From "The Writer Herself" by Janet Sternberg:
"I'm drawn back to a room from my childhood -- the back room of my aunt's apartment. When my parents and I visited, I used to vanish into that room. My means of escape was the typewriter, an old manual that sat on a desk in the back room. It belonged to my aunt, but she had long since left it for the adjoining room, the kitchen. She had once wanted to write, but as the eldest of a large and troubled first-generation American family, she had other claims on her energies as well as proscriptions to contend with: class, gender, and situation joined to make her feel unworthy of literature.
"I now know I inherited some of her proscriptions," Sternberg contines, "but the back room at age nine was a place of freedom. There I could perform that significant act: I could close the door. Certainly I felt peculiar on leaving the warm and buzzing room of conversation, with its charge of familial love and invasion. But it wasn't the living room I needed: it was the writing room, which now comes back to me with its metal table, its stack of white papers that did not diminish between my visits. I would try my hand at poems; I would also construct elaborate multiple-choice tests. 'A child is an artist when, seeing a tree at dusk, she (a) climbs it (b) sketches it (c) goes home and describes it in her notebook.' And another (possibly imagined) one: 'A child is an artist when, visiting her relatives, she (a) goes down the street to play (b) talks with her family and becomes part of them (c) goes into the back room to write.'
"Oh my. Buried in those self-administered tests were the seeds of what, years later, made me stop writing. Who could possible respond correctly to so severe an inquisition? Nonetheless, that room was essential to me. I remember sitting at the desk and feeling my excitement start to build; soon I'd touch the typewriter keys, soon I'd be back in my own world. Although I felt strange and isolated, I was beginning to speak, through writing. And if I chose, I could throw out what I'd done that day; there was no obligation to show my work to anyone.
"Looking back nowl I feel sad at so constrained a sense of freedom, so defensive a stance: retreat behind a closed door. Much later, when I returned to writing after many silent years, I believed that the central act was to open that door, to make writing something that would not stand in opposition to others. I imagined a room at the heart of the house, and life in its variety flowing in and out. Later still I came to see that I continued to value separation and privacy. I began to realize that once again I'd constructed a test: a true writer either retreats and pays the price of isolation from the human stream or opens the door and pays the price of exposure to too many diverse currents. Now I've come to believe that there is no central act; instead there is a central struggle, ongoing, which is to retain control over the door -- to shut it when necessary, open it at other times -- and to retain the freedom to give up that control, and experiment with the room as porous.
"I've also come to believe that my harsh childhood testing was an attempt at self-definition -- but one made in isolation, with no knowledge of living writers. In place of a more expansive range of choices that acquaintance, particularly with working women writers, could have provided, I substituted the notion of a single criterion for an artist. That view has altered with becoming a woman and an artist."
The paintings today are by the great American realist artist Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), whose subject was the land, people and animals around him in rural Pennsylvania and coastal Maine. He was the son of the illustrator N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945); and his own son, Jamie Wyeth, is also a painter working in the realist tradition. To learn more, I recommend An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art by James H. Duff.
The passage above is from "The Writer Herself," the introduction to The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg (Virago Press, 1992), which I recommend. The poem in the picture captions is "The Muses of Rooms" by Vern Rutsala (1934-2014) from Poetry Magazine, January, 1990. (Run your cursor over Wyeth's art to read it.) All rights to the text and art in this post are reserved by the authors and artist or their estates.