Since 2008, the year I originally wrote this essay as part of my application for the Gift of Freedom Award, the conversation about the challenges women writers face in the literary arts has only grown more heated—the VIDA count revealing women writers getting published and reviewed at disproportionate numbers compared to male authors, women stepping forward and sharing their personal stories about misogyny, abuse, even rape. All revealing that the challenges we face both as individuals and as a community aren’t going away anytime soon. How far we’ve come, I thought, both for myself and for the women writers I know—for women and girls everywhere. And yet how far we have to go.
Here’s the famous quote by Woolf, followed by the original essay I wrote in response.
“Five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate…a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.” –Virginia Woolf
It’s late in the afternoon, the air hot but breezy on the hillside where the house sits. Inside, I’m still typing on the laptop when my boyfriend’s Toyota roars up the driveway. The car door slams and he lumbers out, all business attire and briefcase; I shove off the laptop and hurry in my bare feet to the front door and unlock the gate. Right away I can tell the stock market hasn’t been good to him today, by the way his face droops down to the floor.
“You’re still writing?” he asks. He slumps in a chair and rifles through his briefcase. He says, “I don’t understand how you can just sit in this room day in and day out, and just write.”
“Are you kidding?” I reply. “When I’m writing a story, I’m inside another world. But having this room all spring for myself, this quiet space and the time to write, is a huge gift.”
He rubs his palm across his face and rests his chin in his hand. “I gave you those numbers so you would have some other women to hang out with, but you haven’t called anyone. God knows David’s wife just goes to her mother’s and does Pilates every day. I have a hard time believing that staying cooped up isn’t going to get old for you.”
“Why is that so hard to believe? All my life I’ve had to steal time to write. Now I finally have a few short months to do that.”
“But you’re not working,” he says.
“All I’ve done up until now is work,” I reply. “And I’ll be working again, probably several jobs, after this. Right now it’s time to write. And I thank you so much for helping me.”
“Okay,” he says, sighing. “I’m just an idiot who’s been in an office for nine hours straight.”
“You’re not an idiot.” I walk over and cradle his head in my arms. He’s tired; when he looks up I see the dull weariness in his eyes. “You’re wonderful,” I say.
We hold each other for a minute, and outside a light rain patters on the porch. Then I hear someone calling from our yard. We look up and a small but sturdy old woman with a hamper tucked underneath one arm trudges up the steps. She rests the hamper at her feet and produces an empanada for us to admire. “Tres cientos colones,” she beckons.
He attends to the woman, and I scramble to count the coins from my change purse. We buy four empanadas, and the woman showers us with many thanks. She picks her way down the steep driveway and back onto the winding road.
Afterward, he disappears for a nap, and I return to my story-in-progress. But I can’t stop thinking about the woman and what he and I were at odds about just before she showed up at our door. After a decade of juggling serving jobs for alcoholic bosses, adjunct teaching jobs with salaries that barely filled my gas tank, and tutoring high school kids on weekend mornings, six months ago I finally planned, saved, and borrowed to accompany him for the spring to Costa Rica. While he worked at his trade desk all day in downtown San José, I would write fiction as often as I could. And write I do, five days a week. But what I hadn’t anticipated was how the world still tries to pull that precious writing space away. Now time and money are quickly running out, my story collection only halfway complete. He is working hard, too, to support both of us.
And then I think of the woman selling empanadas. She has probably spent her whole life laboring just to feed and clothe herself and her children, and at her wrinkled age is hiking the country road with a heavy hamper of empanadas for sale. What kind of artistic joy might she have stumbled across as a little girl, only to have scarce moments at drawing or play-acting squashed by the basic need for survival? How different am I from that woman—or are we more similar than I might care to know? She’s baking empanadas all morning to peddle them up and down a long, hilly road in the afternoon sun; I will soon return to teaching wait-listed college classes with no healthcare or retirement benefits, and have little space or energy left to give a lengthy creative project the attention it demands. For it’s the space that really matters when mining the depths, rather than the time.
Time can be stolen—a couple of hours here, and couple of hours there—as I know from trying to write the novel I started in my early twenties. But I didn’t realize until this past year, when I unearthed the failed novel from my files, to what degree the project hadn’t lifted off the ground due to lack of space. By working full-time, earning graduate credits part-time, and adjunct teaching, I had simply lacked the space to delve deeply enough inside the novel’s heart and its characters for any extended period beyond the three full days off my schedule allowed each month. Just as important as the physical space of a secluded room, perhaps even more important, is the inner space needed for the artist’s vision to really thrive. How many women like myself are seeking to keep that inner space free while on the surface, are merely struggling to survive?
I write for awhile, and as the sun sinks lower and its rays seem to light the palms on fire, my boyfriend yawns like a jungle cat and pads out of the bedroom wearing a sarong. Now rested, his spirits are lighter. He pats me on the head and asks if he can read my story when it’s finished.
“It’s not like I’m at home all day, doing nothing,” I say. “I’m writing. That’s what I love to do most in the world. Pura vida, right?” I crack a smile, pleased at my twist on the saying Costa Ricans toss about with pride—in English, “the good life.”
“You’re a good woman, Babette,” he says, using his pet name for me.
I close the computer and look up. “There’s one thing,” I say. I have put off mentioning this for a few days now, until the several hundred dollars left in my bank account can no longer be ignored. “I came down here so we could be together, and also to write. But my savings are almost gone. Unless you can support me, I need to go home and get a job.”
He says nothing. He’s lost a lot of money in investments lately, and his home in Florida is still sitting on the market after four months.
“I hate asking you this,” I say. “More than anything. But I’ll go find a waitress job tomorrow if I need to do that. Master’s degrees or not.”
“Okay,” he says finally. “I’ll do what I can.”
I jump up and give him a big hug and a kiss thank you.
Somewhere in the darkness of the early morning my boyfriend stirs and cuddles up next to me. He hugs me tight and burrows his face in the small of my back. “I love you so much,” he says. “I’m just afraid that one day you’re going to have enough of just being with me and writing, and you’re going to leave.”
“I’m right here,” I say, reaching out of my half-sleep and patting his arm. “And I love you, too.”
“What if you need to take some job in Wisconsin or something?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I hope not.”
It’s still dark out but nearby a cock crows. Outside our window, the birds begin to twitter.
I listen and marvel at nature, how the animals give each other room to be free.
The next morning, I want to sleep in but he wants me to get up and make him breakfast. So I fix some eggs and see him off to work. It’s a Friday, I finish the first draft of a story and would like to work on it more over the weekend, but he keeps our dance card full on those days: barbecues at his boss’s house, jaunts to the beach or farmer’s market. Sometimes on weeknights he wants me to help him entertain clients who fly in on business, and so we eat steak dinners at fancy hotels until ten p.m. All this I keep up for the writing life I’ve been able to carve out for myself this spring. I’ll worry about our relationship later—how I constantly feel indebted to him, the big deal he makes if I want to write on the weekends instead of pulling my weight in his social circles. That I don’t speak up and insist on having a few hours more on the weekends to write, because he’s bought that time with me.
Pura vida, they say. I wonder.
And I keep wondering about the other women I see here in Costa Rica. One night we go downtown to hear an acoustic band—live music is my boyfriend’s passion—and we pass the hotel/casino that’s also a famous whore bar for the rich sport-fishermen, businessmen, and other gringos stopping through San José. You can tell the whores by their oversized purses, tight clothing, and surgically-enhanced breasts. They trot across the street on the arms of the older American men, and I wonder how many of these women would be so much more if they didn’t need to do this to pay for basic necessities because the barrios they come from in Honduras or Nicaragua are without electricity and running water. I shudder to think how many other educated, middle-class American women are closer to those women than we would care to think—still hanging onto the arm of a man, clipping as fast as we can just to keep up.
Also by Vanessa Blakeslee, “Just Because a Man Identifies as a Liberal Feminist Doesn’t Mean He Can’t Be Abusive.”
About Vanessa Blakeslee
Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut short story collection, Train Shots, was released in March, 2014 by Burrow Press and is the winner of the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. The book was also long-listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Vanessa’s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Finalist for the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Vanessa earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, she is a longtime resident of Maitland, Florida. Blakeslee’s debut novel is scheduled for release by Curbside Splendor Publishing in Fall, 2015.