Writer on the Road: Kansas. The Black Room
Good morning from my new study, which I have painted black.
It just seemed, as I told my partner from where I was creeping around on my knees, slinging black paint on what had moments ago been nice white walls, the right thing to do.
"I felt it as a very strong moral imperative," I said.
My partner, who is responsible for the lease on our lovely rented house and PS, had just given up his study so I could turn it into my Black Room, politely backed away.
"Well, you're making progress," he said, carefully closing the door.
When he was gone I sat back on my heels and swiped my arm across my forehead, which I instantly regretted as both arm and now forehead were covered in black paint.
The paint was called "India Ink," which was why I had chosen it. But the symbolic virtue of the shade didn't seem to matter so much when the result of slathering it onto the white walls, so dangerously close to the beige carpet, looked so, well, awful.
The room looked like Duckie's room from "Pretty in Pink."
The initial coat of paint, with which I'd laboriously outlined the doors, windows and ceiling, looked like graffiti.
And I felt guilty about forcing my partner into an entirely subterranean existence. His basement studio, which he had formerly used for processing his photos, would now encompass his administrative and business work too: i.e. his entire world.
Never mind that he'd agreed, in an enormously generous gesture, to give me the upstairs study to work in. Never mind that I'd asked for it. "I need a room with a door I can close," I said, a line my partner liked so much he got up to write it down. (He's a screenwriter as well as a photographer, and our lives are constantly punctuated by one or the other of us tapping out some phrase on iPhone notes.)
I still felt bad.
Which is probably endemic to the process of writing in general. The secrecy, the necessity of protecting ideas in their infancy, the gigantism of ego required to believe other people will be interested in our Thoughts, as my friend Stacy calls them ("Don't talk, Jenna's having a Thought!") in the first place. The arrogance of taking time away from other things, of constantly having a story unspooling in our heads so even when we appear to be listening, part of us is still standing aside, tapping its foot and checking its watch, saying, "Come ON, it's time to get back to work!"
And, for me, the need to co-opt space: to hide the writer-monster self in a room of its own.
It's hardly a new idea, this Room Of One's Own thing. (Thanks, Virginia.) I don't know that, as Ms. Woolf said, money is required in order for a woman to write fiction. It helps. Money's nice. But I know many writers who write quite hardily without it. And I speak from experience.
For me, however, the room with a door I can close has been necessary for at least a couple of decades. When I was a little kid and in my Harriet the Spy phase, I wrote everywhere: with my back pressed up against the radiator in our suburban NJ kitchen; perched on tree limbs, hunkered behind garages, lying on my stomach in the neighbors' rhododendrons with one eyeball smashed up against their windows.
Then my parents read my notebook and took it away from me because I was writing mean things about people. (I had been prepared for this by Harriet, who had similarly had her notebook confiscated for telling the truth.) My former husband, too, liked to read my journals, and we had knock-down drag-outs as a result that often ended in me smashing some of my favorite plates.
Small wonder that I became furtive about writing fiction. Even when I've had supportive partners, I feel the need to write sitting in a corner, one hand cupped over the words so nobody can see what I'm doing. "Like Charlotte in the web," I said to one editor when she asked about my writing process.
And the rooms have been different from novel to novel. I wrote my first book in the living room of my tiny Beacon Hill apartment, which the neighbors kept so cold (they controlled the building's only thermostat) that I typed much of THOSE WHO SAVE US while wearing fingerless gloves.
That's what that novel demanded.
The second novel, THE STORMCHASERS, was written in a motel, in a room overlooking an equipment shed and an electrical plant, next to the motel's laundry.
That's what that novel demanded.
Not everybody needs this. Many writers can write anywhere: on trains and busses on the way to work; in cafes; surrounded by their families in the heartbeat of the house. Not everyone mollycoddles their stories the way I do. Yet when I mentioned this apparent neurosis, this matter of rooms, at lunch the other day to Clare Vanderpool, whose YA novel MOON OVER MANIFEST won the 2011 Newbury Award, she nodded. "I write my books at the dining room table," she said, "but right now I'm upstairs in the bedroom, sitting on the floor with my back against the ottoman. Because I'm in the dreaming phase."
Different books, at different stages, can require different stages to play out on.
Somewhere in the middle of rolling the second coat of India Ink onto the walls I realized why the black of the Black Room was so important. I wanted it to look like a movie set.
My next project is writing the screenplay for THOSE WHO SAVE US, and what I know about screenwriting makes Butterfly McQueen from "Gone With The Wind" look like an expert obstetrician. I'd been hoping my partner's screenwriting acumen and experience, not to mention all the adapted-from-books movies we'd been watching and all the popcorn I'd eaten while watching those movies, would give me knowledge by osmosis.
Maybe the black walls will help, too.
Jenna Blum is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of novels Those Who Save Us, The Stormchasers, and The Lost Family as well as the novella "The Lucky One" in anthology Grand Central. Jenna is also one of Oprah's Top 30 Women Writers. Jenna has taught for GrubStreet since 1997 ; she currently runs the master novel workshop and seminars focusing on craft and marketing.See other articles by Jenna Blum