Everywhere I’ve lived, every dingbat, carriage house, and squat, every artist’s studio and writer’s sublet, every house and every castle I built in my mind, I chose based on a yes to two questions:
Can I write here?
Can I sleep here?
And although I owned pots and hats and three chairs that boasted four legs; lamps and blankets and a broom and a mop, the only furniture I cared about were the pieces I used when I wrote or when I recovered from writing: the leather trunk from my great-grandfather that held all of my letters; a futon mattress so dense it carried me downriver to deep slumber; the formica table from my best friend’s grandmother’s house smelling of the soap and bleach with which she wiped its chipped surface; and The Hideous Floor Lamp from my grandmother (“Courtenay, here you go: A hideous floor lamp. I thought you’d love it.”) featuring a saucy 1920s glazed ceramic base and a British postbox red pole and a particularly golden light that puddled around me as I worked, covering my shoulders like a bright shawl, pooling cheerfully as I wrote each first draft in longhand on a legal pad, day after day, night after night.
A few months ago, a newly-published writer publicly opined, “There are too many writers trying to write professionally now!” Here, at home, sitting in my big black chair, I smiled behind my hand at this online confessed frustration, am still smiling behind my hand as I write you this letter, this missive, this little epistle on love and obsession and writing. I turn 39 this month; this year it will be 20 years on since I began writing for pay. The newly-published writer had opined the wrong thing, I thought, at the time, and now. There can be as many writers as there are people in the world looking for work, and the only question worth asking is: Are any of them any good? Take the yeses and read their words— these will be like honey to you, like a meal, like music. Take the nos and read them too— there are as many songs as there are dancers. Always the bad dancers and the good. And when the time comes to take your turn, none of these other writers will come to mind— you will think of nothing more than you and the music and the darkness beyond the veil of the stage. And know that you, too, will be nothing but a memory to any writer reading your words now taking her turn about the stage.
…the only furniture I cared about were the pieces I used when I wrote or when I recovered from writing…
In the fall, I crave Big Language, so I go looking for The Heavyweights— T.S. Eliot, E.B. White, Jorge Luis Borges; The Magicians— Hilary Mantel, Shirley Jackson, Margaret Atwood; The Wolves— Vladimir Nabokov, Joan Didion, Truman Capote. I settle into a big chair with a light over me and a glass of iced water tinkling as it melts; I turn the flyleaf and the title page and the contents until my thumb lands on the top corner of page one. At night, as I fall asleep, my mind will fumble through phrases from what I’ve read that day, turning the words over and over as if to polish them, sinking me further into a dream state where language is like a forest that one can enter and leave, but from which one comes to understand there are more trees, more languages, more forests than there are writers, more ideas than there are books, and no one can map them all. The writer lives in this forest, and she visits the world— this is the choice she made and will have to make from whatever moment it was that she pledged her life to the written word.
I cannot not write: My hands twitch and move across an invisible keyboard. I narrate stories I have not written yet, telling them over and over, refining this passage and that, until they are fully written out before I’ve picked up a pen. And my mind is routinely reading back to itself what it has read before, sometimes years before, from this book and that poem and this dialogue and that bit of music— I listen to songs in part to enjoy the pleasure of words obviously set to melody instead of words’ implied melody; I listen to compositions in part to hear the music before the words that crowd my life attempt to unite music’s natural airy unspeakable with writing’s more earthy unsaid. My mind, you see, is rarely ever silent. Unless I pick up a drawing pencil or my camera, put on a pair of ghillies or sit down in front of a piano, I would never know the fullness of experiencing absolute silence.
The newly-published writer had opined the wrong thing, I thought.
Everywhere I’ve lived, I chose because I intended to write there. I chose this place or that because I liked the pecan trees or the nonagenarian landlady with her red lipstick or the way the light came through the overgrown ivy in the kitchen window, but the subtext of my admiration were the stories I imagined I would write because of the trees or the landlady or the overgrown ivy on the windows. I live in a house now, but nothing’s changed in how I choose— I wanted to live here because the house wears its roof like a jaunty cap and the wood paneling in the living room smells of books and those first crisp autumn afternoons. I continue to live here because this house is where I keep my language; this house is also where I sleep, and where I dream of new words.
A LITTLE ADDITIONAL PLEASURE FOR YOU TO EXPLORE: In the history of art up until very recently, depicting a woman reading could imply everything from something sensual to something political, but it always signifies a level of intimacy. To see what I mean, please check out Wikimedia Commons’ collection of “females reading in art.”