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In Praise of Small Rooms (and Spaces in Which We Find Ourselves)

Small Rooms

Sometimes, I feel I have so much inside me that the only space that can possibly contain it is a small room.

Paradoxical, but true. I love small rooms. They are synonymous with peace and solitude and thus areas free from judgement. Small rooms are the only places in which I can expand and create.

There has always been an intimate connection between confined spaces (or solitude, rather) and creativity. For necessity: artists struggle to afford much more than a spare room. And for focus: if one’s mind is expanding, one’s body need not. As Susan Sontag quipped: “One can never be alone enough to write. To see better.”

I grew up reading Roald Dahl in a house with small rooms. Dahl is perhaps one of the most famous small-room creatives. He wrote all of his beloved children’s books cramped in a shed (called his Hut) behind his much larger country house. Bent over sheets of paper on a desk made from a board laid over the arms of his beaten—and one hopes comfortable—arm chair.

I didn’t have a Writer’s Hut, but I found my space in whichever room was apart from my family, usually the bathroom. Which worked fine—almost no one barges into a bathroom.

I mention “barging in” because tangential to my love for small rooms is my fear of what writer Lynne Sharon Schwartz calls “the fear of being interrupted” in Ruined by Reading: A Life of Books her chronicle of small rooms, solitary space, and other peculiar habits that creatives form. Fear of interruption is a constant threat to the creative process. An air horn in the middle of Vivaldi.

A small room is like a choke point on possible interruptions, whittling them down to a manageable few.

As an adult, I write in my small office in our London flat. Although, lately I’ve found myself migrating to the seaside, usually a picturesque small town in Kent, to escape my small room and its new occupants.

My limits of introversion were tested when we acquired two Siamese kittens last spring, and their need for constant interaction is only matched by their need to constantly speak their minds. I was interrupted constantly. Stalled by meows, wails, mews, moans, as well as dead toy mice landing on my hands as I type, in hopes of inciting a game of fetch. I cannot ignore them, I cannot silence them. So I run away.

Lately I’ve retrenched to the countryside, a hotel with tiny rooms, a few days a week, to write without interruption.

England is made for people who love small rooms. It celebrates the introvert culture. When we relocated from New York, our realtor showed flats that were “modern” (her word), yet each still had small, pokey rooms. Seems the open-plan revolution hadn’t crossed the Atlantic.

Although I should note there are small rooms and there are small rooms. We gave her a raised eyebrow at a tiny closet called a “study area.” But after many nooks and crannies and pokey holes, we found the perfect flat with small, separate rooms—even a roof garden (which every American who visits notes would be “great for a party”). All the rooms and quiet have allowed my creative self to flourish. And naturally, we’ve had zero roof parties to date.

When we pour ourselves into our space and sift ourselves back out, it alters who we are.

Small rooms offer me the illusion of my complete self. Being an introvert, I need space to expand into myself, and I find this challenging when I engage with others. The smaller the room, the less likely it is anyone will enter. And at most, only the most intimate of friends. The fewer the interruptions, the more I can unpack, launder, sort, and fold my thoughts, emotions, and energy.

While small rooms meet my needs, large rooms (either full of people or waiting to be filled, like a bright, shiny highball) unnerve me. When people speak of entertaining in their big, open rooms, I think, “Have a marvelous time and tell me how it went afterwards.” Sometimes, I wonder how they’d react if I invited them to come hang out in my tiny office for a chat a foot away from each other. (Braver souls than I have done just that, Thoreau writes in Walden that he once had as many as “twenty-five or thirty souls with their bodies” in his small cabin.)

I can exist in large rooms, but the best parts of me cannot thrive. Deep friendships aren’t made, knowledge isn’t gleaned, and epiphanies aren’t claimed. It’s more like a gig to which I sign up, show up, get nausea, perform, receive applause, and then as soon as I can run back to whatever small room I can find. Most likely the bathroom if it’s not my own house. I spend a lot of time in other people’s bathrooms.

I’m afraid I will somehow cease to exist in a large space full of people. That I won’t be seen, or noticed, or—most likely of all—understood. Big, open rooms are so often full of shallow, closed conversations.

I am judgmental, sure, I also am not guiltless, and I know that. Small rooms preferences can be injurious to egos if not explained. One could argue my affinity for small rooms communicates “I would like to limit your presence in my space and would appreciate if you’d contain yourself as well.” Something that my close friends have also mentioned to me from time to time.

Small rooms are not the answer to social engagement and creativity—preferring small rooms has its consequences.

I know it has diminished my comfort with and capacity for fraternity with others. Like anything that does not come naturally, you must practice to improve. I have a hard time functioning in groups. More than four people at once, and I withdraw. I’m tuned to unspoken conflict and personality clashes, and rather than take charge, I feel compelled to remove my own personality to try to reduce the noise. Wrapping myself in small rooms has always been easier, and the more I do it, the harder it is to form a cohesive part of a group.

When there is structure or hierarchy, I find it easy to function, which is why working at McKinsey and doing team work was actually fine. It was the free-form, everyone-is-equal teams of Stanford Graduate School of Business that had me hiding in bathrooms.

More seriously, however, is the issue of my chronic depression. I wonder if seeking small spaces so often contributed to the cognitive aspects of this illness. My mom told me recently, during one of my low ebbs, to get out of the corners and “stay in the center of the room where you are loved.” I was moved by the brilliance and power of this statement. She explained that in the corner, no one could put their arms around me. Just the walls, and the walls don’t count. (Funny enough, I often seek walls when I’m feeling depressed—and she’s right: they are useless.)

Would I be less depressed had I sought open rooms? More arms around me?

Space affects us, from an early age. We put ourselves into it, and it puts itself in us. As we knock through walls and spaces and open things up, what effect does it have on our psyches, our personalities? Will a workforce raised and working in open plan have a stronger sense of fraternity than a generation that didn’t? Will it breed extroverts over introverts? Will it lead to collectivism over individualism? Will they be claustrophobic or agoraphobic? Will they feel balance or more likely that something is missing?

It’s hard to know exactly when our preferences develop, and if they are innate or a product of our early environments.

Regardless, every human needs space to unpack their thoughts and emotions. Normal rejuvenating processes such as self-reflection, dreaming, deep thinking, and creating can only exist without judgment. Especially if they are nascent. Whether that is in public or nestled in a small room, hugged by books, with noise-cancelling headphones, we need to make sure we’re taking that space for ourselves and proffering it to those who can’t.

I want to finish by calling attention to The Quiet Revolution, started by Susan Cain with the goal to promote awareness of introverted needs and make spaces conducive to those needs. Not directly reversing the open-space policies but making sure everyone can flourish and function. The site has resources, testimonials and as far as I can tell, no plans to create roof deck parties or get-togethers.

Regardless, you don’t need to be an introvert to take advantage of what introverts have known for decades: small, quiet, uninterrupted space is the best place to sit, think, and expand yourself.

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