Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Writers' Houses, Cash Flow and the Geography of Creativity
And now, it's Mark Twain's house on the chopping block – maybe. Recently, it was Edith Wharton's house, also running out of funds. And so, I've been asking myself how much – and indeed whether – the houses of accomplished, revered writers matter. Is it important to keep them open for visitors, scholars, and tourists who have a vague recollection of having once read at least one of an author's great works or perhaps simply bored on a rainy vacation day and heeding the advice of a bed-and-breakfast owner?
I can recall being mesmerized, as a teenager, to be in Shakespeare's house in Stratford-upon-Avon, but then I was equally awed standing over his grave marker. And had I known then how very little time The Bard actually spent in the Avon house, that he wrote mostly in boarding houses in dicey sections of London, I might have felt differently. Then again, I was awfully young.
When I travel, I do make an effort to stop in at any important writers' houses along the way, but usually only if they fall right in to my path; I can't say I make it an integral part of my trip, like a writer acquaintance of mine does. I don't keep track of which and how many I've seen and nor am I devoted to the pursuit, as others seem to be. But I've been wondering lately if either I've been remiss, if the place where a writer's most intriguing work happened is more important than I've yet to understand? Surely that must be partly true, or else those who are pouring selfless amounts of time and energy into raising funds to preserve writers' abodes are missing the point and I'm pretty sure they're not.
Does it matter – to history, to modern day writers, to literature in general – where a writer composed the best work of a career? And if it does, why? For inspiration? Motivation? To allow a deeper understanding of the writer's frames of reference? For the sheer good will toward literary arts generated by a well-preserved, revered site? These are all good and noble reasons, of course. I'm just not sure shrines are the right idea when it comes to promoting a healthy appreciation of literature among the general population.
Among writers, is place paramount? What do you think?
Some writers will tell you that where one works is incidental; that the place that matters, the one you need to be in, in order to write well, is the one you create in your own head. Others insist that one's writing space is all, that without their physical surroundings, the work of some of history's best writers would have gone nowhere.
There's a distinction I suppose between where one writes – an attic office, a corner of the basement, a shared studio away from home, on the 7:10 a.m.train, on the dining room table or edge of the bed – and the home a legendary writer has inhabited for a good chunk of their most productive writing years.
I saw Margaret Mitchell's tiny table and typewriter (always covered with a cloth when not in use) on a side wall of her extremely small apartment, when I visited Atlanta for a wedding a few years ago. It was at a time when I already had an unused bedroom in my house – a real room of my own -- to write in, but felt held back by the clutter, the proximity to my kids' antics, an older computer, a cranky radiator. Excuses, of course. Seeing Mitchell's "work space," I knew that what she was looking at when she wrote Gone With The Wind was hardly as important as the place she was at in her head.
A conversation with a noted memoirist not long after that convinced me that, while I could write anywhere, why not create inside my room (which hundreds of writers would no doubt be jealous of) a writing space that fed me? And so I did, tossing out boxes of detritus from my former work life as a public relations specialist, lining the walls with bookcases, upgrading my computer and -- closing the door. No writers will ever trek to my suburban colonial as they do to the homes of literary legends, but that's okay. It works for me. I even have a window with a nice view of my little neighborhood.
Which makes me think about where writers work as much more than a room; a writer's home is also about the rhythms of their household, the outside view, the milieu of their neighborhood, the social and cultural and historical nuances of their community and region, and the natural geography in which their particular house exists. Maybe for some, seeing where a writer sat while crafting a work you admire can translate – into inspiration, understanding, and a kinship. The creative process is still mysterious to me and the influence of place is something I don't quite understand myself. Why can I write most insightfully about my family when I am away from them? Why does being isolated for a writing retreat help coax essays with pages and pages of dialogue and a cache of characters?
I'm interested in seeing where writers lived, not so much because I think I'll learn some important insight that will make me a better writer, but simply because it's fascinating, often in a strangely ironic way, to see where anyone creates anything: The horror writer looked out on a placid farming vista. The author of romantic sagas had a cemetery out their back gate. The science fiction writer refused to move up from legal pads to an electric typewriter. The author of children's' books about animals barred pets from her writing nook.
But I'm equally entranced by visiting historic houses of the non-literary. The inventor of the telegraph machine which enabled Morse Code transmissions? His house revealed no more technological advances than any other house of the times, yet one has to wonder if perhaps the self-sufficient, closed world of his family's enclave, encompassing house, farm, and factory, fueled his desire to devise a way to move at least messages beyond the fences that bordered their hundreds of acres?
Do I think I'll be a better writer from walking the same floorboards as Twain or Wharton? No more than an amateur musician thinks they'll hit gold because they saw Graceland. But I still want to walk that floor, touch that desk, look out that window. And I can't precisely say why.
Still, it it hadn't landed in the pages of the New York Times, I probably wouldn't notice if the houses of some of America's most revered literary artists were, one by one, foreclosed, sold, turned into condos, or a pricey rehab center (all possibilities having been mentioned). Perhaps I should be embarrassed about that, but I also don't think I'm alone; unless one is a huge fan of a particular writer, the location, even the continued existence of their home, much less whether it's open for visitors, is probably unknown to you. And while I'd rather see these sites remain open, I'll probably be more likely, with my very limited funds earmarked for literary pursuits, to buy another book or book myself at another writing conference, rather than donate to the cause. Do I hope some deep-pocketed foundation or institution or individual more reverential or civic-minded than I saves these houses? You bet.
But I do wonder: Would all the time, energy, money and effort that would have to be poured into such a feat, do just slightly more good if it were targeted at getting people – not just writers – to read the works that were once written there?