in the office. My room slowly became the place where the summer clothes were stored, where the extra broom lived, where the vintage issues of The Source and Vibe were boxed up neatly.
It was not the room where I worked. It wasn’t my OWN room. It was the place where my stepdaughter would rummage through my desk looking for a rubber band or a pencil sharpener. The place where my husband would plop down to edit video or work on a freelance assignment.
I was constantly chasing them away from my desk. “Respect the space!” I’d say. They’d exchange glances, roll their eyes and snicker.
This summer, I moved into my first house, with a husband and now two children in tow. I had the nerve to put the kids together in one bedroom so that I could have the spare room as an office. An eleven year old and a baby in one room. Now you know I was wrong for that.
It didn’t work. I felt guilty about the girls sharing a room. And I didn’t feel right in the new office. When the sitter was at the house with the baby, I could hear their every move. Snacktime. Diaper changes. Playtime. I would sit in my office, trying to revise a story and my mind would be on whether or not the sitter remembered to use diaper cream.
I separated the girls into their own rooms. And I moved my operations to Starbucks.
I wrote entire books up in that piece. Including my novel. I did the last minute edits on Faith’s book. And wrote my upcoming collaboration with Frank Lucas: his memoir, American Gangster. I became one of those annoying Starbucks people: heads buried in their laptops and ipods, taking up all the outlets and spreading out tons of crap everywhere. I even adopted my very own super long annoying Starbucks order: a grande triple shot caramel macchiato, extra hot with soy milk, no foam and no whip. ( The first reader who can top that long ass order will get a Starbucks card worth the value of your own long-ass drink order. Seriously.)
But I couldn’t control the heat in Starbucks and it was always freezing. I started packing a blanket.
And I was becoming a bit too visible. People would come by to visit which was cool. But I was supposed to be working. And my five dollar a day Starbucks habit was getting way too expensive. And I hated lugging my laptop, manuscript, files, external hard drive, ipod and assorted crap each morning.
At the end of last year, after handing in my novel to my agent for revisions, I had an epiphany.
I needed a room of my own. A true, no-sharing, my-room-only room. I’d looked into places like this that seemed pretty cool. But I wanted a room that would hold all my stuff. And I couldn’t justify traveling into Manhattan each day from Jersey. The hour long commute would be expensive and exhausting.
I started looking for a real live office space during the holidays. Turns out, office space is not as expensive as I thought. But it was hard to find exactly what I wanted.
I wanted Patricia Cornwell’s setup. But I haven’t sold 100 million dollars worth of books yet. Sigh.
I found one spot in downtown Newark. Great location. An architect was subdividing his space and leasing cubicles to media folks. Cute set up. But I had my heart set on an office with a door. I couldn’t see interviewing people by phone or in person in such an open space.
A beautiful office in Montclair was available. But it was a share with another woman. We’d trade off days during the weeks and alternate weekends. It could have worked. But the price was high. Especially if I couldn’t trick it out myself and lock the door at night and know that no one would be there until I returned.
I was starting to give up hope when I saw an online classified ad for a one-room office in a mixed-used building. It was way above my budget but I called anyway.
“I’m calling about the office…”
“What do you need?”
“I need a place to write that’s not in my house.”
“You are so lucky,” the guy said. “I have the perfect place for you.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes. Really. It’s small, quiet and cheap. Come see it.”
The building was in North Newark, in the Forest Hills section. It was once the crown jewel of Newark, New Jersey, packed with grand Victorian mansions. It’s still a beautiful area. But definitely a bit rough around the edges.
I liked the building right away. It was formerly a home. And there was a small amount of grandeur still peeking through the vinyl siding and the broken bench on the front porch.
The first floor connected to the second via a grand, spiral staircase. The house had definitely seen better days. But I liked it nonetheless.
“You said you just wanna write?” said Alberto, the building manager.
“There’s no frills here. No reception. We all share the bathroom. That guy across the hall actually lives there. I work in this room each day. And there is an accountant next door. Here’s the empty room…”
Alberto jingled his keys and then opened the door. And I wanted to cry.
The thing that did it for me, dear reader, was the window. It was high and arched. Not like a sterile office in a law office. It was once a real room. The carpet was icky. The walls were stained. The light streaming from the ceiling fixture gave me a headache. But my stomach turned over as soon as I took it all in. I wanted it. Bad.
“How much?” I asked.
Alberto said a number that was absurd. We’ll call it XYZ.
“I can’t pay XYZ,” I said.
“Well how much can you pay?”
“I can pay ABC.”
“No way is the owner going for that. But I’ll ask.”
The woman who rented the space before was a massage therapist. Her eviction notice was still on the door. And I peeped the date on the form. That space had been empty for a long time.
“Let me know what the owner says,” I told Alberto.
Alberto and I went back and forth over the next few days.
“How about QRS?” he asked.
“Nope. I can only pay ABC.”
“How about LMNOP?” he said two days later.
“Sorry. I can only pay ABC.”
Finally. Finally, dear reader. I got a call from Alberto right before Christmas.
“Owner said he can do ABC for six months. Then we’ll need to revisit.”
I was sitting in my living room, grinning from ear to ear. And I started packing immediately.
I had to give up my daily Starbucks habit. But it’s all good. The Cuban spot next door to my new office serves up a damn good cafe con leche for a dollar. (A dollar!!)
Like I real writer geek, I cried when I got the keys. I sat down on the floor, surrounded by my dingy white walls and no furniture and shed some tears.
I started writing in 1998. My dream was to see my name in print. Then to get a job at a national magazine. Then to start a freelance career. Every step of the way, I’ve tried to carve out a room of my own.
2009. Eleven years later. I finally, truly, have a room of my very own.
I’ve thrown a coat of paint on my walls. Ran through Ikea for some basics. But I’m not balling. I’m not Patricia Cornwell. I didn’t even take all the blue painter’s tape off the walls yet. I’m still using the bulky mismatched furniture I’ve accumulated over the years. I’m sitting in a puke-green office chair that the masseuse left behind.
But it’s mine. It’s all mine. And today, for the very first time, I sat down at a desk far away from my home, from all the sounds of my life as a mother and a wife and a sister and a friend.
On Mount Prospect Street in Newark, New Jersey, on the second floor, in suite number two, (a fancy way of saying, the second room on the left), I am only only only a writer. It’s a very special feeling.
I’d bet even Patricia Cornwell could write a story or two here…