inside outside

you can see the floor!

Inside there’s a new feeling–no more books on the floor, no more clutter, lots of space. And there’s movement.

my new treaddesk

Things are changing. Now I stand to write and walk when I feel like it. I can also sit, which I find I sometimes need to do if I’m having to work really hard to turn an inside thought out.

The desk is wide enough so that I have space for a chair and a treadmill underneath. And the desk moves up and down to accommodate either sitting or standing.

Inside I’ve cleaned out drawers, moved things that haven’t been moved in years, given away books. Created white space.

Outside the red leaves are popping faster than I can count. My windows are open and the breeze is rustling the papers on my desk.

Poems and novels, histories and memories, dictionaries and blue-books; books written in all languages by men and women of all tempers, races, and ages jostle each other on the shelf.  And outside the donkey brays, the women gossip at the pump, the colts gallop across the fields. Where are we to begin?

~Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader

hidden from view

Devotion, the new memoir by Dani Shapiro, is divided into 102 sections. Number 54 is one of my favorites. In it, Dani writes about two subjects that have intrigued me for some time.

The first one not surprisingly has to do with memory. She writes:

“Why do we remember the particular things we do? …why random, ordinary moments?”

So many moments from my past, I feel as if I can actually see: sitting in French class in third grade with my French name (which I can’t remember) written on a piece of construction paper and folded tent-style on my desk, sneaking out of a window at the Latin Convention, what I wore to the Cat Stevens concert in ninth grade.

And then there are all those forgotten moments. Someone recently mentioned a Rita Coolidge/Kris Kristofferson concert I apparently attended.

The second subject is related to the first yet strikes off in its own direction. It has to do with what Mary Gordon calls “the wick,” what Tim O’Brien describes as “a blade tracing loops on ice,” and what Virginia Woolf writes about in this passage from Mrs. Dalloway. It’s the russian doll aspect of life–that I am in fact now, still, the little girl that sat in that desk with the French name. It’s the through line Dani writes about here:

“I understood feeling like a completely different person…and when I thought back to my teenage self, my twenty-something self, I had a hard time understanding how I had gotten from there to here…Was there–surely there must be–a through line connecting the disparate parts of ourselves?…I knew that each part of me…is linked one to the next, like a fragile chain of paper dolls….These layers of ourselves are always there, waiting for the right moment to emerge…A jumble, perhaps, but nothing is ever missing. Just hidden from view.”

In this section Dani wonders what rises to the surface and why. I wonder about that too. This idea of the surface fascinates me. One of the reasons I love writing is that it pushes all these things to the surface.

not firmly based

I haven’t had a morning in a while where I’ve allowed myself to drift from one thing to the next without accountability. When I was practicing law, I used to have to account for every six minutes.

This morning I was trying to locate a Virginia Woolf quote from A Writer’s Diary, and I got lost in the pages.

Saturday, November 2, 1929–almost a hundred years ago:

But I am more concerned with my Waves. I’ve just typed out my morning’s work; and can’t feel altogether sure. There is something there (as I felt about Mrs. Dalloway) but I can’t get at it, squarely; nothing like the speed and certainty of the Lighthouse: Orlando mere child’s play. Is there some falsity of method, somewhere? Something tricky?–so that the interesting things aren’t firmly based?

Then on Boxing Day (December 26):

All is rather rapt, simple, quick, effective–except for my blundering on at The Waves. I write two pages of arrant nonsense, after straining; I write variations of every sentence; compromises; bad shots; possibilities; til my writing book is like a lunatic’s dream. Then I trust to some inspiration on re-reading; and pencil them into some sense. Still I am not satisfied. I think there is something lacking…I press to my centre…And there is something there.

There’s so much more on the ups and downs of her writing days. Do any of you step outside the writing to record how it’s going?

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what have i done with my life

Behind me climbs a tower of papers, each one containing a thought or a quote or an article that I want to write about here. A few minutes ago, I started shuffling through the stack. About midway down, I stopped on a piece of graph paper on which I had scrawled these thoughts from the character Glory in Marilynne Robinson’s Home:

“But oh, the evenings were long.  I am thirty-eight years old, she would say to herself, as she tidied up after supper.  I have a master’s degree.  I taught high school English for thirteen years.  I was a good teacher.  What have I done with my life?  What has become of it?  It’s as if I had a dream of adult life and woke up from it, still here in my parents’ house.”

I knew I had written about other characters expressing this same feeling and I wanted to connect them with Glory. In the search rectangle on the blog, I typed in “life.”

I found two posts: one titled “something more,” in which I wrote about Mrs. Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and Clara in Black & White by Dani Shapiro; the other entitled “more than this,” in which I wrote about Ursula in Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence.

Here’s the weird thing: one was written on December 9th and the other on December 11th, 2008.

The end of the year pulls me toward reflection. But where’s the time?

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a room with a view

So the logical, orderly side of me  is distressed that I haven’t better organized this trilogy of posts–my writing room, the writer’s desk, and today, a room with a view. Instead it’s the writer’s side of me that has let one thing lead to another and then overlap and circle around. My first choice would be to delete all three posts, reorganize, and re-post, but I’m trying to go with it.

In the last two posts, I’ve felt the absence of two things. The first is a more specific reference to Virginia Woolf’s words read to the Arts Society in October 1928 and collected in the book, A Room of One’s Own. She writes:

IMG_2336“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction–what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?…a woman must have money and a room of her own is she is to write fiction…”

Saving the subject of money for another day, what she was saying is that a woman needs freedom in order to write.

In these essays, Woolf also describes the relationship of fiction to life:

“…fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”

Straight ahead where Tuesday night I spotted a 10-point buck

what's in front of me

To my right into the woods

To my right into the woods

The second thing I’ve felt the absence of in these posts is the subject of what’s in front of us as we write. Some people don’t want any view, but last summer when I was staying in a hotel in Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina, and all I had to look at was a wall, I felt claustrophobic. I shoved my computer in my purse and headed for a view. If I could pick any, it would be the ocean. It doesn’t really make any sense.

If I’m writing, I’m looking at my screen. I can’t explain it other than to say, if I have a choice in the matter, I prefer the feeling of limitless possibility and of things opening up in front of me.

When you’re writing, does it matter if you have a view?

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the writer’s desk


Eudora Welty's desk on the cover

In a comment to yesterday’s post, a reader reminded me of Jill Krementz’ photographs in The Writer’s Desk, which was published in 1996, the same year as Infinite Jest, and is now out of print. I had forgotten all about this book.

I pulled it off the shelf, and I’ve been enjoying the photographs all over again–of Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, John Irving, and Susan Sontag. Russell Banks writes:

“The computer is the most liberating because it is the fastest: I can sneak up on myself and write things that I would never dare to say or write if I had to write it out longhand…”

John Updike writes the introduction. There are three photographs of him: a corner of his messy desk, at work with a pencil in his hand, and standing up over a computer. He writes:

“I look at these photographs with a prurient interest, the way that I might look at the beds of notorious courtesans. Except that the beds would tell me far less than  these desks do….at these desks characters are spawned, plots are spun, imaginative distances are spanned.”

Stuck inside my book was an article from Poets & Writers, “The Importance of Place: Where Writers Write and Why,” from the March/April 2008 issue. Alexandra Enders writes:

“Writers need to find a way to access creativity and that can begin with the physical spaces they occupy when they work. (Paradoxically, when the writer is writing well, is truly immersed in the project, the space dissolves and becomes irrelevant.)”


Susan Sontag's desk

I do find that having a “room of my own” where I’m surrounded by books helps me during the creative phases of my writing. When it comes to revision, though, especially late in the process when I’ve worked on the same words many times, a new place–the quiet of a library or the noise of a coffee shop–will often give me the new perspective I need.

When I don’t have a room of my own, I’ve found that little rituals can serve the same purpose–a cup of coffee in a special mug, the lighting of a candle, turning a chair to face a different direction, a deep breath.

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summer reading II: story collections

IMG_0951With the intention of reading a story a night, a reader asked yesterday about story collections. I love that idea. No brand new collections to suggest, I’m afraid, but here are three great oldies:

Women & Fiction, edited by Susan Cahill, published in 1975. “Short stories by and about women.” Doris Lessing’s “To Room 19,” Jean Stubbs’ “Cousin Lewis,” Virginia Woolf’s “The New Dress,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” Carson McCuller’s “Wunderkind”….Try to avoid the very pink 2002 Signet Classic edition.

You’ve Got to Read This, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, published in 1994. “Contemporary American writers introduce stories that held them in awe.” There’s a great story in here by Paul Bowles, “A Distant Episode,” chosen by John L’Heureux. Also, Annie Dillard chooses a James Agee story. Bobbie Ann Mason chooses a Tim O’Brien story. Lorrie Moore chooses a John Updike story….This is a good, solid book.

The Story Behind the Story, edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett, published in 2004. “26 stories by contemporary writers and how they work.” I was fascinated by Stephen Dobyns’ explanation of how he wrote his story, “Part of the Story.” He was inspired by Raymond Carver’s method. “…the first sentence had come into his mind and he just followed it.” Also, stories by Margot Livesey, Charles Baxter, Andrea Barrett, Robert Boswell….

Others worth mentioning:

  1. Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike
  2. Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie

Then there’s The New Yorker and One Story.

As far as the initial question, I assumed anthologies, but here are two new single author collections:IMG_0978

  1. My Father’s Tears by John Updike, out today and reviewed in WSJ book review mentioned yesterday.
  2. Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson, out June 9th. Loved her collection, Who Do You Love. Also reviewed in WSJ book review mentioned yesterday.

Of the single author collections I’ve read in the last couple of years, I would recommend:

  1. Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill
  2. Last Night by James Salter
  3. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  4. Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti

So many good stories, apparently I could go on and on…

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more than this

img_1104This morning, as I found myself wishing for an ordinary day without any of the extra tasks brought on by the holidays, I came across this passage from D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love:

“Ursula often wondered what else she waited for, besides the beginning and end of the school-week, and the beginning and end of the holidays.  This was a whole life!  Sometimes she had periods of tight horror, when it seemed to her that her life would pass away, and be gone, without having been more than this.”

What makes a life more than this?

There’s a Zen saying, “Magical power, marvelous action!  Chopping wood, carrying water.”  Is it the state of mind we bring to clearing away the furniture, putting the tree in the stand, wrapping the lights around the branches, retrieving the boxes of ornaments, hanging the sparkly ones, remembering Christmases past?  Is it being in the moment, whatever moment you’re in, rather than wishing it away? 

Despite appreciating how the sun falls across a vacant lot, how the wind floats a branch high above my car, how fresh it feels to be outside, at the end of a day spent moving from gas station to bank to grocery store to gym without any time to wrestle the inside out, to put words on the page, or to connect to someone else’s words, I feel unsatisfied.  As if I have “done nothing.” 

I want something more–echos from Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa and Dani Shapiro‘s Clara.  What is it we want? 

We want our lives to catch on something…

David Herbert Richards Lawrence died in France in 1930 at the age of forty-four.  He wrote Women in Love in 1916, at the age of thirty-one.  It was rejected by publishers.  He revised it, and it was published four years later, in 1920.

something more

img_11171My favorite passage in Virginia Woolf’Mrs. Dalloway:

“Do you remember the lake? she said, in an abrupt voice, under pressure of an emotion which caught her heart, made the muscles of her throat stiff, and contracted her lips in a spasm as she said “lake.” For she was a child, throwing bread to the ducks between her parents and at the same time a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew larger and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said, “This is what I have made of it!  This!” And what had she made of it?  What, indeed?  sitting there sewing this morning with Peter.”

This grappling with the fact that we are now the same person we were when we were a child reminds me of the passage that so struck me in Mary Gordon‘s The Rest of Life.  With one important difference.  Here, the narrator, Mrs. Dalloway, appears to be judging her life and finding it coming up short. This was in 1925.

Almost a hundred years later, so does Clara in Dani Shapiro‘s 2007 Black & White:

“…invariably Clara walked away from them feeling that there was a secret club of motherhood, complete with a password no one had ever given her.  Why did this all seem so satisfying to them–the cupcake baking, the constant scheduling, the endless games of Candy Land?  And what was wrong with Clara, what psychic disease caused her constant yearning for something more?”