Guest columnist Howard R. Wolf: A writer’s space


Published: 09-21-2023 4:01 PM

A playwright who lives in a small, renovated barn in central Vermont wrote recently to tell me how out of place she felt when given a luxury suite in Cannes for two weeks while serving as the judge at a theater festival.

“Felt as if I was trapped in a Renoir painting and longed for the shack in Maine where I wrote my first play,” she wrote.

I tried to put myself under her Riviera beach umbrella. Most writers do their best early work in cabins and cottages and retain an image of those intimate spaces as icons of inspiration.

Shakespeare’s half-timbered Tudor home was large for his lifetime (1564-1616), but cozy compared to a Palm Beach mansion.

Shakespeare’s near contemporary, the aristocratic Montaigne (1533-1592), had a tower built on his estate as a workroom and library, an enclosed space not unlike the mind as he thought of its shape.

The California poet Robinson Jeffers lifted stones out of the sea at Big Sur and built a tower as the proper place in which to write.

Eugene O’Neill lived during his apprentice years in the Peaked Hill Life Saving Station on a Provincetown dune.

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Hemingway writes about his tiny first Paris apartment on Rue Lemoine in “A Moveable Feast” — “Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about.”

My grad school friend and writer, Leonard Michaels (“City Boy”), lived in a boarding house room in Ann Arbor so small that he could warm the space in winter by lighting a candle — “a good place to begin,” he said.

What’s the connection between these places and writing? Writers need to feel in the act of writing that they are creating “a world” that possesses the only reality — an imagined world with clear outlines, not unlike the space that surrounds them.

Milan Kundera uses the word “graphomania” in his “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” to describe the need of writers in the act of composition to believe that their imagined world — a useful delusion — is the primary reality.

When the work is finished, they know that their private reality is only a room in the mind that needs to be given public exposure for critical response. Their confined space reminds them to be modest about what they claim to know.

From the time of Shakespeare’s soliloquies — the birth of the self as we know it — to the present, writers must believe in the moment of writing that an individual can post a unique version of Emily Dickinson’s “letter to the world.”

But when a “letter” is finished, writers look around and know that their words are a moment’s inspiration. This modesty helps the self-centered author to revise hardened points of view. Each act of writing is at once a commitment to one representation of reality and then, a revision of it.

The study of literature in its variety and complexity has become a threat to some apostles of the absolute who would have us pledge allegiance to their one ideological flag.

This is one reason a literary education is important in a democracy; it serves as a defense against censorship and the demonization of opposing points of view. Benjamin Franklin knew how important a free library system would be for a democratic America if and when it separated from England.

Freedom of speech means little if we can’t read, think, write, and speak freely. A writer’s room is a symbol of those four freedoms.

Howard R. Wolf is the co-author with Roger J. Porter of “The Voice Within: Reading and Writing Autobiography” and his “A Writer in the University” will appear in Trajectorythis fall. He is emeritus professor in the Department of English (SUNY-Buffalo) and a graduate of Amherst College. He lives in Amherst, New York.