I didn’t plan to go to Florida, and once there, I didn’t expect to visit Ocala or a woman who owns horses and once lived in Rhode Island. And I certainly had no idea that, on this ninety-degree, insect-buzzing afternoon, I would step onto the porch in Cross Creek where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings once banged away on her portable typewriter.
Yet here I was, and there was the old black manual, so much like the one my mother used to write poems and type my term papers. Next to it was an ashtray and a squashed-up pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Irene, our guide, dressed in a cotton housedress and period-appropriate ankle socks and shoes, said the leather-covered chairs around the table – now cracked from weather and disuse – had been custom-made for the author and were an unheard-of luxury in the 1930s Cracker country of rural Florida.
I had still not gotten past the typewriter. I could hear it clacking, intermittently, a sound not unlike the insects outside the porch screens.
Irene said that Kinnan Rawlings tried to write other places, including a home on the Florida coast, but this was the only place “where the words flowed.”
My friend Cheryl brought me here. She comes south every May, to stay in a villa owned by some retired friends in a manufactured senior community known as the Villages. This trip is her gift to me; that is another story. Our tour guide is Laurie, Cheryl’s first cousin, once removed, and I feel a kinship with her unexplained by our shared Swamp Yankee heritage. How can you not like a woman who comes to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park at least once a year, just to see the place?
Before bringing us here, Laurie has taken us on a winding tour of limestone-covered backroads, pointing out thoroughbred farms and old orange packing plants and a radio station so small we are, within one mile of the house where it originates, out of its radius.
Somehow, both of them, or just the Spirit that conspires to give us what we need, brought me here, to this old porch, in the cottage where Kinnan Rawlings wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling and the memoir Cross Creek.
The writer hoping for clues in Cross Creek to her process or inspiration must read between the lines. If the book is to be believed, the author spent as much time hunting, cooking, and boozing as she did writing. Cross Creek is a love letter to the land that inspired her greatest work, and as such it is a paean to the power of place in writing.
Prior to coming to Florida, and for her first years there, Kinnan Rawlings struggled to get published. She wrote gothic fiction with exotic settings and wooden characters far from her own experience. It was Maxwell Perkins, editor of such legends as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who recognized that her letters about Cross Creek were far more evocative than her English romances. He urged her to write about what she knew, and when she followed his advice, her career took off.
The intersection of writer and place was not preordained. Kinnan Rawlings grew up in Washington, D.C., where she took weekend trips to her father’s Maryland farm. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin, and it was her first husband, whose relatives owned property near Cross Creek, who brought her to Florida.
The movie version of Cross Creek, starring Mary Steenburgen, portrays the purchase as her idea and the cause of Kinnan Rawlings’s first divorce. In fact, the couple invested in the property together, along with her brother-in-law, and they did not split until 1933, six years later. But clearly the orange groves at Cross Creek became her declaration of independence, a place where she would have to learn to fend for herself. This land of orange groves and Spanish moss evolved into her most creative place, her geographical muse, her writing retreat.
Humans, she wrote, have a preconscious memory of place, “and along with our deep knowledge of the earth is a preference for each of us for certain different kinds of it, for the earth is various as we are various. One man longs for the mountains, and does not even need to have been a child of the mountains to have this longing; and another man yearns for the valleys or the plains.”
As for me, I am child of the sea, and yet standing in an old cottage near a Florida orange grove I feel the power of place, the magnet of a fellow writer’s soul, and the drive to put pen to paper once again.
Tag Archives: muse
I’ve written before in this space about the creativity bulletin board. I started this version when I turned my oldest son’s bedroom into my office, but in truth I’ve been doing these photo mash-ups for many years. When I was in college, I pinned up newspaper photos of Watch Hill and Misquamicut, to assuage my homesickness, and Bruce Springsteen, well, because he’s Bruce Springsteen. Even as a teenager I would cut out photos and paste them into my journal – paintings of flowers or brooding models or New England scenes.
As writers, we paint with words. But no one really thinks in words. We dream in images. Our memories are not verbal stories so much as collections of images in a certain order. We talk about our mind’s eye because the brain – which processes experience, forms memories, imagines the future – is a visual organ. If you are a memoirist, the stories you are telling started out as pictures of the world, before being cemented into visual memory. Even our fantasies are a kind of experience that gets firmed up into a memory that can be called up, again and again, like a re-run on television.
The creativity bulletin board may seem chaotic, but it holds as much logic as visual memory. Up on my board today is a mishmash of photographs, paintings, maps, postcards, and, yes, even text that is all connected somehow to various writing projects I’m working on. Some of it has to do with a novel I’m writing. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park map, a postcard from 1950s Florida, the painting of vintage gas pumps, a portrait of my Aunt Dot, the watercolor of columbine by the Canadian artist Barrie Rennie, and photos of my mother are tied to this story, as is the word conte: which, in French, means story, and is also the name of the mountain in the novel: Leconte.
Other images are tied to a memoir I’ve started – obviously, these include pictures of myself as a 17- and 19-year-old, but less obviously are models wearing clothes from the 1970s and text from an FBS catalog of that time.
The third set of artifacts is connected to my father: he’s here sawing lumber in the early 1980s, and at a lumberjack competition before I was born. The toolbelt painting, by the artist John Whalley, also evokes my father. I am not explicitly writing about him at the moment, but one function of the bulletin board is inspiration, for writing projects not yet imagined.
The black cat? I don’t know why she’s there, either, but I like the ambiguity of her white paws. The elegant woman, a portrait by the Italian American painter Luigi Lucioni (1900-1988), struck me similarly. You could say she has a Mona Lisa smile, but her gaze strikes me as not only mysterious but confident and self-possessed, even disdainful. Yet, as the Jackson Browne song goes, “there was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes”: this woman is beautiful, possibly wealthy, but she has been knocked around a bit by life, I imagine. The contradictions in her face are where character begins.
The wave painting by Connecticut artist Antonia Tyz Peeples is one of the few images I rarely take down. It’s hard not to get caught up in the spell of a wave, frozen in motion, every jump of spray captured as though by a camera lens. Life crashes over us, again and again, yet each arc of spray hits us differently.
There’s nothing difficult about this process. There are no rules. I collect images that I like: postcards, advertisements, snapshots, clippings from art magazines. I switch up the board’s contents every few weeks. At the very least, the board gives me something to look at it when I’m “lost in thought.” At the most, it gives me ideas, connections, a starting point.
A few weeks back I wrote about who we as writers surround ourselves with. Just as we should be spending time with people who are leading creative lives, so too we should surround our writing space with images that appeal to our visual selves. How can we expect readers to visualize our stories if they aren’t born of the visual?
Like many of you, I had great writing plans this summer. I wasn’t naïve enough to think I was going to finish my novel, but I thought I would make serious headway with it. By now, nearly two-thirds into my break from teaching, I figured I also would have built up a cache of creative nonfiction pieces, some of which are part of a memoir of linked stories I’ve been working on. By Aug. 1 I would be ready to start submitting to literary magazines and websites as the submission periods opened up.
The writing gods, of course, were laughing back in May as I imagined all this. The writing gods like to watch as we mortals think, talk, and plan about our writing, because they know that writing does not conform to our desire for order or accomplishment. Writing cannot be planned, nor does it easily submit to quotas or to-do lists. In fact, it has a funny way of sabotaging our intentions.
What has happened is this: I started a new novel. So I am now writing two at once. Yes, I know that violates every rule and proscription from every accomplished, practicing wordsmith out there. But when one novel isn’t working, I move over to the other one, and for now, that seems to work. I also started a short story that is about two-thirds done that I feel rather positive about, even though I will tell anyone who’ll listen that I’m a miler, not a sprinter, and I’ve never written a short story that amounted to a damn. And, yes, I’m working on a couple of CNF pieces. They may not hold up by themselves, yet they led me to this second (double-secret) novel.
I could give you all the usually folderol about how many times I’ve been waylaid from my creative work. Sing it with me, friends: “wah, wah, wah” is the chorus, and I’m sure you can provide your own lines. Mine are something like “work for hire/makes me tire/douses out/my creative fire.” Finances necessitate that I take on freelance newspaper and magazine pieces, which require reporting, some interesting, some maddening, in addition to editing projects that pay well but suck the living life out of me. Then there are the scattered classes I teach, both in my home and elsewhere, to make a buck. Fill in the blanks with the usual vicissitudes of life, including family, vacations, laundry, and so forth, and summer is nearly over.
But with August breathing down my neck, and the academic semester not far behind, I’m going to dispense with the moans and groans. The truth is I’ve spent a great deal of time writing novel chapters, CNF pieces, and a short story. In my office, my bulletin board is decked out with a mysterious array of photos, postcards, paintings and ephemera that speak to these projects: photos of my mother and my aunt, a road map, a vintage travel trailer, postcards of the Great Smoky Mountains and various 1950s highways, paintings of Alaska and the American West, Nancy Drew cover art, botanical paintings, and a Christmas letter (“Best Wishes, Aunt Dorothy”). My floor is covered with boxes of postcards, cookbooks, family writings, letters, scrapbooks and magazines. My virtual bulletin board is full, too – on Pinterest I’ve been collecting images of 1950s clothes and housewares, botanical art, old campsites, and vintage novels, all of which is going into this creative stew that’s been simmering all summer.
I may not be ready to submit much (only the short story is close to being finished). Because while I was making plans, something funny happened – that collision of memory, emotion, inspiration and creativity that adds up to new work. It may not fit into the mold I imagined. It may not get me published in a literary magazine or accelerate my output. But it is writing, of the sort that makes the writing gods say “I told you so.” Instead of bemoaning what I haven’t finished, I will anticipate the journey ahead. I don’t know where it will end or how long it will take to get there. But I know that sometimes you have to forget your ambitions and just follow the writing muse where she leads you.