A Room Of One’s Own…

by
Sigh. Look at this spot. Just look at it!

Sigh. Look at this spot. Just look at it!

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..)

I digress.

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.

“Yes.”

“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.”

Alberto laughed.

“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…

A Room Of One's Own

I love that window. I just love it. I bought cheap, disposable paper blinds because I couldn't bear to cover that window with curtains. And I can't afford custom joints.

Another View

I painted this room way too dark. Tried to brighten it up with some black and white pics that photographer Shelby Gates took of me a million years ago. And finally, the movie poster for Crooklyn I bought off Ebay four years ago has a home! My fave Spike Lee movie ever. I like that I can see it from my desk. It makes me feel happy.

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26 Responses to “A Room Of One’s Own…”

  1. Tremaya Says:

    Oh wow! What a great read and a fly office! I’m jealous, I’m still stuck in the corner of my living room, stepping over my daughter’s toys and my husband’s work boots (sigh). You give me hope. :)

  2. Aliya S. King Says:

    Thanks! You can do it!! Work your butt off in that living room!

  3. Tremaya Says:

    Yes ma’am!LOL!

  4. clovito Says:

    I’m so glad you have a room of your own…I came across that page in EW and also caught a serious case of jealousy! that room is a-mazing. yours is too, as long as you love it :) and I am loving that Crooklyn poster

  5. Linda Hobbs Says:

    AWWWW….LOL! CONGRATS! So THIS is the cutie spot I’m going to come meet you to chat at! CAN’T WAIT! ;)

  6. CJWrites Says:

    It’s gorgeous:) Congrats and LOVING the blog!!

  7. kimosorio1 Says:

    congrats on your space, and l love this blog.

    i still use starbucks. i am too stingy to pay someone for space.

    triple grande skim wet gingersnap latte w/whip (yes, i said skim with whip)…now where’s my card

  8. kimosorio1 Says:

    sorry i left off: @145 degrees

  9. Aliya S. King Says:

    And the winner is Kim Osorio. Who will be receiving a Starbucks card for not just the longest order. But also the most ridiculous. Did you say skim AND whip? And what does “wet” mean? And what the hell is 145 degrees?

  10. Erin Siders Says:

    Your office is beautiful! And the Crooklyn soundtrack (volumes 1 & 2) is one of the best soundtracks EVER.

    And I thought my Starbucks order was bad: grande decaf sugarfree hazelnut latte…NO SKIM. Yes I want no caffeine and no sugar…but if you leave out the fat, I will cut you.

  11. Cheo Hodari Coker Says:

    Having your own space to write outside of the house is essential, especially after you have kids. I’ve gotten more work done in two weeks out of my office at imagine than I have in a two years at home….and I have a home office that i like.

    It’s the whole notion of getting up, getting dressed, and doing somewhere to do work. You put your hours in and its a real job. Even after this gig is over, I’m going to come out of pocket for office space. it’s a mandatory expense now.

    CONGRATS!! It looks great. I wish I was going to be in NYC longer to be able to visit it.

  12. Raqiyah@aol.com Says:

    I feel you, Aliya. Finding a space to write is a regular conversation in my life. It’s a dilemma of all sorts, from driving around for an hour trying to find a free place to park my car so I won’t have to stop writing to go pop quarters in the meter. To waiting, impatiently, for a table in the corner at the crowded cafe at Barnes Noble. I’ve even tried to hide away in a hallway at the YMCA. It’s very frustrating. But this week, I’m getting my own place to write, and I can’t wait! I’ll finally get that long overdue book out my system this year.

  13. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Erin: your order is insane. And you would have totally won if Kim hadn’t posted before you. Who drinks decaf?!

    @Cheo: It’s true. And I didn’t even mention that part. I get up, shower, get dressed, do my hair and LEAVE the house. It’s a big part of being productive. Much more so than yawning and flopping on the couch, flipping on Will and Grace re-runs and booting up my laptop. Not that I did that for years.

    @Raq: I racked up 50 bucks in parking tickets when I decided to boycott Starbucks and work out of my local coffee shop with on-street metered parking. I could never remember to feed the damn meter. So I was right back in my Starbucks with a parking lot. CONGRATS on the space. Happy writing!

  14. Tracii Says:

    Very cool entry, Aliyah. I just want to know how you keep the office so spotless. I’ve been going through old photos over the last few days and came across quite a few carnations of my offices over the years… Talk about organized confusion! Emphasis on organized AND confusion.

    My Starbucks Order: chai tea latte with soy milk and don’t even think of charging me an extra 50 cent!

  15. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Tracii: I just moved in! That’s why it’s spotless. That picture was taken last night, my first official day after moving in all my stuff over the holidays. I’m sure in no time at all, it will be…different. lol.
    re: your starbucks order. they won’t charge you extra for the soy milk if you use a starbucks gift card and register it online. i just found that out recently!

  16. Paula T. Renfroe Says:

    Love, love, love your blog Aliya! I’m with Kim, still writing @Starbucks (venti red-eye w/room). Though I do have a “writing” nook @home. It’s now where I pay & file bills & check my son’s grades & homework online (which is still mind boggling & even a tad stressful viewing test scores the same or next day your child takes a test!), where he prints out his homework offline (’cause they don’t do handouts) where my daughter steals my supplies to take back to college…hmmm, think I want my creative space back. The takeover begins!

  17. carlito Says:

    Wow, asking… Congrats, first and foremost!! Very, very, very fly spot and dope read!!

    But I’ll keep it 100: you got me on a helluva self-analysis, no BS. And then reading some of the comments (i.e. Cheo, Raqiyah, et al), I got teary-eyed and whatnot. Ferrealdo.

    Might sound nuts, but here I was, suffering along in silence for YEARS without a dedicated writing space, calling myself all kinds of bitch-ass for not being able to write “anywhere.” (Suffice it to say in such a public forum that, true to form, ya boy’s life has been extremely, ahem, interesting the last few years, especially as concern’s a place of one’s own, period, writing or otherwise.)

    That said, I finally, finally, FINALLY broke through the funk early last year, when I stopped worrying so much about being a walking, writing cliche and started my love affair w/ Starbucks.**

    All a sudden-like, the words were flowing like mocha frappuccinos on a hot afternoon, and (as writers w/ not enough balance in their lives tend to do) I felt like no matter what other trials and tribs befell me, e’ything would be aiight, shit, MORE than aiight, because, finally, I was writing.

    Alas, life having its ridiculous arsenal of curve balls, I’ve had to slow the Starbucks roll some (a lot, actually). And of late, I’ve been (stuck!!!) in Killadelphia, the City of Brotherly Thugs for a couple of months now, where the murder rate outnumbers coffeehouses (franchise or mom-and-pop) by about 200 to 1. So, I’ve been trying to write at a homie’s spot.

    Blue-collar bachelor pad, so it’s Spartan like a mufucka, but I’ve got WiFi, and my homie works from about 1 to about midnight, so I’ve got the place to myself all day. Even got another homie to lend me a folding chair which I use with a beat up card table, and (voila!) a writing place of my own. It ain’t the same as getting out of the crib every day, interacting with other human beings in person and not just via the airwaves, but it ain’t all bad, either.

    Especially after reading your post, and seeing pictures of your beautiful little spot, with its infinite energy. See you just told me in so many words that I’m on the right/write path, that no matter what curve balls come my way, as long as I can somehow, someway keep these words flowing, I’ve still got a pretty mean bat.

    Miss you, luv. My best to E-Peezy and the little women.

    **Mine depend on climate, mood and desired chemical effect, but still relatively simple, by the way: venti Mint Mocha Frap, no whip or Venti Chai Latte w/ soy), so I’m sure there’s no prize for me. But hey, believe it or not, I’ve got YOU to thank for putting me on in the first place, as I’d never really rocked w/ SBux until you and your students gave me that gift card as a thank you!!

  18. Aliya S. King Says:

    @carlito: damn. you hit it right on the head Cee. Writers often beat themselves up for not having the discipline to write anywhere. You feel guilty for saying, I need *this* in order to work. Whether its a crazy starbucks order or a card table and a folding chair. A doctor’s not tripping off needing tools and space to get their job done. It’s okay to need what we need. I resisted getting an office because I felt like that was a bit too much of a chest-thumping move. Someone in the back of my mind was rolling her eyes and saying, “who the hell does she think she is, renting an office. She’s a writer. She can work anywhere!”
    Scott Poulson Bryant once said in a story that he splits his time between Miami and New York, “because I want to and because I can.”
    Oh how I was sweating that line. Sooooo badass. Y’know? he said because i want to!! And because I can!! I stole that from him. And I use it on myself when ever I need to give myself a chest-bump. Yes, I have an office now. Because I want to. And because I can.

  19. carlito Says:

    =)

    =)

    =)

    !!!!!!!!!

  20. Portia Says:

    Like I said during our pedi/mani date…I am so proud of you, so proud that my chest is just swelling with pride…oh ooops, just my H-cups…sorry. hee hee The spot is perfect and I hope that although I am neither writer nor celebrity you will invite me for a dollar cafe’ con leche real soon…

    We need a celebration night…maybe not at Michael’s but…somewhere. 15 Madison? You choose. ;-)

  21. Aliya S. King Says:

    @portia: come any time!!!

  22. Perez Says:

    Aliya,
    To you I say thanks.
    Know that I am living vicariously through you when it comes to Facebook. Your twenty-somethings neice & nephew have banned (us)Mary & I, from that reality. LOL Take care and hug the baby for us.

    Peace & Prayers

    Prez

  23. Hanif Says:

    Well, As I read your blog, I’m being attacked by 3 year old and a 4 month old puppy. Right about now I’m ready to pay XYZ for the freedom. Enjoy!!!

  24. The Hump Day Contest: Guess Who?! « Aliya S. King Says:

    […] actually, this is our second contest. The first one came about in my post on getting my own office. I mentioned that I had to give up my daily Starbucks habit in order to pay the rent. I dared […]

  25. sunshyne84 Says:

    congratulations! it looks lovely :)

  26. Mcki.nl Says:

    Can you tell us more about this? I’d like to
    find out some additional information.

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