What Would Shakespeare’s Sister do?

I gave it a fair chance and nothing came of it: maybe it was the lockdown scrambling my brain, maybe it’s just how I’m wired, maybe it was mild claustrophobia building up, maybe all of the above, but I was getting nothing done at home. I would pace around my apartment like nervous pigeon, have half-started projects all over the place and switch between levitating on the sofa and manically skipping from one activity to other. A friend summed it up perfectly: it is idiocy to expect a new outcome if you keep doing the same thing without changing something. So I got myself a working space.

Cliched as it seems, it’s nearly impossible to break this news without a reference to the feminist classic, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which is an ode for women needing to have a space for their creativity. To illustrate her point of women having been historically disadvantages as regards creative professions, Woolf makes the famous comparison between William Shakespeare and his spectacularly gifted, imaginary sister Judith, who didn’t get to go to school unlike her brother, but instead was married off before her 17th birthday. Never receiving training for craft or given time and space for her passion, she ended up killing herself.

Back to the 21st Century, no, I do do imagine being Shakespeare’s gifted imaginary sister and I have no lofty artistic plans. When I was contemplating renting a working space, I do admit to having gone through many of the issues Woolf addresses in her classic essay.

Should I already be more establish writer to have a working space? What I exactly was I going to work on?
Could I not keep scribbling away whatever I had to scribble at home and wait for a divine intervention that would give me a permission slip to get an office?
Is it not a bit, well, pretentious to have an office without any actual work?

I still don’t know, except that I don’t really care that much, and also don’t think that anyone else really cares, either. (Kind of a world in flames -type of situation, so my co-working hire is not exactly everybody’s priority just now.)

The more philosophical question remains, though: When are we allowed to call ourselves artists or writers or such? Is one an entrepreneur only when the paperwork for registering a company is signed?

I’ve had it very straightforward for almost two decades: if I ever forgot (I didn’t) what my profession was, there was always documentation at hand to state the current position. Giving up the physical paraphernalia that comes with a civil service job, things like badges, phones, laptops, email addresses, an entire office ecosystem, salary, paid holidays and overtime, work trips, colleagues, justification to walk the Earth – that’s one thing.

Reconstructing the non-physical side is the interesting, and much more difficult part. What am I allowed to call myself? If work is removed from a person, what’s left of the identity? Because let’s not kid ourselves – influenced by the 24/7 bosslady-culture, many of us have, slightly sneakily over the years, become our jobs.
I am not alone in thinking about this – the long weeks of lockdown meant that many of my friends suddenly had spare time to spend on thinking, and for many the question was “what am I outside my job?”

A friend told me recently “you should become a writer“. Her perfectly neutral comment launched a myriad of questions in my head: Am I not a writer already? What should I do, or indeed write, to be considered a writer? Is there a criteria? A validation slip “You’re a writer, please be gone“?

Mulling over the above questions is the ultimate indulgence, and also a supreme way to stay inside one’s head forever and never get anything done.

The concrete step to literally get a room and just start doing, even if anything to come out yet is basically forced and very mechanic, was a step that had to be taken to yank me from inside my head.

Should you find yourself circling around similar questions, first, of course read Woolf’s Room of One’s Own. It is very insightful. Another, more contemporary book about needing permission to create stuff, is by Elizabeth Gilbert and it’s called The Big Magic.

I am not usually huge on self-help-y creative guides, but Gilbert is fantastically gifted in storytelling and explaining creative processes, especially as regards a conversation about who’s allowed to create. This is not an insignificant point, because we are also results of our individual upbringings and we love, love, love to cling on to old beliefs about ourselves. These are often something our parents or teachers might have told us some 30 years ago, and we still hold them as defining factors about ourselves.

Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • I am bad at maths. Have always been.
  • I have never been entrepreneurial.
  • I am not creative.
  • I cannot work in business sector.
  • I cannot take risks.
  • I have always done this and cannot do anything else.
  • I cannot change my life.

All of the above sentences can be continued with “…actually, I never tried” or “…because my teacher/guidance counsellor/aptitude test I took 30 years ago told me so”.

A warm recommendation for Gilbert if any of the above keeps you up at night, and even if not. She’s also a hugely entertaining speaker, and has guest-starred in many interesting podcasts during the pandemic. Her talk about creativity with Tim Ferris is almost 2,5 hours long, but a great episode (I usually find Ferris’ podcast to be a bit too bro, but the episode with Gilbert is great).

Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry.
By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and the line of thought dip deep into the stream.

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