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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. 

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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.

 

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Other days, other lives

 

My parents were married 72 years ago, on July 12, 1947. All that survives of that day are a few black and white snapshots – my mother standing awkwardly in her ill-fitting wool suit (I know it was blue only because she told me so); a blurry photo of the couple cutting the wedding cake, in the dining room of her father’s farm; a snapshot of them together. I cannot look at these without thinking: 

Weren’t they roasting? I know she bought the suit out of practicality, so she could wear it later, but … wool in July? (The high temperature that day was 79 degrees, according to the weather station at Quonset Point.)

Is it true my father hated the floral hat she wears? And if so, why does it turn up in her honeymoon pictures?

What happened on July 13? and July 14? and the next day, and the next?

I know they honeymooned in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a journey they took in my father’s new truck. (The high the next day was 84 degrees.) A few photos of this occasion survive, too: My mother in front of a tourist cabin; my father in front of the same cabin; his truck parked beneath a majestic sweep of mountain. When we were young, my sisters and I loved to point out the primacy of that big logging truck of which he was so enamored.

Their tourist cabin was typical of the time period. It had a front porch with a few simple pillars and an apron wall. I have scrutinized postcards of the time period but cannot place it. The cabin is so like, yet not like, all the postcards I found: The Green Granite Cabins of North Conway, the Chester Lodge and Cabins in Jefferson, Rowin’s Cabins and Guest House in Franconia. It could be any of these, but in each one some detail is off or the picture too obscured for a positive identification.

I don’t know how long they stayed, but I’m guessing only a few days. Whenever they journeyed north, even for their 30th anniversary, they only stayed a day or two. The times I accompanied them on these trips were interminable – long stretches of highway, my father making time, and me growing bored and antsy in the back seat.

The truth is my parents’ wedding and honeymoon belonged to them, and them only, and anything that can be known about that time faded away with their deaths. I can admire my mother’s traveling outfit, a white blouse and jaunty Mexican skirt; I can take a magnifying glass to my father’s face, searching out the inscrutable expression beneath his gangster-like fedora. But I can never know what they knew, or feel what they felt.

This, of course, is why we write. Not to tell about the days well remembered – the anniversaries, for example, or the births or holidays – but the ones that came afterward. To answer the questions: What happened then? What happened after that? How did it all turn out? 

And for that task our imaginations are all we have.

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The friendships that last

 

I spent the last week with a friend. In fact, it was a week full of friends, and it reminded me of how important they are, particularly those closest to us.

I have five very close friends. I have many more good friends. The difference between the two is subtle but important, and in no way does the intimacy of one group detract from the value of another. We need all sorts of friends, I’ve found. There are the casual friends with whom we might enjoy a common interest. There are the old friends who saw us through a transformative era of our lives, and even though we don’t see much of them any more, we still care about them. There are former friends, and there’s no shame in having a few of those – people whose values you may no longer share but with whom you once had a rapport. There are childhood friends, and work friends, and situational friends.

But I am most interested today in the deepest friendships, the ones that have outlasted time, other relationships, and distance. One of those friends came to stay with us last week. Patti and I have been friends since college. Our bond has survived a long drought where we barely wrote to each other or saw each other. It was forged in our carefree college years, tempered by tragedy, and has mellowed to a deep understanding.

No one teaches us about friendship. Although our early friendships are usually made in school, there is no class in being, or making, a friend. It is all trial and error. Yet we know from the first day we set foot on a playground that finding and keeping a friend will be the difference between acceptance and social ignominy. How well I remember the two girls who whispered quickly together before running away and leaving me sitting alone on the swings! Yet just as well I remember the sudden bonds that would spring up with other girls and make school suddenly bearable. When I made a friend in third grade, we decided that when we grew up, we would live in Florida together! A year later she moved away and I never heard from her again.

Our family experiences don’t seem to matter much, either. My father had a cadre of friends, of all ages, but my mother had none at all – her three sisters were her confidants, if you could call them that. When I was in junior high school, she complained, in my earshot, that I had “so many friends,” her tone indicating it was some kind of character failing. So I did not learn at her knee to be a friend, and my father’s relationship with his old-time Yankee buddies – with all its tobacco-spitting and story-telling – did not provide much guidance, either.

As I grew older, the way of friendship seemed to lie in the written word. It is no coincidence that of my five closest friends, four have at one time been correspondents. Some of us still write to each other. There is a closeness that letters engender. They require reflection on the other person’s point of view (that is, what is shared in their latest letter), as well as empathy and understanding. Letters inspire a more thoughtful confidence than face-to-face conversation. They require deeper thinking. All of that thought and emotion brings us closer together.

I have many of these letters, and reread them from time to time. They remind me where my friends and I have been together, what we have shared and what serves as the foundation of our friendship. Some of my former correspondents are no longer friends, and some, sadly, have passed away. I treasure our letters, evidence of an earlier bond, one that enriched us both, if only for a short time.

I wonder what sort of friendships this up-and-coming generation will form, out of the raw materials of fleeting online commentary and texts. Facebook turned friend into a verb, but most of the people we “friend” are not the sort of companions I’m talking about. They are situational acquaintances, or casual friends; some might be good or even close friends, but the relationship formed outside social media.

The word friend can be traced to the German, frijon, to love. Curious, because we think of love as romantic, and forget the importance of its other permutations. I do love my close friends and tell them so. Maybe that’s because, at 59, I’ve learned how fleeting life is, and how important it is to tell people they are valued. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen friendships endure long after my family members have passed away. Maybe it is just the gratitude we feel toward those who know us best but do not shrink from our faults.

I was thinking of friendship while Patti and I sat on the porch at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn., the birthplace of American Impressionism, both of us reveling in our shared appreciation of art and creativity. Beyond the porch it rained, but on the porch we beamed. Like the walrus and the carpenter, we talked of many things.

I thought of it Friday evening, when my old friend Andrea gave me an unexpected gift. It was a t-shirt with Coca-Cola, “The Real Thing,” written on it, and with the shorthand that lasting friendships allow, she referenced so much from our long-ago past: how Coke ads were a kind of talisman of happiness for us, which we sometimes grasped all too briefly. It brought back trips to Misquamicut Beach, skipping school and flying kites and making up phrases that only we understood. Our friendship was the “real thing.”

There is no way, I think, to predict who we will bond with. Neither age, nor religion, nor occupation seem to matter much. Perhaps it is a shared attitude. Maybe it is just the good fortune of making it through all the stages of friendship intact – the early days of shared interests and experiences, midlife when we become too distracted to connect, the later years when we realize the jewel that close friendship is.

However we got here, I’m glad my friendships have endured. Glad when Patti comes to visit every summer and warms our home with Portuguese wine and deep laughter. Glad when Andrea agrees to some spontaneous jaunt. Glad when Cheryl reaches out to offer a hand when I need one. Glad when Tara writes me long letters full of books and writing and politics. Glad when Laura and I share some special occasion, whether it be a dinner out or a celebration that envelops our two families. All of these meetings end in a hug and a fond farewell, a salute to the friendships that endure, and gratitude that we are still around to enjoy them.

 

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The letters of a complicated man

 

For the past couple of weeks, I have been driving to 1945, as I listen to the audio version of Christopher Dodd’s Letters from Nuremberg: My Father’s Narrative of a Quest for Justice. First published in 2007, the book (cowritten by Lary Bloom) is comprised of the correspondence of Thomas Dodd, who was one of the U.S. prosecutors in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.

Dodd, junior and senior, is a familiar name in these parts. A native of Norwich, Conn., Thomas Dodd had a storied career that included a brief stint in the FBI and service in the U.S. Senate. Norwich’s AAA baseball stadium is named after him, and his son Christopher followed in his footsteps as a U.S. senator from 1981 to 2011.

In some ways, the book is an attempt to reclaim Dodd’s legacy after his career ended in ignominy. Accused of appropriating campaign finance funds for personal use, he was censured by his colleagues in 1967. When the Democratic party refused to endorse him for re-election, he ran as an independent in 1970, but lost his seat. He died suddenly of a heart attack less than a year later, at age 64.

It is easy to see why the Dodd family would want to salvage his reputation. When Dodd died, his censure and defeat were still fresh news, and the New York Times obituary was almost entirely devoted to his Senate career and the accusations of cronyism and misuse of funds. His triumph at Nuremberg – for which he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom – was consigned to one paragraph on an inside page.

The letters he wrote home from July 1945, when he flew to England to begin work on the trial, to September 1946 are a fascinating, day-by-day look at the struggle to bring Nazi leaders to justice. But they are far more than that.

In his correspondence, Tom Dodd is revealed as a complicated man whose devotion to his wife and family was often at odds with his duty to country. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he was an ambitious lawyer already looking ahead to parlaying this assignment into a legal and political career.

The letters exist on two levels, and Dodd was aware of this as he wrote: they are first and foremost love letters to his wife, Grace, and simultaneously a recording of historic events as they unfolded. So Tom Dodd wrote both for his wife’s ears, and history’s.

Each of the letters begins not with the conventional “Dear Grace” but “Grace, my dearest one,” or alternatively, “Grace, my loveliest one.” In the very first letter, he paints a picture of her face as she waves him goodbye from a train platform in New York, an image he calls upon again and again to get him through his dreary days interrogating Nazis and negotiating Army politics.

Dodd’s wife, the former Grace Murphy, also was a local girl. From Westerly, Rhode Island, she graduated from Trinity College in Washington, D.C. (her husband was a graduate of Providence College and Yale Law School). They married in 1934. When Tom left on his Nuremberg assignment, they were living in Lebanon, Conn., with their five children – Thomas Jr., Carolyn, Jeremy, Martha, and Christopher, who was a little over a year old when his father left for Nuremberg (a sixth child, Nicholas, was born after he returned).

Although they had been married 11 years in 1945, Tom Dodd writes to Grace like a besotted newlywed. She is the only woman he could ever love; he cannot bear to be apart from her; he will cut this assignment short just to be with her, and the children. The highlight of his day is writing to her.

Her responses are not included in the volume, if they survive, but we get hints of them from his letters. It takes weeks for her first letters to reach Dodd, who travels to France before arriving in Nuremberg. When they do arrive, he finds Grace’s letters wonderful but short; several times he asks plaintively if she won’t write on both sides of the stationery. Grace comes across as a good humored, capable woman who surely misses her husband but is hardly sitting at home pining away for him – she gets her hair done and attends cocktail parties in New York City, for example, excursions he encourages bravely but not too convincingly.

Dodd tries to reassert his role as man of the house. It comes out that instead of leaving her access to his bank account, he expects her to mail him checks overseas, which he will sign and return to her by post. This clearly is unworkable, and eventually he gives in and suggests she forge his signature when necessary. It is good for a wife, he opines, to have to pay the bills once in a while to understand the responsibilities on a husband’s shoulders. Several times, he admonishes her not to pay the handyman until he has painted all the window sills and installed the storm windows.

Thinking of Grace Dodd at home with five children and a large house, with bills to pay and no ready access to the family’s savings, one can only speculate at her reaction to this.

Dodd was, of course, a man of his time, and the gender roles in his marriage were typical for the 1940s. It is hard to criticize a husband so deeply in love with his wife that he thinks about her night and day, hoping that someday they can see the sights of Europe together.

But Dodd was a man of contradictions: He despised anti-Semitism, but complained that too many Jews were on the legal team (he feared this would make the trial seem unfair). He claimed to want no role in the trial itself, content to do the interrogations, but he denounced the Army brass for sidelining him. Already, he saw the high-profile case as a stepping-stone.

Yet: Dodd was a brilliant jurist whose systematic interrogations, moral outrage and trial experience helped secure the 19 convictions (three defendants were acquitted). He was able to cut through the dry documents to show the human toll of genocide, at one point brandishing the shrunken head of a murdered prisoner that had been used as a paperweight by the commandant at Buchenwald.

In this case, the New York Times got it wrong. Although the Senate censure of Dodd led to tighter campaign finance laws, his real legacy was secured in the days after World War II, when he helped hold war criminals to account and proved that the rule of law can triumph over despotism. Reading his letters all these decades later, one admires him as a good husband, a principled lawyer, and a decent man. His subsequent failings make him human, but do not undo his finest hour in Nuremberg.

 

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A return to leisure

 

This time of year leaves me in a quandary. On the one hand, I’m delighted by the end-of-semester freedom: Even if my summer break will be interrupted by two classes beginning June 24, for now I revel in the luxury of no material to prep, no reading to do, no papers to grade.

On the other hand, I miss the routine college teaching imposes. No matter what, during the school year I know I will be in class at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example, and that afterwards I will hold office hours until noon, returning home to prep for the next day’s obligations.

It is not as though I have nothing to do. Indeed, I usually obligate myself plenty on my time off: Writing theater reviews, op-eds, book reviews, and fiction; editing work for hire; and, this year, the continuing opus of an institutional history I’m writing for a local hospital. Yet somehow, it is both not enough and too much.

My husband says the words “I wish I had accomplished more” will be on my tombstone, for that’s usually what I tell him when he asks how my day went. Today, for instance, I conducted an interview for the hospital history, finished editing notes for a client, and wrote 1,000 words on my novel-in-progress. Yet here I am, a rodent on a wheel, working on a blog – because always there’s the sense that more needs to be written.

It’s not guilt exactly that moves me. Sure, some might sneer at my cushy schedule – working nine months out of the year, four to six hours a day, etc. I make no apologies for that. Adjunct professors make poverty wages, and when I left journalism – hardly a lucrative profession – I took a steep pay cut. I traded money for time, and it was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

When I think back on my years as a newspaper editor, I miss the people I worked with, but little else. The deadlines were punishing, the schedule unforgiving. Sometimes I spent 10 or 11 hours a day at a desk, editing and writing. My health had begun to suffer. I developed ocular migraines, a lightshow my brain would put on when I’d spent too much time staring at a computer monitor. That’s no way to live.

Yes, I wanted that bromide, “quality of life.” I wanted to walk more, to spend more time with my husband and (grown) children, read more books.

My old Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines leisure as “Freedom afforded by exemption from occupation or business” or “time free from engagement.” I am often engaged – indeed, I would want to be – but my occupation or business is my own time, and I am in charge of how it is spent. At least, that’s the theory.

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts,” Thoreau wrote in Walden. “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.” Thoreau built a cabin in the woods and lived there, “deliberately,” for two years, two months, and two days. My cabin is metaphorical, and still under construction.

The root of leisure is from the Old French, leisir, “permission,” from the Latin licere, “to be permitted.” We need permission to enjoy the freedom of leisure, either from an employer (the standard two-week vacation) or our minds (which must let go to enjoy that time, whether it’s two weeks or two months or two years). Perhaps I have only traded one form of servitude – the 40-hour work week – for another – my Puritan work ethic.

As children we understood leisure well. Freed from the strictures of school, we knew summer was meant for fun, not accomplishments. All too soon the back-to-school ads would appear, the buses begin to run.

When I was 9 or 10 or 11, July and August days seemed to unfold endlessly. My friend Debbie and I would stave off boredom with games of Yahtzee and Parcheesi, and then walk to the center of a our sleepy village for a Pepsi and a bag of penny candy.

If I dared utter that forbidden word – “bored” – my mother would declare in her haughtiest voice, “I wasn’t put on this earth to entertain you.”

So we learned to keep ourselves occupied. No one, least of all ourselves, expected us to be productive. There were no summer reading lists back then, no playground programs. We were our own camp counselors. This limitless freedom did not make me anxious – on the contrary: It was the return to school that gripped me in anxiety.

It seems I have forgotten what summer is for. I want the pages of writing to pile up, the to-do tasks crossed out. I want to justify my idleness.

Surely there is room for puttering too – watering the garden and folding laundry and picking wildflowers. This afternoon, when nothing urgent beckons, perhaps I can lose myself for a while in doing nothing much. The cat sleeps in her red chair. Oak leaves stir lazily in the breeze. I sit here in a sudden drowse, forgetting what I’d intended to do next.

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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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