At 15 I knew I would write, and that anything more sustained than scrappy fragments would need time and privacy. Virginia Woolf's 'A Room of One's Own' consolidated this and saved a great deal of self-castigation about whether I was asking too much of life. Short enough to be read in a couple of hours, this astonishing generous book mingles down-to-earth advice with intoxicating flights of fancy, as when she imagines what would have happened had Shakespeare had an equally gifted sister (disaster, basically: pregnancy, suicide and an unmarked grave at the Elephant and Castle).
Things read early on can become part of your fibre and sinew. Woolf was right, I sensed, even about what I only half understood. In one passage she gestures towards a landscape of untouched subject matter when she imagines questioning an old woman about her life - but "she would look vague and say that she could remember nothing. For all the dinners are cooked; the plates and cups are washed; the children sent to school and gone out into the world. Nothing remains of it at all. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it. And the novels, without meaning to, inevitably lie." What is that if not a challenge?
Re-reading 'A Room of One's Own', I find myself exclaiming aloud at passages such as "women's books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work. For interruptions there will always be." Too right.
Beware the Angel in the House, she warned; admire the androgynous mind. "Learn to laugh, without bitterness, at the vanities - say rather at the peculiarities, for it is a less offensive word - of the other sex...Be truthful, one would say, and the result is bound to be amazingly interesting. Comedy is bound to be enriched." Yes!
Because of this book, I realised that my only worldly ambition was to make enough from writing to earn my living and claim a room of my own. "So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters." Woolf alerted me to the prosaic truth that literary works "are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in."
For the next decade or so I wrote in my spare time at fold-up card tables in rented corners, or in libraries full of coughers and sneezers, and even in a church pew in my lunch hours, but always the implanted ideal of a room of my own grew in my mind. Then at last, after moving for the umpteenth time, I had a room with neither kitchenette nor sleeping partner in it. I put my books up around me, and I thanked Virginia Woolf out loud and felt profoundly happy. Once I had a room of my own, I started to make money from writing fiction.
Helen Simpson's new volume of short stories is 'In-flight Entertainment' (Jonathan Cape)Reuse content