Tag Archives: creativity

A peek at others’ libraries

 

Naumkeag, the summer home of lawyer and ambassador Joseph Hodges Choate and later his daughter Mabel, sits perched on a dramatic overlook in Stockbridge, Mass. The gardens, which are lovingly tended by the Trustees of the Reservations, include a Linden Walk inspired by a trip to Germany; a series of terraced steps created by landscape architect Fletcher Steele; and a Chinese pagoda surrounded by Japanese maples.

On a recent visit my husband headed first for the Afternoon Garden, with its striking view of the Berkshire hills. I would get there eventually. 

Our stroll ticket included a self-guided tour of not just the gardens but the estate’s first floor. Designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1885 in the shingle style, the mansion oozes casual elegance. There’s a Flemish tapestry from the sixteenth century and a Hadley chest where the family stashed its tennis balls.

And there are also books, a roomful of them, and that’s where I headed first.

I’ve seen a lot of famous people’s libraries. I’ve perused the volumes at Cross Creek, the Florida home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. I’ve inhaled the rarefied air in Emerson’s study in Concord, where his floor-to-ceiling bookcase consists of a series of stacked bureau drawers, any one of which could be pulled out to cart along on a lecture tour. I’ve scrutinized the tattered books at Fruitlands, where Louisa May Alcott and her sisters shivered and starved their way through a long winter. 

In fact, in just about every author’s house I’ve toured – and there have been many, including the likes of Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, James Merrill, and Nathaniel Hawthorne – the books are what draw me. 

In many cases, they are not the author’s originals. Most of Emerson’s volumes are at Harvard, and Kinnan Rawlings’s collection is at the University of Florida at Gainesville. Either the collections have been edited, in Emerson’s case, or replicated, as at Cross Creek. 

Nonetheless, the titles give some clues as to their owners’ thoughts, feelings, and interests. At the Choate house, the books are imprisoned behind two rows of wire, like errant cattle. They include many titles on gardening, which of course makes sense, given the owners’ proclivities, as well as popular writers of the 20th century, including P.G. Wodehouse and Edith Sitwell.

I had three writers in mind as I scanned the shelves, which rose floor to ceiling. One: Since Mabel Choate, who hired Steele to create the Chinese Garden, owned books about gardens of the East, might she also have read the novels of Pearl Buck?

I had been listening to Hilary Spurling’s marvelous biography of the Nobel Prize-winning writer, Pearl Buck in China, so I eagerly looked for Imperial Woman, Dragon Seed, or The Good Earth, but found none of them.

Second, wouldn’t the Choates – whose Berlin trip in the late 1800s inspired the Linden Walk – have been familiar with Elizabeth von Arnim, the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden and A Solitary Summer? Von Arnim, whose real name was Mary Annette Beauchamp, was an Edwardian lady married to a German count, whose writings are Thoreavian in their celebration of nature.

Alas, no Elizabeth, either. The docent in the study knew nothing about her, but noted that Naumkeag was originally a summer house, so the family presumably had another library in their New York City home as well.

Finally, I wondered if the Choates knew Caroline Hazard, who served as president of Wellesley College from 1899 to 1910 and wrote books of poetry, history, and travel. 

I don’t think the docent had heard of her.

What would it have mattered to find Buck, von Arnim or Hazard on these shelves? For me such a discovery would be another thread weaving my reading life together. Just as the books in my own study lean into one another, the influence of one seeping into the next, so too do the volumes in these famous homes connect. Finding a book on Brazil in Emerson’s Concord house brought my mind immediately to Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds, particularly the art of Martin Johnson Heade. If the writer of Nature was curious about Brazil, surely he was familiar with Heade’s magnificent portraits of the hummingbirds he found there. And when I later read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, her biography of Alexander von Humboldt, I thought again of that book on Emerson’s shelf.

The bookcase is a biography of a writer. Each volume is an intellectual touchstone, a literary influence. Perusing the libraries of others can only enrich our own experiences.

I eventually wandered out to explore Naumkeag’s gardens. We marveled at the staggered blue steps Fletcher Steele built and the clumps of fragrant phlox that bloomed below them. But the stacked shelves remained in the back of my mind, leading me somewhere too – to the books gathered there, which issue a different sort of fragrance and blossoms just as lovely. 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Input vs. Output

 

I have two boards in my office: one is a whiteboard of due dates and projects, the other is a bulletin board of colorful images clipped from magazines, books, and catalogs. The whiteboard is a to-do list of crossouts and dates, and it looks important. The bulletin board is where my eye goes, however, with its mix of vintage maps, postcards, advertisements and book covers.

The whiteboard represents where most writers focus their time: Output. Whether mounted on the wall, tucked into a notebook or etched into their brains, the to-do list looms importantly. We should be producing something, we should have goals, we should get published.

My whiteboard contains a list of free-lance stories due over the course of this year; some short creative projects I’ve been submitting; and a novel that’s still under revision.

But just as important is Input, an area to which we pay scant attention. Arguably without Input there will be no Output. Input is where we get our ideas, our spark, our inspiration. Because it seems to come out of the ether, we are loathe to quantify it. But Input can be listed and analyzed; we can boost our Input to increase our Output.

My list of both might look something like this:

 

Reading “Emerson and his Eccentrics”; rereading Thoreau’s journal – Thinking with intention about my memoir

Research into medicine – Free-lance stories on hospital history

Reading the New York Times and other papers – Ideas for op-eds and letters to the editor

Browsing the Times archive – Random sparks of interest for fiction and nonfiction

Posting on the Creativity Bulletin Board and collecting new images – Same 

Reading books about moonshining – Novel on moonshining in Rhode Island

Gardening on this homestead where I grew up – Ideas for my memoir

Plays and books – Writing reviews of same

 

Most of this Input comes from magazines, newspapers, online sources, and vintage ephemera. I’m low on one vital source of Input: experiences. Other than gardening and the theater, I don’t list any. A few trips to museums, hiking trails, and art galleries will boost my Input considerably.

In her seminal work on creativity, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron refers to these experiences as the “artist date.” She prescribes a weekly foray that will feed the artist within us. “Your artist needs to be taken out, pampered, and listened to,” she writes, suggesting long walks, a visit to a new neighborhood or browsing through a secondhand store as possibilities. 

My list of experiences will not be your list. I find a trip to the dump shack (where used books are dropped off and picked up) or an antique bookstore is always rewarding, as is any cultural experience that doesn’t involve reading or writing: a play, art gallery opening or musical performance. 

Sometimes these experiences sneak up on you. A family outing, a bulletin board in a coffee shop or a trip to the post office can provide that sudden “aha!” moment that writers need. You increase your odds of benefiting from these experiences if, instead of spending all day at your computer, you take time to mingle in the real world.

We cannot minimize the power of images and texts, either. I’m in the middle of reading two books (one on Emerson, another a novel I’m reviewing) and listening to a third book on audio (Pearl Buck in China, a fabulous biography by Hilary Spurling). My bulletin board is saturated with images: a 1968 Pontiac Bonneville ad; a postcard of a motel in Rutland, Vt.; a Nancy Drew cover; a vintage map of New England; one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s poppies; and photography by Maurine Sutter, an artist who spent two weeks in the dune shacks of Provincetown. All of these speak to me on some level, and all of them in some small way fuel my writing thoughts.

The conventional to-do list is a necessary evil, especially for those of us writing free-lance on deadline. But spend some time on another kind of to-do list – the experiences and interactions that fertilize your mind – and you’ll find your writing will benefit enormously.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

My father, the douser, the diviner

 

My father was a douser. He could cut a V-shaped stick of willow or cherry, grasp each end in his hands, and walk the land until he found water.

He had a calling. “Electricity in the veins,” as he said. To prove it, he would stand over the septic tank and that stick would point straight down, while the muscles in his arms popped from the strain of holding it steady.

People knew this and sought him out. Old Ben James, who was more Swamp Yankee than my father, had him walk his potato farm in Wood River Junction. Others asked him to work his magic before they called the well driller.

Our own well went dry off and on after we bought the house in Shannock in 1965. That year, and the year after, one of the worst droughts in the state’s history choked off the springs that kept our dug well full. In the winter we melted snow to wash hair. In the summer we collected water in a rain barrel.

Finally, in 1971, the task could no longer be postponed. My father called the well driller. He must have walked the yard first, but I don’t recall it. I was 11 years old that fall and reading the “Little House” books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which didn’t seem all that far from how we were living.

All of this has been on my mind because last week they tore down the corn crib. It was about ready to fall down, anyway, and we had salvaged what tools we could – the potato digger, the post-hole digger, spades and rakes and hoes, a cross-cut saw.

With the contractor’s attention turned elsewhere, the roof lay flattened atop the floorboards. I picked up a rusty metal rake and began poring over the contents. Most of what littered the floor was empty walnut shells left by squirrels, but a few artifacts remained: A brake light. A commercial license plate. A Nehi soda bottle.

Then I saw it. Stretching, I was able to hook the metal tines around one end and pull it forward.

My father’s dousing stick.

How easy it would have been to mistake this for a piece of brush. I held it to my chest, amazed I’d spotted it, grateful I could save it.

He had hung it on a hook in the old shed. Its end looked freshly sharpened.

I grabbed each end, thumbs up, the way he’d taught me. The wood trembled at my touch. I aimed its pointy end outward and began to walk.

I crossed the driveway, passed over a patch of lawn, and paused at the septic tank. But after that first vibration, nothing happened. My father had long ago given up on passing his magic to me. I didn’t have the electricity in my veins, he said.

But he was wrong about that.

I might not be able to find water. The ancient Yankee art of dousing might have died with him. But I have a different sort of power in my veins. Like his, those veins rise under my skin, blue highways on a relief map.

My father told me about other wells, other springs. Boiling springs: “There used to be one at Mame Thomas’s. She had a house over on the Mooresfield Road … up behind the barn was this boiling spring. … they used it. Fine water.” The well at Tug Hollow, where he grew up: “One year we had a drought. I’ll tell you, people from all around were coming to us for water. Used to put a trout in it [to kill bugs].”

I jotted his stories in notebooks large and small, in diaries and journals. They still give rise to sketches, and stories, and novels.

As sure as a dousing stick, I wield my pen. I pace these pages every day, looking for water, remembering my father. Like his blood in my veins, his electric voice runs from my head to my hand to the ink on the page.

No coincidence that divining is a synonym for dousing (sometimes spelled dowsing). For what are we doing when we search for water but telling the future, portending, showing the unseen? Surely a man who can reveal what lies underground has some powers of prophecy.

And what do we do when we write, but discover, guess, explore the unknown? Consider this meaning of to divine, from my old Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “to perceive through sympathy, or intuition; to detect; to conjecture.”

Walk the land, my father told me. Cut the branch of a willow or a cherry. Hold that stick fast and pace. And you will find the water that runs beneath, the subterranean vein, the well of creativity.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Dr. Dyer, my mother’s pop psychologist

I was 16 when my mother discovered Dr. Wayne W. Dyer. She probably saw him on Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin and then bought a paperback copy of his first best-seller, “Your Erroneous Zones.”
From what I remember of his pop psychology, Dyer believed we should experience new things, not worry about other people’s approval, and exchange adventure for fear. My mother, who left the house only to shop at the A&P or get the mail, might seem like an unlikely candidate for a personality transformation. Indeed, I didn’t notice any difference in her behavior, despite her frequent, enthusiastic quotations from the text.
In fact, the book simply reinforced my mother’s already entrenched personality traits. Telling an old Yankee like her that she didn’t need anyone’s approval was like throwing fire on a burn barrel. Soon, whenever she had an opinion, she would follow it up with: “And Dr. Dyer says I don’t need anyone’s approval.”
I don’t think this line worked that well for me, although I read the book, too. My friend Andrea and I used to quote “our buddy Wayne,” as we referred to him, quite frequently. By the time we were 17, trying to negotiate the future (a mystery) and the present (not so hot), he’d become our go-to guru of advice. Yes, we wanted to travel, try new food, stretch our wings! Of course we did – we were teen-agers who hardly ever went anywhere and were under the thumbs of rather controlling parents. And no, we didn’t need your approval, thank you very much, a line that made us feel better about confounding romantic relationships, gossipy peers and demanding teachers.
By the time of his death last weekend, Dr. Dyer had written more than 20 books and turned his psychological bullet points into a prosperous line of CDs, DVDs, and lectures. Over time his “erroneous zones” evolved into a philosophy of intention. In other words, if you imagine it, it will come.
I still think of Dr. Dyer whenever I open a menu. Why get the same old meatloaf, when you can try something new? Recently I discovered his publisher, Hay House, on Facebook. Just as authors like Emerson and Chekhov live on in social media, so too does Dr. Dyer. Today’s thought: “You have the ability to match up with the power of intention and attract ideal people and Divine relationships into your life.”
My mother might have been a hard-core Yankee, but she lived her life the way Dr. Dyer recommended – to the fullest. At 92, she had a mild heart attack. In the hospital, she helped me do crossword puzzles, learned all the nurses’ names and urged me to follow my dreams of teaching full time.
One day when I was visiting, they gave her a plastic cup of berry-flavored yogurt. She eyed it suspiciously, but then dipped in a spoon. Not long after, the only sound was the spoon scraping the bottom.
“Mmm,” she said. “That was really good.”
A few days later, she had a massive heart attack and died. I hope if I get to be her age, I won’t be afraid to try the yogurt.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Labor Day looms, so we must write on

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks. Three days in Williamstown, Mass., with my husband, where we saw a Van Gogh exhibit at the Clark Art Institute, attended a new production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and visited the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in Shaftsbury, Vt. Then, home to clean house, attend a reunion on Sunday of former newspaper folks, and enjoy a lovely three-day visit with a dear college friend. Patti and I talked nonstop, visited Doris Duke’s Rough Point estate in Newport and strolled the laid-back resort of Watch Hill.
Whew.
Yet through it all, I wroteAugust.
A book review, 1,600 words of the novel and a review of the O’Neill play, all while staying in Williamstown.
Another two days of novel writing on Monday and Tuesday, before and during Patti’s visit.
Back in the saddle today after her departure, writing and rewriting for two hours.
Make no mistake: I am no Stephen King, who writes 365 days a year, even on Christmas, the Fourth of July, and his birthday. I admire that sort of dedication, but I also know there are days I’m not going to make it to the writing desk.
But this is August, and as all writers know who make their living teaching, time is running out.
In her novel of the same name, Judith Rossner noted that the month strikes terror in the hearts of psychiatric patients, because their therapists vacate New York City for the Hamptons, leaving them to their own devices.
For college professors, August is ominous for a different reason: it’s the last buffer between summer break and the grind of syllabi preparation, teaching, and correcting. We know if we want to get that short story, memoir or novel draft done, we have to double down now – or else give up until January.
August has a silver lining. When time is limitless, writing lags. An approaching deadline tends to focus the mind.
A patient with a vacationing therapist learns to cope. A writer with a deadline gets busy. Let us celebrate August, all 31 days; because it is finite, because it is vacation, because it makes us work.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized