Monthly Archives: March 2018

A writer needs it all

The writer is moving. This is causing all sorts of angst and upheaval, rooted in the office, with its books, notebooks, and visual art. Because a writer needs her own space, and a writer needs her own things.

First of all, the writer needs her books. A collection, begun in high school, no, childhood, now totalling probably 900 volumes. Her seven dictionaries – the Junior Dictionary from grade school; the Brown University dictionary won in high school; the 1936 Webster’s so like her mother’s; the unabridged; the dictionary for ripping up; dictionaries that are newer. Her thesauruses – or is that thesauri? Well, she has two, whatever you call them.

Her writing craft books – Julia Cameron, Stephen King, William Zinsser – need she say more?

Thoreau, Emerson, Edwin Way Teale. Poetry! Wordsworth, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot (might need him in April), Pablo Neruda, Erica Jong, Longfellow, Whittier (see earlier blog), Frost.

The Brits – the Brontes and Dickens; the diarists – Anais Nin and Anne Frank and Virginia Woolf. All the great American novelists. Steinbeck, Conrad, Melville, Wallace Stegner, Joyce Carol Oates …

The thing is, the books are only half of it. The writer needs her memories. The writer needs all those journals she kept, from childhood on. Her five-year diaries. The dozens of Apica notebooks she’s filled in just the past few years. She needs her notebooks from high school and college, which she has saved, knowing that someday she will need them.

She needs all her little notebooks, too, with their scraps of information. A conversation with her father, just months before he died, about boiling springs and dousing and outhouses. A friend saying his mother falling sounded “like a cord of wood being dumped out.” The writer Peter Abraham, during a visit to Newport Library in 2005, advising, “You have to give the reader enough information … fold [it] in like truffles in a cream sauce.”

The writer needs other people’s handwriting. She needs her mother’s poems in fine Palmer penmanship and her father’s uncertain handwritten note delivered to her college dorm during a blizzard, a different sort of poem: Jeannie, I could not stay the snow is bad. She needs her sister’s elegant lists, some written just weeks before she died, of clothes she wanted to buy and books she wanted to read and who was winning Dancing With the Stars.

The writer needs pictures.

She needs her bulletin board, with its mishmash of classic art and old Ford advertisements and skies and flowers and birds; its snapshots of herself, that is, the self who long ago disappeared; its mysteries – her father’s motel receipt, a stranger’s foreclosure notice, a road map of old highways.

The writer needs her objects, her talismans. A blue jay’s feathers. A heart-shaped rock. Her sister’s pin: “Andrea.”

She needs the little boxes that hold these treasures; the Coca-Cola tin and the box covered in bluebirds and the Coca-Cola crate (miniature) and the box covered in goldenrod.

She needs family history. Her grandmother’s laborious genealogical notes. Obituaries, curling photos, family trees. Her own notes of that grandmother’s stories, so resonant, so comic, so tragic, that the writer fears she will never get to tell them all.

She needs the postcards that she thumbs through, aimlessly, looking for a door into another world. She needs the letters from dear friends who still, magically, believe in writing letters.

And of course she needs her supplies – her labels and her index cards; notebook paper and notebooks; ruler and stapler and three-hole punch; files and folders; stamps and envelopes. Her writing implements – the beautiful Cross pen her son gave her, the Pentel pens that sub in when the Cross pen gets cranky, the highlighters and pencils and markers and Flair correcting pens. Paper clips. Push pins. Post-It notes.

The idea that some of this must be packed away – indeed, that some of these things already reside in carefully packed boxes in another place – makes the writer want to chain herself to her old, rickety computer desk and refuse to move.

But of course, there is no civil disobedience in one’s own house. So the writer, like a harassed ER nurse, performs triage. This can go away, for a while. This can be thrown out (maybe). But this, yes, this, and this … must come along for the ride.

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Artists, do for yourselves


On Dec. 4, 1918, artist Maxfield Parrish wrote to his friend Martin Birnbaum: “all tied up with some work for the Red Cross, so I’m working day and night on some very bad things for their Christmas shindig. But – early this spring I am going to do some things for myself, have refused all orders until next fall …”

The letter, part of a Smithsonian collection on display at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn., through May 6, sums up perfectly the dilemma of all artists, including writers.

When, oh when, will we get to create for the joy of it? When will we have the free time and space to follow the Muse instead of the marketplace?

Parrish, clearing his calendar for two seasons, has the right idea. His Grecian images against that trademark Persian blue – a “Maxfield Parrish sky” inspired by the hills near his home in Plainfield, N.H. – adorned the covers of magazines like Collier’s and Ladies’ Home Journal, as well as advertisements of everything from Cashmere Bouquet soap to Jell-O. He was making money, which meant he could take time off to make his “real art” without feeling too much of a pinch.

For the rest of us, whether we have day jobs unrelated to our work or we toil away in universities, museums, galleries or libraries, making creative time is always a challenge. Whether we are distracted by work tasks or family obligations, creative time can feel like stolen time, robbing our employer or our loved ones of our attention. But it is as necessary as water or air.

This semester I’m teaching at two institutions, a full course load of four classes and three preps. As midterms approach and the essays and tests begin to stack up, the end of the semester seems far away indeed. Add to that the herculean task of a looming late-spring move, and I’ve only been able to carve out a half-hour here or there to work on my own writing.

But spring break is coming, the semester will end, and even with one five-week class, summer beckons with the promise of writing time. So I will try to get through the obligations and look forward to the free time ahead, when, like Parrish, “I am going to do some things for myself.”

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