“What if You Can’t Afford a Room of One’s Own?” by Sandra Newman was published by Electric Literature on March 12, 2019.
I read this essay while eating gluten free herb and garlic crackers with Trader Joe’s spinach and kale Greek yogurt dip except the dip tasted too healthy and I thought it needed a bit of fat, so I added a tablespoon or so of mayonnaise to it. I would’ve preferred to add sour cream instead, but we were out of sour cream. Sour cream always goes bad really quickly whenever we have it in the house. I need to get some of those little squirt packets of sour cream that Taco Bell gives you when you order a taco salad. I think taco bell gives you those squirt packets? Maybe I’m thinking of a different taco salad? It’s been a while since I’ve had a taco salad from Taco Bell.
Okay. Let’s look at this essay, “What If You Can’t Afford a Room of One’s Own.”
This essay works for me because of Newman’s honesty and transparency about her financial state and living conditions during her earlier years as a writer. She provides several details in the first paragraph that establish her credibility and make me trust whatever she’s about to tell me.
She also clarifies early on that this essay isn’t about grit or how writing saved her from her poverty. I love that approach of telling your readers what you aren’t doing, and I look forward to incorporating that into some of my own writing.
Newman does a great job of calling all of us out regarding the state of affairs for writers. She sets the record straight and writes about the ways we prop up this construct of all writers being well off and how writers with less stable financial means are pressured into hiding the true state of reality.
The acknowledgements pages of books tend toward lists of prestigious grants, residencies, and thanks given for the gracious loan of someone’s house in the Florida Keys; I’ve never seen anyone acknowledge the SNAP program or Medicaid, although they’ve almost certainly funded far more writers than the NEA. Even when a novel is marketed as a depiction of the working poor by a working-class writer, the press around the book usually suggests that the author, by becoming an author, has now escaped that underworld. Of course this isn’t always true — the author may not have “escaped” and doesn’t necessarily think it’s an underworld — but that narrative tends to creep into every crack.
I also love how Newman connects writing being a way for people to create their own place in the world. I imagine most writers—writers at any income level—can identify with her here. She writes, “Many people become writers in the first place because we feel we have no place in the world. Writing can be an attempt to make a room where you can fully live, even if that room is imaginary, invisible to anyone who doesn’t bother to read your work.”
Newman presents many angles of this issue and does a fantastic job of pulling back the curtain on the reality for many writers out there. It was helpful for me to have a better understanding of what some people go through to get their art into the world. And it angers me that we as a society perpetuate the conditions Newman describes throughout her essay.
Newman doesn’t present any solutions to this problem, but that doesn’t seem to be why she wrote this essay. She wrote to shed light on what she and others have experienced. She acknowledges this saying, “We can’t understand poverty if we never hear about it in the first person and the present tense; if we’re never reminded that, for poor people, poverty is happening to me, right now.”
So, I’m thankful for Newman and this essay. I look forward to learning more about writers living in poverty and learning what I can do to help this situation. This piece has helped me think more about what it might look like for me to support other writers and be a good literary citizen in ways I had never considered.