Space is a luxury just out of reach for the creative class.

How Is a Writer Supposed to Afford a Space of Her Own?

How Is a Writer Supposed to Afford a Space of Her Own?

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Better Life Lab
The Future of Work, Gender, and Social Policy
Dec. 18 2017 11:56 AM

For a Member of the Creative Class, Space Is a Luxury Just Out of Reach

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Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Elsa Noblet/Unsplash.

In May 2015, my husband and I moved from a one-bedroom in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington to a one-bedroom in a Southwest neighborhood known as the Waterfront. Our rent increase was minor, from $2,000 a month to $2,100 a month, putting us squarely in the median price range for a D.C. one-bedroom as described by a study conducted that year by the online rental site Zumper. I embraced the better view and made peace with the fact that, once again, the kitchen table would serve as my desk.

Many days I wake up around 3 a.m. to work. The work varies: drafting an essay, editing a poem, fellowship application, paid manuscript consultation, preparing for class. I work for several hours, then fall back asleep. That way I feel at least a little refreshed when my second round of work for the day starts. Making my way through the world as a writer, I enjoy a tremendous amount of flexibility. But the work never stops.

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In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the D.C. median household income was $75,628. We don’t earn that much. In order to convince owners to rent apartments to me, I’ve pled my case with unconventional documentation, including a publishing contract, a grant letter from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a fistful of 1099s. Many urban centers supposedly value their creative class but, according to computer algorithms looking for 1-to-3 ratios of rent to income in order to approve our application, we don’t belong here. Yet we choose to be here. And with four books behind me, an anthology due out next year, and two manuscripts in hand, I’ve realized: I need a room of my own.

What could that room look like? Many local office hubs target entrepreneurs. Base rates for WeWork or The Hive exceed $300 per month for access to a desk, and perks such as meeting spaces and digital projection are lost on me. The Writer’s Center and D.C. Writers Room use modest rates to target literary communities but are clustered in Northwest. Although 24-hour access is a standard amenity, I’m reluctant to drive there in the middle of the night—my critical creative window—and a locker won’t hold all the reference materials I might need. As part of my revision process, I read aloud. Repeatedly. Hard to imagine doing that in an open-floor plan.

My autocorrect in email keeps changing coworking space to cowering space.

You need a home office, a little voice keeps saying. My work is the primary engine of our income, a determining factor for our household schedule. My next career breakthrough won’t come about through $200 freelance assignments taken on to pay off a monthly “all-access” Cove workspace membership, or an adjunct class that gives me a shared cubicle at a local university. The writing that matters is big, stressful, book-length projects that delve deep, can’t be scheduled between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and are almost entirely uncompensated up front.

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My husband knows this. He does what he can to give me the creative space I need, but there are not many places to hide in 900 square feet. Some days he gets up right as I come back to bed, trekking to sites around the city where he is paid by the hour to install rain barrels. Some days he heads to his studio to paint. My husband’s “room of his own” is part of a bargain struck over a decade ago, when a longtime friend moved his family to Spain. He gets a raw space to make art in that friend’s row house basement, in return for keeping an eye on the upstairs tenants. Without that grace, finances might have driven him out of the city before we ever met.

Many think of Washington as a town with high turnover. I get that—the politicians, the diplomats, and, frankly, the friends who show up to one or two events, burn out after a year, and move. But D.C. is filled with good people terrified of losing the security of their place: the artist whose management company renegotiates her lease every time she takes on a new roommate; the poet with disability who needs an accessible building with two working elevators; the musician who doesn’t have a guarantor waiting in the wings. If we save money by moving to the edges of gentrifying neighborhoods, we spend more money on transit. That sidewalk cafe, the one where I’m supposed to camp out and write in my notebook? They now charge $4 for a cup of coffee.

I brew perfectly good coffee. When I first brought up the possibility of a second bedroom, my ace in the hole was the tax deduction—not for coffee, but rent on square footage—associated with a home office. But the far-reaching tax bill waiting reconciliation between the House and Senate leaves me wary of counting on any particular tax provision, especially as the resident of a city without voting representation. Because we’re outside the umbrella of traditional full-time employment and under the mandate of D.C. Health Link, my household is looking at 2018 insurance rates of $750 a month for two adults with no dependents. A year from now, we may decide we cannot afford to live here. But I don’t want to be haunted by what I could have done, had I claimed the space I needed.

The application has 10 sections. Under “Employer,” I put my largest income source, a school that isn’t even in D.C. I add a forward slash, and write “self.”

My Self is the true earner: hustler, poet, boss who gets up at 3 a.m. to get work done. The Self could charge more for manuscript consultations but is wary of contributing to the class barrier facing many aspiring writers. The Self insists on alternating between applying for grants and volunteering to judge them. The Self says yes to events that don’t pay because they foster our arts scene. The Self donates $30 she can’t afford to a literary organization she believes in. The Self always buys a book when she walks into a bookstore. The Self has $4.39 in her checking account. The Self looks okay on paper, but not great. The Self is the one who deserves a room of her own.

We hit “Submit” on the application for a bigger apartment, with a $150 nonrefundable fee. We wait.

They call. They ask if we want to apply for a one-bedroom instead.

Better Life Lab is a partnership of Slate and New America.