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.

Silence, 2

The silence of early morning...

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”  - Ansel Adams

...up on Nattadon Hill.

It's not really silent when Tilly and I climb our hill in the early morning, of course. There is bird song (cacophanous at this hour), the roar of water in the stream below, the breathing of the wind, and the rustle of a little black dog prowling through the bracken. Yet the sense of silence is a strong one nonetheless, created by the absence of human voices and manmade sounds; a silence that is becoming all too rare these days, and yet remains so necessary. As food fuels the body, silence fuels the spirit and imagination. Or so it is for me.

I cherish (and protect) the early morning silence that fills my studio too, although that isn't a true silence either. There's the humming of the heater, the scritching of a pen on paper, the tap-tap-tap of computer keys, the whisper of book pages turning. What I experience as silence is better described as solitude, and yet even that word is not a perfect fit, for my solitude contains multitudes: not only Tilly, snoring beside me, but also the characters conjured as I write, standing here as real as life; and bunny girls leaping and dancing on the walls; and the voices in everything I read, belonging to people both real and imaginary, fully present here either way.

Sara Maitland asks, "Is reading silent in any sensible understanding of that word? Does it deepen the silence around us or break it up? When we read are we listening to the author, conversing with the author, or are we looking more directly into the author’s mind, seeing the author’s thoughts, rather than hearing her voice? How might one define silence in relation to the written, as opposed to the spoken, word?"

And these are good questions. What do you think? 

Willow and snow

The Sara Maitland quote is from  A Book of Silence. Her new book, Gossip from the Forest, is wonderful too. For a list of thirteen books on "women and silence," go here.

Silence, 1

The Dreamer of Dreams by Edmund Dulac

"Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven't the answer to a question you've been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you're alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”

- Norton Juster (from The Phantom Toolbooth)

Blanket of Snow by Virginia Lee

The White Bear by Kay Nielsen

“After a time I found that I could almost listen to the silence, which had a dimension all of its own. I started to attend to its strange and beautiful texture, which of course, it was impossible to express in words. I discovered that I felt at home and alive in the silence, which compelled me to enter my interior world and around there. Without the distraction of constant conversation, the words on the page began to speak directly to my inner self. They were no long expressing ideas that were simply interesting intellectually, but were talking directly to my own yearning and perplexity.”

- Karen Armstrong

A Silence Like Intimacy by Jackie Morris

"I am obsessed by the idea of silence. I went through an entire library studying art, artists and their critics, philosophers, too, on the meaning and significance of the color white. I dreamed of white birds and white bears. I thought about the white pages of my mother’s journals. I became enthralled with John Cage and his work, 4’33”, his masterpiece of ambient sound. Rauschenberg, too. And then at some point I let go. What sticks to the soul is what gets placed on the page. Maybe that’s the unknown part, the mystery, the power of the empty page."

- Terry Tempest Williams 

The Night Before the Journey to England by Carl Larsson

“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”

- Virginia Woolf

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Pictures:"The Dreamer of Dreams" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), "Blanket of Snow" by Virginia Lee, "The White Bear" (from East of the Sun, West of the Moon) by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957), "A Silence Like Intimacy" by Jackie Morris,  "The Night Before the Journey to England" by Carl Larsson (1853-1919), and a pen & ink skerch by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). Words: The Terry Tempest Williams quote comes from a recent interview, On Writing as an Act of Living, which I highly recommend.

Work that matters

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter by Vermeer

From "Ode to Slowness" by Terry Tempest Williams (published in Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert):

"Is it possible to make a living by simply watching light? Monet did. Vermeer did. I believe Vincent did too. They painted light in order to witness the dance between revelation and concealment, exposure and darkness. Perhaps this is what I desire most, to sit and watch the shifting shadows cross the cliff face of sandstone or simply to walk parallel with a path of liquid light called the Colorado River. In the canyon country of southern Utah, these acts of attention are not merely the pastimes of artists, but daily work, work that matters to the whole community.

"This living would include becoming a caretaker of silence, a connoisseur of stillness, a listener of wind where each dialect is not only heard but understood."

Painting above: "Girl in Blue Reading a Letter" by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)

Solitude in the studio

Pathway to the Bumblehill Studio

Tilly on the path to the studio, the Animal Guide leading to my workspace and my working day.

Little muddy paw prints through the studio door

The foxglove is in bloom and the door stands invitingly open. "Create, create," sings a sparrow overhead; "create, create" sings the water in the stream that runs between the cabin and the woods.

"The most important thing," says folklorist Clarissa Pinkola Estes, "is to hold on, hold out, for your creative life, for your solitude, for your time to be and do, for your very life."

From the studio window, on the writing side of the room

This morning's prayer: May we all find solitude, silence, and work space when we most need it. Which is now. Which is now.

Shhh!This post is for Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, in support of Lock-down Week.