Four months after my mother’s death, I vowed her tireless efforts to inspire belief in my dreams and evoke courage in my endeavours would not die with her. As much as I’d always credited her as my biggest cheerleader, I hadn’t fully realized that my mother served as advocate for how I valued myself. She lifted my ego when it wilted—always reminding me that success was in the intention and enthusiasm to make good things happen—in both art and life.
I was determined to honour her by letting go of insecurities and self-doubt, but first I had to alter how I valued myself as a woman and artist. She always encouraged my individuality, creativity and connection with others. She applauded unusual concepts and imaginings. Losing my mother quite literally brought me to my knees, but it took those first four months to understand I was also grieving the loss of her ongoing reassurance.
I needed serious personal and creative recalibration, so I started exploring worth and how it impacts every aspect of a woman’s life. After almost a year of not writing or reading—a self-induced boycott of the fuel that had always fed me—I had a non-fiction book idea that sparked passion in both the intention and enthusiasm to make good things happen, and so it took hold.
An elusive life-write balance
A work of non-fiction was a first for me and a stray from the fiction I spent years practising. I was knee-deep now in reading, researching and workshopping—on worth itself and on the business of writing book proposals. As much as it motivated me, it also overwhelmed. I tried to carve out more hours at night, sandwiched with a short stint of writing in the morning before work. I’d sit at my kitchen table and plug away, but I felt scattered. Notepads landed on every flat space in the house, my kitchen whiteboard filled with workshop concepts alongside grocery lists. I didn’t want to lose my drive but I was starting to feel uninspired.
After a meeting with my writing critique group, one of the members came over for tea. I wanted her opinion on my recently assembled art-gallery-style wall in my bedroom—had I gone too far with the floor-to-ceiling display? I value Jessica’s opinion in many things—but she has super-human powers in organization, and each room in her century home looks like a gorgeous magazine spread.
We spent just five minutes in my bedroom with few suggestions–not because she didn’t have a laundry list of further ideas, but because Jessica was far more interested in the spare bedroom across the hall. She asked what I used it for, and I sheepishly explained away the baskets of to-be-folded laundry, and a mass of odds and ends stockpiled in the corner.
My excuse—I wasn’t using it for anything else and could quickly shove things in closets if someone were to sleepover. She wasn’t interested in excuses; she was perplexed why I hadn’t utilized the room as a creative space for myself.
I didn’t have a reason. Frankly, I’d never had a creative space to write, and although I’d spent time dreaming of “She-Sheds” or one day owning a home with a grand studio space, I didn’t think to use this or any other spot in my home to carve out as my own, because I didn’t put stock in the fact that I deserved a space of my own.
I had excuses why it wouldn’t work—I might need the room, I didn’t have a writing desk, and I couldn’t afford to buy anything to make a great creative space. Jessica balked, and said if nothing else, throw an old table in there—all a writer really needs—in order to have a spot to write. A place to hide from regular life and to simply write. It was sage advice.
A writing room for under $100
My writing room—as it stands—cost me under $100. It would have cost me nothing, but I envied the floor-to-ceiling chalkboard Jessica had in her writing room, and wanted one too. I decided on whiteboard paint instead, an easy choice more suited to me. I could use a multitude of rainbow-coloured markers, with far less mess than the chalk powder would leave on my floor. The whiteboard paint was $40; I needed two cans. The marker kit was $10. Voila – a fun mind-mapping canvas. Next item, I scavenged an old bedside table from a neighbour on garbage day. Short of tightening the legs which were a bit wobbly, it was a great wood piece. I painted that baby up pretty nice thanks to dollar store paints and examples on Pinterest. Cost me nothing.
Every other item in my writing room was already in my house. A 25-year old kitchen table previously stored unassembled in my basement serves as my writing desk. Every piece hanging on the wall, on my desk or a shelf was pulled from other rooms in my home – often hidden or tucked away, not being seen or enjoyed. I tore apart a journal that was filled with inspirational quotes and filled old frames that sat in my closet. I took an old shelf, three bucket-style herb planters that were under my kitchen sink, added some twine with a glue gun and bam—my whiteboard markers had a home.
I didn’t need to make it pretty—I could have had the desk alone—but I like pretty. I also like (almost) free. My room satisfies both. There is something about the space I created for myself—it gives me exactly what I need. Each item gives me joy, calm, or creative zeal.
I have only three photographs in the room—all adorn the mirror which runs the length of my writing desk (placed there so I can keep an eye on myself—one look and I can see if I’m working or playing, focused or distracted—it’s a clever trick, actually). The first photograph is of me and my mother, Norma, laughing. She always told me I was good enough, inspired me to dream big, and laughed at almost everything I said. I glance up at that photo when:
- I’m deep in doubt and need a boost of confidence to believe in myself
- I need the strength to just keep swimming
- I need a helpful reminder to stop excessive late night munching while I write (thanks, Mom…you’re right, sugar only keeps me up later!)
The second photograph is of my Maalik. Before he died just this November, my 9-year-old golden retriever spent hours at my feet under my writing desk, or lounged on the bed beside the desk, watching me spin in creative chaos. I would talk aloud as I mind-mapped on the whiteboard, or practised and timed pieces for readings or presentations. He would simply watch attentively and smile on cue. He was my first audience for every piece I ever wrote. He thought anything I wrote or said was brilliant, even when it wasn’t. I glance at his picture when:
- I need to feel like I made a difference
- I need calm
- I need to feel like I do indeed have something worth saying
The last photograph is me, aged 4. I’m dolled up in a bright fuchsia kilt my mother brought from a visit back home to England. I’m positioned in front of her rose garden, my stick straight hair curled at the ends—an effort to make me look less unruly for the picture she’d send back home to family. At first glance, I look darling. At second glance, the jig is up. My hand is deep in my pocket, fingers waving out the bottom of the hem as a friendly cross-continent hello to family I’d never met. I’m grinning ear to ear, cheeky thing that I was. But somehow that is what how I endeared myself to my mother. She was that same age when she came across oceans to Canada, a very small girl on a very large boat. She was quiet and serious, intelligent and well behaved, but very timid. I was wild and rambunctious, often naughty and always playful.
As little girls, we were very different. However, Mom loved books all her life—both as an escape and as a window to the world she lived in. That she passed on to me, an undeniable effort to make her children aware of the enormous impact of words. I can’t remember a time without books and all forms of writing as a main source of information, enlightenment and entertainment. I glance at that photograph when I need to remind myself:
- that my strengths often come from being a whirling dervish
- that life is supposed to be fun
- that going pant-less has its perks
Over a few months, I’ve made little changes to my writing room, but it remains a creative space only—no bills, no school reports, no work outside artistic measures. I enter the room and get right to work. I don’t have to prepare or clear away the overflow of everyday life. When I leave my writing room, I become regular-life me and get to the daily grind. But in that 8×8 room, I find harmony and am inspired to create.
More than a place to work
Though a little disappointed that I didn’t give myself the gift of a creative space in the more than ten years that I’d been writing fiction, it is gratifying that I’ve finally invested in my work and am honouring my artistic self. I take myself and my craft more seriously because of it. I won’t ever land myself in a home again without somewhere to create that is mine and mine alone.
It doesn’t have to look like an office or a studio. I know a writer who literally created a space under her stairs—but it was hers. It doesn’t have to be magazine spread perfect, or be something to boast about. It is less about the space and all about the sanctuary.
Invest in yourself. Give yourself a sacred space to create. Whether you aim to be a published author or a lover who simply writes poetry to your muse. Regardless of whether you aim to be commissioned at an art gallery or someone who fills their own home with paintings rendered on dollar store canvases.
No matter what your creative goal is, don’t wait until you’ve reached what you deem as success to take your craft seriously. Be it a basement, a bedroom, a she-shed, or under the stairs—you are worth making room for.
Did you know:
Noelle is a writer, workshop facilitator, researcher and worth cultivator. She is currently exploring worth and morphing a non-fiction book idea into a women’s movement. Aiming to promote a nationwide surge in the well-being of Canadian women, Worth Cultivating: a women’s movement examines the commonality of women’s struggle to value themselves, and examines how each individual woman can recognize, cultivate and sustain self-worth.
“Let’s prepare for a worth-cultivation movement. I guarantee—you are worth it.” www.worthcultivating.com.
Noelle is represented by the extraordinary Carly Watters, VP and Senior Literary Agent of P.S. Literary Agency.