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March 2013

Telling Stories

I've been thinking about the storytelling process recently -- and why some of us are driven to make the telling of stories (on paper, on canvas, on the stage, etc.) the central work of our lives. What's behind this compulsion? Beyond issues of skill, craft, and earning a living, what is it we have to say? Every so often, in different stages of my life, I ask myself once again: Why am I a writer; why am I a painter; what is it I am trying to communicate? I can't reply on past answers to those questions, because the answers change as I age and change. Sometimes I'm clear and passionate about why it is I do the work I do. Other times, it is only by engaging with the work itself that I come to understand my own mind -- as thoughts, feelings, and concerns I didn't even know I had emerge in the creative process.

Yesterday I was in a large bookstore, which is generally one of my favorite places to be -- and instead of feeling thrilled by all the choices around me, I felt suddenly depressed by all those shiny new books. So many authors, so many dreams, so many voices clamoring to be heard. What need had anyone of mine? I thought, dispirited. Later, while I was making supper, I turned on Ellen Kushner's radio program Sound & Spirit for company. I've only recently discovered how many of the Sound & Spirit shows are now available online, and I'm enjoying listening to old favorites again and catching up on the ones I'd missed. Last night, I listened to "Surviving Survival" -- a show Ellen recorded years ago, for which I'd been one of the writers interviewed. I then had the very odd experience of listening to my younger self explain to me why the telling of stories is important. It's simple really (my younger self reminded me): I tell the stories that I do because I'm the person that I am. It's bearing witness. It's creating beauty in the teeth of destruction. It's both a necessity and a privilege, and that's enough.

Patricia Hampl once wrote (in The Writer on Her Work, Volume II): "For a writer it's a big deal to bow -- or kneel or get knocked down -- to the fact that you are going to write your own books and not somebody else's. Not even those books of the somebody else you thought it was your express business to spruce yourself up to be."

It's taken me all these years to fully appreciate how true this is.


Video above: "Telling Stories" by the exquisite Tracy Chapman. Photograph: The younger Ellen and me. The picture is from the late 1980s, when Ellen, after working publishing in New York, began her radio career in Boston, and I was starting The Endicott Studio.  Photographer: Beth Gwinn.

Tilly's prayer at the end of a very long winter

Waiting for spring, 1

Please come, Lady Spring. Bring sun, soft rain, and mud gentle under paw and foot; swell the streams and wake the Wild Ones from their sleep. Oh, please hurry and come.

Waiting for spring, 2

I am dreamimg of grass river banks and bird song; of bluebells, stitchwort, pink campion; of tender young bunnies that I...umm, will not chase. And lambs. And I won't chase them either.

Waiting for spring, 3

I am dreaming of warmth, and doors standing open, and roaming from house to garden as I please. Of lounging near our front gate and bar- ....umm, not barking at all who pass by.

Waiting for spring, 4

Please come, Lady Spring, and bring Summertime with you. We didn't see much of her last year -- perhaps she's forgottten the way to our hill. So please bring her along, with her sweet peas and foxgloves, her salt sea winds and her cool woodland shade. But if Summer can't come yet, please come by yourself, and I'll keep you good company here.

Waiting for spring, 5

Winter was fun, but he's outstayed his welcome, sitting soused by the fire and refusing to budge. Our wood stocks are low, our spirits need thawing, my thick winter coat has now started to shed. Please come roust him out, send him back to the northlands. Please come just as quick as you can.

Waiting for spring, 6

I'll show you my hillside, my best spots, my secrets. You can sleep in my dog bed and share all my treats. Your favorite flowers are almost in bloom now. The bird choir is gathering, and my People have set you a place at the table. We're ready. I'm ready.

Please come.

Waiting for spring, 7Happy Spring, Festival of Ēostre, Easter, Passover, [insert your celebration here], from all of us at Bumblehill.

A Room of One's Own, III

Dorothy West, photographed by Jill Krementz

"When I was seven, I said to my mother, may I close the door? And she said yes, but why do you want to close the door? And I said because I want to think. And when I was eleven, I said to my mother, may I lock my door? And she said, yes, but why do you want to lock your door? And I said, because I want to write."  - Dorothy West

Katherine Anne Porter, photographed by Jill Krementz

"I can live a solitary life for months at a time, and it does me good, because I'm working. I just get up bright and early -- sometimes at five o'clock -- have my black coffee and go to work. In the days when I was taken up with everything else, I used to do a day's work, or housework or whatever I was doing, and then work at night. I worked when I could. But I prefer to get up very early in the morning and work. I don't want to speak to anybody or see anybody. Perfect silence. I work until the vein is out. There's something about the way you feel, you know when the well is dry, that you'll have to wait til tomorrow and it will be full up again."  - Katherine Anne Porter

Rita Dove, photographed by Jill Krementz

"What I love about my cabin -- what I always forget that I love until I open the door and step into it -- is the absolute quiet. Oh, not the dead silence of a studio. A silence so physical that you begin to gasp for air; and it's not the allegorical silence silence of an empty apartment, with its creaks and sniffles and traffic a dull roar below, and the neighbors' muffled treading overhead. No, this is the silence of the world: birds shifting weight on branches, the branches squeaking against other twigs, the deer hoosching through the woods....It's a silence where you can hear the blood in your chest, if you chose to listen."  - Rita Dove

Susan Sontag, photographed by Jill Krementz

"Writing requires huge amounts of solitude. What I've done to soften the harshness of that choice is that I don't write all the time. I like to go out -- which includes traveling; I can't write when I travel. I like to talk. I like to listen. I like to look and to watch. Maybe I have Attention Surplus Disorder. The easiest thing in the world for me is to pay attention."  - Susan Sontag

Isaac Bashevis Singer, photographed by Jill Krementz

"When I get up in the morning, I always have the desire to sit down and write. And most of the days I do write something. But then I get telephone calls, and sometimes I have to write an article for The Foreward. And once in a while I have to write a review, and I am interviewed, and I am all the time interrupted. Somehow I manage to keep on writing. I don't have to run away. Some writers say they can only write if they go to a far island. They would go to the moon to write not to be disturbed. I think that being disturbed is a part of human life and sometimes it's useful to be disturbed because you interrupt your writing and while you rest, while you are busy with something else, your perspective changes or the horizon widens. All I can say about myself is that I have never really written in peace."  - Isaac Bashevis Singer

Saul Bellow, photographed by Jill Krementz

"I feel that art has something to do with achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction." - Saul Bellow

Ann Petry, photographed by Jill Krementz

The last word today comes from Ann Petry, who says:

"It doesn't much matter where I sit to write."

The Writer's Desk by Jill Krementz All of the photographs and quotes above come from The Writer's Desk, a beautiful little volume of black-and-white photographs featuring writers in their work spaces, by Jill Krementz. Krementz is a portrait photographer, photojournalist, and author based in New York City (and the wife of the late Kurt Vonnegut). The cropped images here don't do full justice to her work. The book's cover iimage is a portrait of Eudora Welty at her desk.

A Room of One's Own, II

Hemingway's study in CubaErnest Hemingway's study at Finca Vigía (Lookout Farm) in Cuba

"What was it Hemingway asked for -- a clean, well-lighted place? We cannot all afford a farm in Cuba or a suite at the George V in newly liberated Paris, and more often than not must strive to forge our clean, well-lighted sentences at a folding table wedged between the baby's cot and the dining table. In one of his cramped refuges the exile Vladimir Nabokov had to work in the bath, with a wooden board placed across the top to hold his famous sheaves of bristol file cards. A far cry from Thomas Mann's and Evelyn Waugh's leather-topped desks and foot-long cigars. We all yearn in our hearts to be Larkin's 'shit in the shuttered chateau,' but few of us achieve that grand apotheosis. How I envy writers who can work on aeroplanes or in hotel rooms. On the run I can produce an article or a book review, or even a film script, but for fiction I must have my own desk, my own wall with my own postcards pinned to it, and my own window not to look out of. "  - John Banville

How important is the physical space you work in to you and your creative process? Do you thrive best in "A Room of Ones Own," or prefer a couch, a cafe, a library carrel, an easel on a hillside, or some other space? For young mythic writers/artists/scholars/etc.: where do you work now, and what kind of space would you like to create for yourself in the future? For older artists, what was the best work space you ever had, and why?

The photographs below show workspaces of well-established artists -- in some cases, no doubt, tidied up for the camera. (You'll find the photo captions, as always, by placing your cursor over the pictures.) These images make me long to see the "before" and "after" -- the earliest work spaces of these writers and artists as well as the ones created after professional success.

The question today is: How important is the space itself to the work?

John Banville's studY

Joan  Miró's studio

"I think of my studio as a vegetable garden, where things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. You have to graft. You have to water. " - Joan Miró

"I thought the only way you can get into things is ... through the basement ... exactly where my studio was ... I could creep upstairs and snatch at things, and bring them down with me ... where I could munch away at them."  - Paula Rego

Paula Rego at work in her London studio

Marina Warner's room

"I used to write in a burrow downstairs, and moving up into the roof and light and air lifted me and my writing, or at least it felt so. I think of the room less as a retreat than a crow's nest, because the wind sings around it."  - Marina Warner

"My room is at the top of the house up two flights of stairs, which is very useful as people have to think before they disturb you. I've worked here for 42 years and written all my books and done all my illustrations here. For most of that time my husband, Nigel Kneale, worked next door. It was useful because we could pop into each other's room when one of us had a bad moment. We seemed to come to a stop for lunch at more or less the same moment. It was a very good time; I was very lucky. He used to tell me about the plays he was going to write, and I used to show him my pictures. Sometimes he'd say 'isn't that child's head too big?' and he was always right. But he always liked them, otherwise it would have been rather awful."  - Judith Kerr

Judith Kerr's studio

J.G. Ballard's writing room

"My room is dominated by the huge painting, which is a copy of The Violation by the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux. The original was destroyed during the Blitz in 1940, and I commissioned an artist I know, Brigid Marlin, to make a copy from a photograph. I never stop looking at this painting and its mysterious and beautiful women. Sometimes I think I have gone to live inside it and each morning I emerge refreshed.... I have worked at this desk for the past 47 years. All my novels have been written on it, and old papers of every kind have accumulated like a great reef. The chair is an old dining-room chair that my mother brought back from China and probably one I sat on as a child, so it has known me for a very long time." - J.G. Ballard

"Although I was seduced by the idea of the need for a room of one's own, it is the atmosphere of a place, rather than somewhere unique and private, that matters most. As I've got older, I realise all I need is a view, light and to be up high.... I use the tiny laptop on my desk for novels only -- no email, no journalism, no internet, no administration -- and I hoard only books and paintings relevant to the project I'm working on." - Kate Mosse

Kate Mosse's writing room

Nicola Barker's writing desk

"I've never had a study -- never really needed one. I like to work in the middle of things, so my desk is in the far corner of my livingroom, pressed up against the kitchen cabinets. I have a beautiful view of the river but I rarely turn to look at it. I'm very focused when I work. I wear a pair of industrial earmuffs, even though I'm partially deaf and don't really need them. I love the gushing silence they provide and the pressure of them against my head. My desk is my camp, my small launch, my treehouse. I got the carpenter who made it to cut a small indentation into the table part, so I could slot right into it. It's made from some old stairs. And it has loads of little cupboards in front full of interesting stuff - letters and rosary beads, faulty discs, stickers and whatnot. As I work, my dog, Watson, insists on positioning himself under my chair. He's a terrifying mixture of needy and companionable. He groans a lot, and sighs expressively. I suspend my feet on a shelf built under the desk. My chair has a little arch cut into it just big enough for him to slot his head through. If I move unexpectedly he's almost decapitated."  - Nicola Barker

"Anyone who works at home needs a refuge from the rest of the household, as far from the house as possible, and definitely without a phone. Mine is in one corner of the garden, overlooking a vegetable patch and young orchard, and I feel great happiness in it. I am hassled only by the cat -- a catflap would reduce the inconvenience."  - Louis de Bernières

Louis de Bernières' writing shed

Michael Morpurgo's writing bed

"For many years, I wrote on our bed in the house. But there were complaints about ink on the sheets, dirty feet on the bed, and we felt we should try to create somewhere else, a storyteller's house. Clare, my wife designed it -- it's based on the Anglo-Saxon chapel of St Peter-Ad-Murum at Bradwell-juxta-Mare in Essex, where I grew up, but it has a Devon thatched roof, a Japanese garden and an uninterrupted view of the countryside, looking towards Dartmoor. So there I have made my writing bed."  - Michael Morpurgo

"I don't really have studios. I wander around people's attics, out in fields, in cellars, anyplace I find that invites me." - Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth's studio

Ides of March by Andrew Wyeth

"I don't have a writing room, and don't want one. I've never written successfully at a desk - whenever anyone tries to give me a desk, it always fills up immediately with old bits of paper, and, after a week or two, I go back to writing on the end of the dining table, clearing it all up before dinner. Or, more often, just on the arm of the sofa.... I know perfectly well that if I ever found myself with a grand study with a view over the trees - if I ever started retiring to my study after breakfast to perform my daily 1,000 words - that would be the end of it. A sofa, a notebook, and the promise to yourself that in a couple of hours you can put Radio 4 on - that's just the ticket." - Philip Hensher

"Here I am, where I ought to be. A writer must have a place where he or she feels this, a place to love and be irritated with."  - Louise Erdrich

Your thoughts?

Painting by John F. Petro, 1885

Some of the quotes and photographs here come from the Guardian's series on writers' rooms. I also recommend the Tumblr site Write Place, Write Time,  The Lure of the Writer's Cabin in The New York Times, and the website Writer's Houses.

A Room of One's Own

George Bernard Shaw's writing hut

I'd like to go back to the subject we were discussing (before illness distracted me) in the posts Guarding the Egg and The Things That Stop Us in Our Tracks, namely: the challenge of obtaining uninterrupted time for creative work and the tricky business of sustaining a good work/life balance.

To start us off, here's a passage from Janet Sternburg's Introduction to The Writer on Her Work (an excellent anthology of essays first published in 1981):

"I'm drawn back to a room from my childhood," Sternburg writes, "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 the desk in the back room...[which] 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 paper that did not diminish between my visits...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."

Jane Austen's writing table at Chawton Cottage

"Looking back," says Sternburg, "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 imaged a room at the heart of a house, and life in its variety flowing in and out. Later still I came to see that I still valued separation and privacy....

"Now I've come to believe that there is no central act [of chosing either isolation or engagement with others]; 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."

Charlotte Bronte's writing table

In an essay from the same collection, Anne Tyler says: "I have spent so long erecting partitions around the part of me that writes -- learning how to close the door on it when ordinary life intervenes, how to close the door on ordinary life when it's time to start writing again -- that I'm not sure I could fit the two parts of me back together now.... After the children started school, I put up the partitions in my mind. I would rush around in the morning braiding their hair, packing their lunches; then the second they were gone I would grow quiet and climb my stairs to my study. Sometimes a child would come home early and I'd feel a little tug between the two parts of me; I'd be absent-minded and short-tempered.

"Then gradually I learned to make the transition more easily. It feels like a sort of string that I tell myself to loosen. When the children come home, I drop the string and close the study door and that's the end of it. It doesn't always work perfectly, of course. There are times when it doesn't work at all: if a child is sick, for instance, I can't possibly drop the child's end of the string, and I've learned not to try. It's easier just to stop writing for a while. Or if they're home but otherwise occupied, I no longer attempt to  sneak off to my study to finish one last page; I know that instantly, as if by magic, assorted little people will be pounding on my door requiring Band-Aids, tetanus shots, and a complete summation of the facts of life. "

Rudyard Kipling's writing room

"When I first started writing," says Sara Gruen (in Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran), "I had a corner in the living room. I put up a freestanding screen, but that didn't keep little bodies from coming around the corner asking for milk and cookies. I could only write when no one else was home. We ran out of money for day care when my first book didn't sell, so all of a sudden I was taking care of a toddler and trying to write. My husband built me an office -- really more of a cage -- out of baby gates. My son couldn't unplug the computer anymore, but he could still throw things at me. Somehow I managed to finish my second book, and when it sold, we could afford a babysitter and once again I had the house to myself during the day.

"That didn't always translate into productivity. At one point, I was so stuck on Water for Elephants that that I worked in a walk-in closet. I covered over the window and made my husband move his clothes out and pasted pictures of old-time circuses on the wall. We had no Wi-Fi, which was perfect. The only thing I could do was open my file. I figured if I stared at it long enough, something would happen. Apparently I was right, because I finished the book, but I spent four months in that closet. Does a walk-in closet count as a room of one's own? Somehow I don't think that's what Virginia Woolf had in mind."

Charles Darwin's study

Lest we think that work/life balance issues are unique to women writers with children, here's a searingly honest except from an interview with Barry Lopez in Michigan Quarterly Review (2005). When asked if he'd made sacrifices for his work (which requires a great deal of travel), Lopez responded:

"Choosing the life I did, I've lost some things that from time to time cause me the deepest kind of anguish. Foremost among those are my social relations with other people. No one is comfortable exploring this topic with a stranger, but the truth is, if you're devoted to your work your family is going to pay a price. How you cope with that — opting for the work or opting to maintain the long-term stability of a marriage, a family — is a singular measure of character.

"I've lived in this house for almost thirty-four years, but I know relatively few people here. I'm not involved in the fabric of day-to-day life on the McKenzie, in part because my work is not local. My life is not working in the woods. If it were, I'd be logging every day with people whose lives I shared and whom I went to church with. I don't have that. I've chosen to do work that takes me a long way away. And when I come home, what I really crave is privacy.

"I've chosen a life that has made it impossible or very difficult for me to remain fully engaged in the life of a family. As a consequence, there have been times in my life when I've been very lonely. I can't look at paying this price, though, as having made a sacrifice. Because you choose one thing, you don't get another. I miss the pleasures of daily human contact and company. I'm in close touch with a community of people spread all over the country, all over the world, but I don't see them every day. I love my work. It's the good I have to offer. I don't regret what I've done, but I have gone through times when I wondered what it would have been like if I had chosen community over being the kind of outrider that I am. If I had chosen a monastery or a community of people to stay with, if I had chosen a conventional family life where I married somebody and had children. But those were choices I did not make."

Your thoughts?

Virgina Woolf's writing shed

The photographs above come from a series of articles on writers' rooms published in The Guardian: George Bernard Shaw's writing hut in the garden of his last house, Shaw's Corner, in Hertforshire; Jane Austen's writing table at Chawton Cottage in Hampshire; Charlotte Bronte's writing table in Haworth Parsonage, Yorkshire; Rudyard Kipling's writing room at Bateman's, his grand Jacobean house in the Sussex Weald; Charles Darwin's study in Kent; and Virginia Woolf's writing shed in the garden at Monk's House in Sussex.