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From the archives: The Writing Life

From the archives: Tools of the Trade

E.B. White photographed by Jill Krementz.

I'm still recovering from a prolonged bout of flu (and looking after Howard, who is in the thick of it now). I also have a great deal of work and neglected correspondence to catch up on as a result, so this blog must take a back seat this week. In order to keep the conversation going, I've decided to revisit some older it's Archive Week here at Myth & Moor. Today: more photos from Jill Krementz's fine book The Writer's Desk, which I first wrote about back in June, 2009. (At that time, my own writing/studio space was a room above some shops in the village Square, in a building full of other artists of various kinds.)

"I have always been jealous of artists," Jane Yolen once said. "The smell of the studio, the names of the various tools, the look of a half-finished canvas all shout of creation. What do writers have in comparison? Only the flat paper, the clacketing of the typewriter or the scrape of a pen across a yellow page. And then, when the finished piece is presented, there is a small wonder on one hand, a manuscript smudged with erasures or crossed out lines on the other. The impact of the painting is immediate, the manuscript must unfold slowly through time."

Joan Didion by Jill Krementz

John Updike photographed by Jill Krementz

Like Jane, I love artists' studios -- the paints, the tools, the dashed-off working sketches, the pungent smells of turps and clay. And yet the haunts of writers, although generally less flamboyant, have a potent kind of magic too, with their precarious stacks of books and papers, the notes Kurt Vonnegut photographed by Jill Krementzand clippings pinned to the walls, the notebooks full of barely-readable scribbles, the smells of ink, old books and half-drunk cups of tea. The fact that much of a writer's work is invisible to the eye makes these work spaces more interesting to me, not less; they are alchemical laboratories in which the lead of daily life is transmuted into the gold of words upon the page.  As John Updike once wrote, the creative artist "brings something into the world that didn't exist before, and that he does it without destroying something else. A kind of refutation of the conservation of matter. That still seems to me its central magic, its core of joy."

By photographing writers at their desks, Krementz manages to capture some vital essence of each author: Kurt Vonnegut disheavelled and barefoot, Eudora Welty elegant and correct, Jean Piaget hunched within a flood of papers, Nikki Giovanni with an exuberant flurry of notes and pictures pinned to the wall, E.B. White and Joan Didion in rooms as spare and calm as Shaker meeting halls.

Nikki Giovanni photographed by Jill KrementzAmong the many writers I've known and worked with over the years, work spaces have run the gamut -- from the spare and monastic to the crowded and museum-like, from sumptuous libraries to crumbling backyard shacks, from attic aeries to kitchen counters to tables at the local Starbucks.

In my own life, I've tended to separate my writing/editing work from visual art by having separate rooms for each -- preferably a writing office in the house and a shared art studio somewhere outside it. In Tucson for many years, for example, I shared a home office with fellow-writer Ellen Steiber (author of the utterly magical novelA Rumour of Gems) and an art studio in the Tooleshed Building near Hotel Congress with Beckie Kravetz (creator of gorgeous sculptures and masks).

These days in Devon, however, both my writing office and studio are out of the house, in a Victorian office building in the village square -- and, for the first time in almost 20 years, my Writer/Editor Self and my Artist Self are obliged to share a single room. I'm not yet sure how that's going to work out. It's a good room, big and light-filled, with a fine view over the rooftops of the village shops, and decent American-style coffee available at the bookstore/cafe across the street. But my Artist Self, messy and sprawling, complains that she's feeling a bit constrained by the organized tidiness of the quieter Writer/Editor. These two are not yet good roommates, I fear. I may have to draw a line down the middle of the room to stop their bickering....

Studio in the Square 1

Studio in the Square 2

I never really did solve the problem. I got far more writing and editing done in that particular space than drawing or painting; the two sides of me didn't live easily together. I suppose I would have resolved this eventually, but the problem was solved for me when the studio of my dreams became available the next spring. Here's a post from 2010, shortly after I moved (with the help of friends and neighbors, bless them, carrying heavy studio furniture up a steep, steep hill):

As much as I loved the creative community at 42 The Square, when the opportunity came up to rent a studio space adjacent to our back garden, I couldn't resist. So I've moved once again, which I hope will be my last move for a good long while because I love it here.  My workspace now is peaceful cabin resting on the slope of a hill, reached through a small gate in our back hedge. Directly behind it is a stream and small woodland, with a wild hill and farmers' fields beyond. Floor-to-ceiling windows make up one long wall, looking down on the village Commons below, with the moor rising in the distance. In front of the cabin, there's an overgrown garden, full of flowers, and a frog pond...paradise! Built of recycled wood, glass, and tin, the cabin is a long, rectangular space that is easily divided (by means of a large bookcase) into two separate rooms -- one for a writing office, and one for an art studio. It feels so good to have those two workspaces divided once again -- the office calm and tidy always, the studio exploding with paints and papers as I work.

It's the first time in a very long while that I've worked in a studio all my own, rather than in a shared or communal space. At 42 the Square, there were always others in and out...whereas here there's only Tilly and me. I'm finding a different kind of inspiration and working rhythm in solitude. Here, my daily conversations are with birds and sheep and honeybees, with stones in the creek and trees on the hill. It's not that it's a better way of working than the other, but rather that it seems to suit this phase of my creative life...and the needs of middle-age, not youth. Oh, my fingers are itching with all the things I want to write, draw, and paint in this quirky little cabin on the hill...

Okay then, girl. Deep breath. Begin.

Once upon a time....

Bumblehill StudioThe black and white photographs above are all from The Writer's Desk by Jill Krementz (Random House, 1997), which I highly recommend. The writers pictured here are E.B. White, Joan Didion, Kurt Vonnegut, and Nikki Giovanni. The first of the two color images depict my former studio in the village Square. The last is of my current studio.


Sorry to hear that you and you're family are still fighting off flu, Terri. I hope you all recover as soon as possible and become as fit as the proverbial fleas.

Reading your blog though, was as fascinating as ever. I work alone all day and as a result of the enforced isolation I really love the idea of being part of a 'creative community' as you once were above the shops in the village square. Though I bet there were all sorts of unseen and unforseen circumstances that made it less than the perfection it sounds. I suppose it's all part of the human condition that other people's working conditions always sound so much better than our own.

I loved working in community for many, many years, and always sought those kinds of spaces out -- I was in a big warehouse of artists' studios in Tucson, and one in the North End of Boston before that. I also loved my studio in the Square, and the daily camaraderie there, and would probably still be there quite happily if the opportunity to rent my current studio (right next door to home and the woods) hadn't suddenly come up. There were family circumstance then that made it desirable to be closer to Tilly, then a pup, could be with me more easily.

I did think I might get a little lonely -- so it came as something of a surprise to me to discover how much a more solitary workspace suits me now, at this age. (It helps, though, that our entire village is something of a creative community, so it's not really isolation, I admit.) I guess what I'm trying to say is that what we need out of a workspace can change as we age and change, and that's something I hadn't realized before.

Your village sounds wonderful. I think the 'Creatives' of Leicester, where I live, are a little more spread out over streets, areas and suburbs. Though there's a pretty lively art community here it has to be said

That's how it was in Tucson, where (in the visual art half of my life) I felt quite isolated for a time until I found space in an artist building downtown. Which was grand!

Alright, back to work for me now....

I loved reading this. We just had a rather disastrous attempt at getting a couple of young film makers to make a film about our studio. "But there's nothing interesting to film here" they said. Which to us was totally weird as it's simply packed with everything from a Ukrainian magical doll to a whole series of our own corsets in progress. Not to mention it's knee-deep in antique fabrics and prints of our own work. Oh, and the 19th century Czech Devil puppet and the piles of cushion covers waiting to be sent out and...

You get the picture.

So I was left wondering what "interesting" meant to them. I think they wanted us to be like a modern advertising company with gorgeous young things swanning around in Armani. We have gorgeous young things here too, but they are in jeans mostly.

So I spent the weekend thinking about studios and traces of work, and authenticity.

A bit self-referential, especially since Terri quoted me at the beginning of her post. (Forgive me, Terri, and get well to both you and Howard.)

Work Space

I feel like the policeman
holding up my hand, "Nothing
to see here, folks, nothing to see."
Yet this is the cauldron of my creation,
the place where all stories come from:
the magic spaghetti pot,
cornucopia that is never empty,
salt mill at the bottom of the ocean
grinding away without human intervention.
It is the hand of God, Isis, Sophia,
Pan in the woods, Loki and Coyote,
their shadows in color behind them.
Nothing to see here, folks, but some old spinner,
spider-like, cranking out poems with the silk
spilling out of her belly, her heart, her brain.
Nothing to see.

©2013 Jane Yolen

And I'm assuming that's a fairly old quote, Jane, due to the reference to typewriters rather than keyboards (what a different world!)...but wonderful nonethless, as is your poem.

Karen, I cannot, CANNOT, imagine how Baba Studio could be anything but fascinating. I certainly would have watched that film.

"But there's nothing interesting here." What a terribly rude thing to say! I'm sort of in disbelief about it-- you welcome them into your space, your creative space no less, and they then complain that it doesn't interest them!

Besides the fact that it sounds SO interesting just from the two sentences you wrote here. A Ukrainian magic doll? This has piqued my interest, just those three words alone!

I don't know why this has angered me so much. You seem to take it all in stride, too. I feel like I wouldn't have been so kind!

Oh this is so lovely and speaks in so many layers.

Oh, how I love this one! Thank you

This is exactly right and true.

Oh Karen, that's very much *their* loss. Personally, I'd jumb at the chance to prowl around Baba Studio.

Hi Terri,

I love seeing other people's working spaces!

Did you ever see the series 'Writer's Rooms' that ran in The Guardian newspaper Review supplement for a couple of years? I wonder if they ever published the collection as a book?

Get well soon, both.


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