Finding a room of our own

After more than 40 years of writing, I now have a room of my own. It was Virginia Woolf of course who famously wrote, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” and like all women writers I have struggled to obtain both.

  My first writing space was my bedroom in the very house where I now live. It was a small, squarish space, painted blue a long time ago, with a slanted ceiling and one window near the bed and one smaller one tucked into the eaves. I had a desk in front of the larger window, where I could look out toward the backyard, where my father maintained his sawmill and my mother cultivated a vegetable and flower garden.

  My desk was an old 1940s vanity in the waterfall style; we bought it at a yard sale. At that desk I wrote every day, first in two tiny five-year diaries with their miniature locks, and then in five-subject college-ruled notebooks. I wrote about what I felt and saw, gradually moving from abstract emotional outpourings to concrete episodes; I taught myself to memorize what people said and did, and so began to write scenes.

  As writing rooms go, it was not bad. Since my mother typed my term papers, I had no need yet of a typewriter. The drawers were filled with rudimentary supplies, rulers and pens and pencils and stationery. The few books I owned were piled in a cinderblock and board arrangement common in the 1970s, and eventually in a pine bookcase my father made. I owned a few Scholastic paperbacks purchased through school book sales; a 1942 Classics Club edition of Walden; a 1936 dictionary coming loose at the binding; some paperbacks of British poetry; and a well-thumbed copy of Leaves of Grass.

  It is not possible to talk about one’s writing space without talking about one’s books. Woolf was concerned not just with having space for books, but what books filled that space: few, if any, titles were by women, and in any case budding women writers did not have the money to fill these “empty shelves” even with titles written by men. But even though we were poor, we always had books in the house – my mother’s old oak bookcase stuffed with gilt-edged volumes of Scott, Hemans, and Bryant, along with the Book of Knowledge and National Geographic’s Lands and Peoples. I did not think too much about the proportion of male authors on my shelves, until I started buying books on my own – it was not Woolf but Erica Jong who raised my consciousness, and Fear of Flying was quickly followed by Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, with its incisive take-down of male writers, and by Sylvia Plath, and Alix Kates Shulman, and Germaine Greer.

  By the time I began living in apartments, my father had built me a second, bigger bookcase, and each time I moved, he would enlist his sawmill helpers to drag all the boxes of heavy books up and down stairs. I kept the waterfall desk, too, its drawers now stuffed with letters from friends and old journals and scraps of paper with one-sentence story ideas. Still, the “room of my own” was no more than roving furniture to be stuffed into this or that corner, a circumstance that was to last for decades.

  Somehow, I managed to carve out a corner for myself no matter where I lived. After marriage and children, the need to write was overwhelmed by full-time employment and motherhood. But a writing desk could be disguised by the duties of paying bills, signing school paperwork, or making out Christmas cards. There was the Victorian lady’s desk I found at yet another yard sale, with its cubbyholes perfect for paperclips and tiny notebooks and random slips of paper. For a while we kept one of those prefab computer desks in our living room, a sole work station shared by five of us – two gaming boys, my husband, and a young daughter who was just learning to use a mouse. Later I commandeered one of my teen boys’ computer desks and found a home for it at the top of the stairs.

  From these makeshift work spaces, I wrote. In the living room, while cartoons blared, I completed four photo history books and my first novel, my research spread out on TV trays. Upstairs in my nook, I wrote two more novels and a master’s thesis. These spaces were neither quiet nor commodious; stacks of paper leaned precariously on surfaces, file cabinets poked into my knees, plastic storage bins overflowed with manuscripts. My library was spread all over the house in bookcases of every size and style. I had not advanced very far from those days of writing in my bedroom, and in fact I may have regressed: No one had bothered me in my blue room, for my mother was a writer too and took it for granted that her daughter needed to sit at that waterfall desk and stare out the window, or spend hours bent over a composition notebook, for she had done the same as a girl, and had to endure the clueless comments of her more athletic and outgoing siblings.

  As a married woman, however, I had a husband and children to consider. I learned to write in the smallest windows of opportunity. I got up early on weekends, before the kids were up, or stole an hour between when school started and I needed to be at work. I wrote in the evenings while my husband worked second shift and the children, fresh out of their baths, had an hour of play or TV before bedtime. The size or placement of that writing desk mattered less than the time I could spend there.

 Eventually, the children began to leave the nest, and I adopted one of their rooms for an office. But it was a makeshift affair: I still had that rickety computer desk, its faux surface peeling, and files bursting out of boxes, and books all over the house in whatever corner I could cram them. And you never knew when the son who was still home might start blaring the Black Keys from the adjoining bedroom.

  Now I have a room of my own – figuratively and literally. Figuratively, because all three children are grown and living on their own, and my part-time teaching has given me time and freedom I did not have in my 30s and 40s. Literally, because in December, after seven months of renovation, we moved into the house where I grew up. My old blue bedroom is now a bathroom, and the largest bedroom upstairs is my study. My mother’s oak bookcase is up here, and an L-shaped desk, and built-in bookshelves. There’s a small red chair just right for reading or, if you’re a cat, napping. My books, my papers, my files all have found a home, a place close at hand, in closets and file drawers. This is the room I dreamed of – it is Jo March’s garret in Little Women, complete with a mood pillow; it is Thoreau’s small house in Walden; it is Emerson’s study with that wall of books.

  Coming into it is like walking into my own head: I wrote in this space for years before it materialized. Here are my reference books at the right hand: dictionaries, a thesaurus, guides to birds and flowers. Here are my little notebooks at the left: lists of books I’ve read, lists of books I want to read, journals empty and half-full. I have only to swing my chair to find my journal open on the desk, capped fountain pen at the ready, or to ponder my creativity bulletin board, with its collage of vintage car ads, songbirds, postcards, family snapshots and mysterious paintings.

  Curiously, I don’t always write here. Often I go to a local coffeehouse, bribing my Muse with an iced tea and chocolate chip cookie. The Room of my Own is the perfect space for writing, but perfection can be a harsh taskmaster. Maybe I don’t think I deserve this space; maybe the house itself conspires against me, calling out with dirty laundry or an unmade bed. Or maybe it’s just that the cat knows where to find me when she needs to eat. Whatever the reason, when I have a deadline, the coffee shop beckons.

  At the end of “A Room of One’s Own,” Woolf evokes the sister of William Shakespeare, who died before she could write. She exhorts the women in her audience to write for that silent poet who never had the chance. I make no pretense to be Shakespeare’s sister, but if all women are heir to her, and to Woolf, and to all the women writers who have tried to fit writing around all their other obligations, then I revel in this space my life has made, and prepare to write in it.  

 First, though, I’ll feed the cat.

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Singing our songs

 

It’s a tough day to begin with. Seven years ago on March 8, my mother passed away from a massive heart attack. The passage of time always catches me by surprise – how is it possible it was that long ago?

This year it’s a crappy day for other reasons, too, one of those times when you really start to question what you’re doing as a writer – sending out your words to a world that often doesn’t want to read them.

So it was that this morning, leafing through my mother’s notebooks of poetry, I came across a ditty that surely was meant for me, meant for this day of numb depression.

It’s called “For My Critics”:

 

Come, blast my songs, and I’ll care not a whit

For I am freed from embryonic night;

And soon, soon, the world will know of it.

I am the cockerel, crowing for the light.

 

She wrote this in 1946, and I think I know what was on her mind. She had just come out with her first book of poetry, a sonnet sequence called While Enemies Conspire, about a woman missing her lover who is away at war. Many of the poems had been published in Driftwind, a Vermont poetry journal whose press published her collection; indeed, her work had appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including Yankee, the Christian Science Monitor, the Hartford Times, as well as literary magazines, including the Rural New Yorker, Prairie Wings,and something called Hearth Songs, which published “For My Critics.”

The book’s publication was noted by Rhode Island newspapers and some of the magazines that published her work, but there was no outpouring of critical acclaim. One review sniffed that the collection “suffers somewhat from a ‘Fatal Interview’ grandiloquence.”

Perhaps she also was thinking of the letter she received that February from Charles Hyde Pratt, editor of the Florida Magazine of Verse, who said of her submission, “A sonnet should be more than a rhymed poem of fourteen five-beat lines” (ouch!) and proceeded to detail his “notion, which is shared by many authorities” that “the first quatrain also should end in a full stop.” Whatever happened to “thank you, but no”?

I can imagine how disappointing all this was for her. The book was a culmination of years of work. She was a craftsman who had begun submitting her poetry, and getting it published, while she was in her early teens. Her high school yearbook compared her to Edna St. Vincent Millay.

She was not cowed by Pratt’s patronizing letter, or by his assumption that he knew more about poetry than she did – because she submitted to him again, and this time he replied more warmly: “This is a good sonnet, but we have enough material on hand to last a year, and I hesitate to accept more. Congratulations on your acceptance by many magazines. Probably none of them are as slow in reporting as I am. Thanks too for the photograph, which is charming, and my best wishes for your continued success.”

So she had sent him another sonnet and didn’t hesitate to point out all the other editors who were accepting her work, or to send her publicity photo.

I love the defiance in “For My Critics.” I love that she sees her poetry as songs, as a “crowing for the light.” And I ache for the disappointment that underlies her defiance, because I have felt it too, oh so many times.

I like to think she prodded me gently this morning to find these four lines, written in fountain pen in one of her notebooks, a clarion call from the past. It says, “I too have been there, my child,” and it says, “Sing your song,” and it insists, “don’t give in to that old despair.”

And so we writers must crow for the light, out of the embryonic night, over and over and over again.

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Writing by numbers

The end of December is here, a time for reassessing the literary year. Readers are posting their favorite books of 2018 and writers are revisiting their goals. A writer’s number of rejections has become the new brag statistic, especially on the Facebook board Binders Full of Rejects, a spinoff of the Binders that popped up after Mitt Romney’s tone-deaf comment about “binders full of women” in the 2016 election. The theory is that the more you submit, the more you will publish, and the competitive nature of the Binders site has inspired many to post their rejections with same pride they would an acceptance.

In that spirit, I have been examining my literary life in a more quantitative way. I’ve been logging “books read” for about 11 years now, but this was the first year I set submission goals and kept track of my status in meeting them. But for both books and submissions, the numbers only tell part of the story.

 

Reading …

I read 54 books last year, which includes audiobooks listened to in the car. Adding audiobooks to my repertoire has not only increased reading quantity but its breadth as well, and that to me is the more important result. I’ve been focusing my audio listening on a genre I’m trying to break into, historical fiction, and from these books I’ve learned a great deal about the mechanics of pacing and the demands of character.

Among my favorites this year were two by Anita Shreve, Stella Bain, about an amnesiac nurse during World War I, and Fortune’s Rocks, the story of a 15-year-old girl, Olympia Biddeford, whose love affair with a 40-ish married man in 1899 alters the course of many lives. Shreve’s death from cancer in March, at age 71, was a wrenching loss for the literary community; I can only imagine how many nuanced and moving stories of hers will remain untold. Her last book, The Stars are Fire, was set in Maine after World War II and stands among her finest.

I also was captivated by Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa LaFaye, a fictionalized account of the 1936 Labor Day hurricane that wiped away most of the Florida Keys. LaFaye chose to set her story on a fictional Heron Key and also moved the storm to July, but the novel is rich and moving nonetheless. Researching the author, I was dismayed to learn that she, too, had perished from cancer, in February.

Imogen Robertson’s A Paris Winter, set against the backdrop of the Paris floods of 1910, tells the engaging story of a London emigre who is taking art lessons on her own in the city of light when she becomes the victim of a pair of grifters. Although one element of this story was left dangling, I was nonetheless enchanted with the characters and the breakneck pace.

My favorite, however, was Agate Hill by Lee Smith. She’s a Southern writer whose memoir, Dimestore, is also a must-read. In Molly Petrie she has created an orphan heroine as strong as Jo March and as vivid as Dickens’s Pip. How can you not love a girl who hides herself away in a cubbyhole to write down a household’s gossipy secrets? Set before and after the Civil War, the story is marred only by its ambiguous ending.

 

… and Writing

I set ambitious goals for myself in 2018 and, although I didn’t meet all the numerical targets, there were some big-picture victories.

Because I’d written 22 book reviews in 2017, I upped the ante to 24 this year. Unfortunately, I didn’t come close, writing only 15. But I have a pretty good excuse: I spent most of the summer on the last volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novel/memoir, My Struggle. At 1,157 pages, Book Six was not only the longest in the series but also the most ponderous. Knausgaard’s typically frank and quotidian musings are interrupted mid-book by more than 400 pages of academic digression into the life of Adolf Hitler and a poem by Paul Celan. The effect is rather like finding a student term paper shoved into the middle of a suspense novel. The observations, despite occasional flashes of insight, arrive with all the narrative punch of a Wikipedia page.

But I stuck it out, despite the fact my editor did not want yet another Knausgaard review.

I’d also hoped to write more blogs, setting a goal of one a week, or 52. Counting this one, I wrote 24, not quite half that – but still way more than the two I eked out in 2017.

Other categories found my output also falling short. I submitted one literary piece eight times, for eight rejections, despite the goal of 24. But that was twice the volume of the year before, when I only submitted four times.

I had better luck placing my freelance articles and op-ed pieces. I had hoped to write six travel/arts pieces, instead placing 13, or more than twice that (and one more than in 2017). Op-ed essays – for which I curiously had no goal at all – came in at nine, eight of which have been published, including a letter to the editor that made the New York Times in April.

But perhaps my most important goal was to submit 42 more agent queries in my continued search for representation for my novel. When I signed with agent Christine Lee in July, it was after 32 queries in 2018 and 91 overall, a testimony to the power of persistence.

That one achievement, of course, was far and away more significant than all the other missives sent out into the world. But the point is: If you don’t try, you’ll never get anywhere.

Sifting through these numbers, a few scattered observations float to the top. I have a lot of opinions and so op-ed essays, often written at a white heat, are a good fit. I enjoy writing about travel, history, and art. Literary magazines are harder to break into than newspapers. There were some surprises, including an out-of-the-blue offer to write an institutional history.

As I ponder erasing the whiteboard of 2018 goals, I wonder if the numerical system is really the way to go. Maybe a better motivator would be a list of what I want to write in 2019. Or maybe I should create monthly or weekly goals, rather than having to stare at those hard numbers all year. One thing is certain; while success cannot be guaranteed, failure will be – if we don’t send our work out into the world.

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Pet cemetery. No horror.

 

Gypsy entered our lives in the early 1970s, showing up in the backyard with a waddle in her walk and a defiant look in her yellow eyes. We voted on what to name her, with my father scrawling Owl on the paper I passed out to him, and it wasn’t inappropriate, given that steady, appraising gaze, but Gypsy prevailed – fitting for the tortoiseshell cat who roamed into the yard carrying nothing but her prenatal baggage, clearly the reason someone had dumped her on the road next to our house.

The kittens came a few weeks later, five of them, two orange, two black, and one multi-colored like her mother. Andi and I named them: OJ and Pumpkin, for obvious reasons, JT and Panda for the tuxedo-clad urchins and Crackers for the tortoiseshell. They would be only the first in a feline clan that would multiply exponentially over the next few years.

She wasn’t our first cat. We’d had many over the years, including Smoky, who can be seen in my first birthday photos, swishing a tail away from my clumsy baby fists. His name had something to do with the floor furnace in our first house and a singed tail. Then came Jimmy Durante, a rather ugly looking white cat whose appearance degenerated when he contracted a mouth tumor. We were in the Shannock house by then, and my father called Ray Richards, the police chief, who pulled out his service revolver and smoked a hole in Jimmy Durante’s peach-pit-sized head.

I don’t know who named him after the Cyrano de Bergerac of vaudeville, but Blackjack got his name from Andi, a reference to Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s father, John V. “Black Jack” Bouvier, a socialite and rake so called because of his perpetual tan. Andi was fascinated with celebrities and kept a scrapbook of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O, and Natalie Wood, who she claimed I resembled. In the era before Wikipedia, she had a deep knowledge of the most arcane cultural references, gathered from reading Photoplay magazine and movie-star biographies.

In a similar way she came up with an outrageous name for the deformed little kitten who showed up at my grandmother’s house in Tug Hollow one day. This little girl also had been dumped and had spent some time in the wild. One eye was crusted over and infected, and she walked with a hitch in her gait, as though she’d never recovered from a kick. We took her in, of course, and as she bumped into table legs and walls we realized she was at least partially blind.

In a moment of perversity, Andi named her Nadia Comaneci, after the graceful athletic powerhouse from Romania dominating the Olympics that summer of 1976. “Nadia” stuck, but the kitten lived only a year or two before succumbing to her various handicaps.

When it came to pet naming, I had neither the imagination nor the sly humor of my sister. When my sister Mary Jane produced a white rabbit for me one Easter, I promptly named her Mary. I had also named my favorite teddy bear after my glamorous older sister.

Grown up, I would have many felines of my own – Swifty, named by someone else; Perry, a name put to a later and much more important use; Gloria, for the 1985 hurricane; and, perhaps the finest of all, Dauber, who came with that awkward name from the animal shelter, where he stuck his head out of a cage and demanded to be rescued.

My mother, after years of Andi’s wicked humor, rebelled after we left home by naming every cat she ever had Kitty. Going to the vet and having to explain that Kitty was the particular, not the general, name grew tiresome, but my mother would not budge. When she passed away we took in the last Kitty and renamed her Misty, but it never stuck; my mother was right, she was Kitty, and now at the vet I would have to rack my brain for the name I’d told them was hers but never used.

Our late cats reside now in eternal rest in the northwest corner of the Shannock property, in a cemetery my father created under the pines, without the frightening connotations of a Stephen King novel. Each one grew into its name and left behind an indelible impression, and if I close my eyes I can remember their particular faces, their warm fur, and their stubborn determination to survive.

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Your party is on the line

 

In the old farmhouse where I grew up, our most sophisticated form of communication was a black rotary telephone. For a while, it was on a party line, meaning that one ring (say, three short notes) meant the call was for us, and another (two long) denoted one for our neighbors across the street. This could not have been the most efficient arrangement, given that the phone was vital to my father’s sawmill business and at any one time teenage girls lived in the house.

My mother served as my father’s bookkeeper and secretary, which meant that she fielded most of the calls. If an incoming call was deemed of low import, she would take a message, but if it were vital, she would put the phone down (no ability to put someone on hold, so the receiver would pick up the various sounds of the kitchen – the washing machine rumbling, the iron hissing), walk to the back door, and bellow, “YOO-HOO! Armstrong’s on the phone!”

The sound would travel across the septic tank, over her garden, into the maelstrom of activity at the mill, where it had to compete with the whining saw, the flap-flap of the shingle mill, the roar of the motor, the thud of logs rolling off a truck. From there it would reach into my father’s broad but not especially keen ears. He would raise his hand to signal a halt to activity, then begin his long stride back to the house.

“Yoo-hoo” never failed. Though not an especially loud person, my mother had taught first grade, and she knew how to get attention when she needed to. “Yoo-hoo” also was employed on the rare occasions when my father didn’t arrive for supper at the appointed time of 5 o’clock sharp. Usually this was because a visitor out at the mill was chewing his ear, as he would say. Then she would walk to the back door and yell, “YOO-HOO! Your supper’s getting cold!”

If, on the other hand, some urgent piece of business required an outgoing call, my father would lope into the kitchen, sawdust and diesel fumes trailing in his wake, and say to my mother, “Get Baker on the phone.” (He referred to most of his friends by their last names.) My mother would immediately drop whatever she’d been doing, sit down at the hulking metal desk in the kitchen corner, and pop open the metal address book looking for Dick Baker’s number. She would dial the appointed digits and, when Baker or whoever it was answered, say in an apologetic rush, “Oh, oh, hold a minute, here’s Warren,” and my father would pick up the receiver.

He never said hello, but always started with “Yeah,” as though returning to an interrupted conversation. “Yeah,” he would say, “I got those oak planks you wanted.” (When I was a grown, married woman, he would occasionally call me up himself and start with, “Yeah, this is the old man.”)

All of these phone calls, whether incoming or outgoing, he took standing up, receiver to his left ear, his voice projecting toward the window, as though the listener hovered there on the porch. Although he, too, was not an especially loud person, on the phone his voice boomed, until the conversation wound down and he mumbled a sign-off like “All right, see you later.” Then he would leave the house, through the sinkroom and backroom, putting his hat back on his head.

For now, the phone line was dead, until one of our friends called to “tie it up,” as my mother would say (turning on the kitchen timer), or until it my father returned with another urgent request for his wife.

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Houses’ mysterious (writing) allure

 

It was a house that drew me to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a house that brought me back to him.

I was probably 10, browsing through the Book of Knowledge, when I first came across a condensed version of The House of the Seven Gables. Who could resist the title? Never mind the pen-and-ink sketches of the house with all its twists and turns, the gaunt Clifford, the dusty shop opened by Hepzibah. I barely understood the story, but its gothic ambience was irresistible.

Years later, my husband and I visited the house that inspired the novel, in Salem, Mass., on a brutally hot day in the summer of 1986. I don’t remember much about it, except for the steep stairs and the nooks and crannies. At some point I read the book entire. I moved on to other writers.

Since then, we have toured dozens of New England houses; some sheltered writers, others merely inspired them. Last week we found another – the Old Manse in Concord, Mass., where Hawthorne brought his bride, Sophia Peabody, after their marriage in 1842. As he recounts in Mosses from an Old Manse, this house that had sheltered many a minister – and witnessed the first shots of the Revolution, literally in its backyard – drew in the couple with a warm embrace of old timbers and the shade of black ash trees.

Set back from the road, the house was fronted by a tree-lined path; in the back, the Concord River slipped peacefully past, near where the old North Bridge had stood on that first day of the Revolution. The interior was rambling and drafty, although its front and back doors afforded a nice cross-breeze in the summer.

In her book about the Concord renaissance, American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever senses a barely disguised sexual energy in both Hawthorne and Sophia’s writings at the time. Though their stay would be tinged by sadness – Sophia lost her first baby – they used her diamond to etch messages of hope into the window glass in Hawthorne’s study: “Man’s accidents are God’s purposes.”

Standing in that study last week, where Hawthorne wrote the classic short story “The Birth-mark” and Emerson composed the essay “Nature,” I felt the pulse of both men’s creativity beating in the air. I sat in a reproduction of the wide-armed chair Emerson used for writing, feeling a little like I was about to give blood. Hawthorne’s desk, cleverly notched into the wall, is original, as are the books throughout the house.

Notes Brenda Wineapple, author of Hawthorne: A Life: “The Manse is another of Hawthorne’s old houses, fragrant with the spirit of former tenants and, perched on the banks of the past, fit emblem of his imagination.”

The houses, always the houses. After “The House of the Seven Gables,” I was drawn to a series of books in which the house is a dominant character. Just as with Hawthorne, I discovered the Brontes in the Book of Knowledge, where Thornfield Hall looms over Jane Eyre, especially in that pivotal scene when the first Mrs. Rochester stands behind the flaming curtains of the burning hall. I read the entire novel at 12, again not completely comprehending it, but drawn in by those drafty halls and stone-lined corridors.

Later came Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and a host of gothic imitators, including Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, with its doomed Manderley. Louisa May Alcott wrote captivatingly of four sisters in Little Women, but where would the book be without Jo’s garrett, the private escape of which every young (writing) girl dreams?

No coincidence, then, that my first two novels feature houses on their covers, or that the early stories I scribbled always seemed to revolve around intriguing real estate: Tug Hollow, the old Cape Cod house where my father grew up, and what we called Howard’s House, the 1728 Cape in Escoheag that belonged to his stepfather. It didn’t take much imagination to conjure their early residents. Old ancestors’ portraits were piled upstairs in Tug Hollow, and  Howard’s mother had kept a boarding house, with the registers of their guests still extant for my fervent examination. Was it true that my grandmother had made booze in the cellar of Tug Hollow, during Prohibition? (Yes.) And that a guest had died in a mysterious hunting accident at Howard’s? (Probably not.) Already I was learning that authors didn’t write history, they just used it to spark their imaginations.

Hawthorne, Wineapple writes, needed the tangible to kick-start his tales – the red A of The Scarlet Letter, the house that (once) had seven gables, the dusty records in the Custom House where he earned his bread. It’s the past he’s sifting through, and houses are the largest embodiment of it, their rooms so metaphorically akin to our own bodies: the windows as eyes, the rooms our heart and mind, the shutters the masks we hide behind.

Not only did other residents walk the halls of the Old Manse, and peer through this wavy glass, but other writers did the same, imagining the original dwellers’ presence, a tantalizing layer of observers and observed.

Rare, however, is the house that bestows inspiration on its occupant while the writer lives there. Houses achieve their highest magnetism after we leave, and we are forced to bang together their rooms from memory. Hawthorne wrote the introduction to Mosses from an Old Manse while back in Salem, working at the Custom House. The House of the Seven Gables came to him while he and Sophia lived in a cramped rented house in the Berkshires. Alcott was living in Orchard House in Concord when she wrote Little Women, but the house she fondly remembered was the Wayside (so named by Hawthorne, when he later lived there), and the March girls’ garrett came from another house altogether – Fruitlands, the ill-conceived experimental community where Alcott and her sisters nearly starved to death.

Now, staying in a modern apartment while we await the renovation of the house where I grew up, I wonder if I will be able to write once I get there. But all that will remain is a shell, the walls, roof, and floors, for the old house only exists in my mind, the best place for writing inspiration to begin.

 

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Advice from an artist

 

Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received came not from fellow writers, or teachers, but visual artists.

Such was the case this afternoon as I watched Antonia Tyz-Peeples lead a workshop on painting technique at Rhode Island’s Charlestown Gallery.

The Connecticut artist specializes in large-format wave paintings. I met her six years ago and feel lucky to count her as a friend. Yet no matter how many times we chat, I always learn something new.

Working on a small canvas this afternoon, she gave the audience step-by-step directions on brush technique, color mixing, and proportion. None of that may seem applicable to those of us who deal in ink and paper, but consider some of her advice:

  1. “People can use their imaginations. They see something, they know there’s more.” How many of us are guilty of spelling it out for the reader? You don’t have to describe every step down a corridor or every article of clothing. Leave something for the reader to do.
  2. “It’s what you see, not what you think.” She said this while holding a brush tip to the photograph she was painting. In other words, your brain might think your painting needs bright ochre, but if you hold the brush up to the color you’re copying you may find it’s another mix altogether. As writers, we tend to have a vision in our mind of our characters and place details. But just because “egg-yolk sun” sounds good doesn’t mean the sun really looks your breakfast.
  3. “It’s not magical. I’ve practiced a lot. I paint every day.” Tyz-Peeples is not blowing smoke here – she’s the hardest working artist I know. She’s honed her craft over many years, and she is in her studio by 9 a.m. every day. Writers must practice a similar discipline. Sit at the desk, open up the laptop or notebook and do it regularly. Inspiration will land on your shoulder when you keep your appointment with the work.
  4. “I find it very important to have multiple things going on.” Maybe this technique isn’t for everyone, but for me a variety of writing projects – as dissimilar as possible – keeps me focused and energized. The quick stuff, like blogs, letters, and essays, give you a sense of achievement for very little time invested. Analytical writing, such as play or book reviews, keeps my critical faculties honed. And for the long haul, I need at least one book-length manuscript that will require years of work. You wouldn’t want to spend all your writing time on quick-hit pieces with a short life span, but you also need relief from the intensive immersion a novel or memoir requires.
  5. “I can see it with new eyes.” She was talking about letting a canvas sit overnight. For writers, that fallow period might be much longer, days, weeks, or months. I recently returned to my novel after six months of querying to tidy up some loose ends. Its flaws jumped out at me.
  6. “I’m not going to overthink it.” The visual artist knows when a touch-up here or there has the potential to ruin a painting that’s done; so, too, must writers let the work go eventually.
  7. Tyz-Peeples had a practical piece of advice that might at first seem unique to painting: Turn the canvas. Making her horizontal painting vertical, she saw not the finished product but the abstract section she was trying to focus on. Plus, she wasn’t bumping her hand on the easel. In journalism school, our professors taught us to squint at the copy we were editing, or mumble it aloud to ourselves. Whatever the tactic, it disrupts the brain’s visual expectations, helping both focus and concentration.
  8. “I know what the surf looks like. I’ve studied it.” Don’t forget that you, too, know a lot more than you give yourself credit for. You’ve got a lifetime of memories and experiences, good and bad, to draw from. It’s never too late to learn more, but don’t forget just how much you bring to the page.

For further inspiration, check out some of Antonia Tyz-Peeples’s work at www.antoniatyzpeeples.com or follow her on Instagram: antoniatyzpeeples.

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