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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.