I’ve been reading a wonderful book which is actually a collection of essays: A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art, edited by Emily Griffin.
I was going to wait until I was finished and do a book review, but each essay is such a gem that I’ve decided to write a brief reflection on individual entries that are touching my soul. I’m going to begin with John Leax’s essay, “Within Infinite Purposes: On Writing and Place.”
Before you say, “Oh, no, another essay on ‘place’” you might want to know that Leax isn’t talking here as much about the sense of place that literature evokes as the place the author needs in order to create art.
I’ve been looking for that place for many years. My longing for a place to write is what takes me to Seagrove Beach, Florida, every November for a month of solitary writing. And it’s what’s been driving me to find a different house in a place that feeds my soul. (We’re moving 4 weeks from today to this house in Harbor Town, on the Mississippi River, where I can see sunsets from our porch or stroll a couple of blocks to the river’s edge.) And in that house, my husband will have his “man den” (complete with desk, computer, printer, flat screen TV, leather chair, and filing cabinets) and I will finally have A ROOM OF MY OWN.
Yes! My room has a wall of built-in book shelves, two windows looking into a small yard (no distractions but plenty of light), and room for my desk, filing cabinets, and a reading chair. (Have to take care of the body.)
So what does all this have to do with Leax’s essay? Leax writes in a small studio behind his home. It’s a cabin he built with hand tools in the corner of his quarter-acre yard that’s farthest from his house. His description of the simple interior of the cabin reminded me of Larry Brown’s writing cabin, “The Shack,” which I visited just outside Oxford, Mississippi a couple of years ago. (Scroll down to the second half of that blog post to read about it. That's me leaning against Brown's shack, overlooking a pond, surrounded by tall trees.)
Leax says of his writing place: “There’s no room for anyone else.”
I’ve shared an office with my sweet husband for the past sixteen years (in 3 different houses) and I just can’t write when someone else is in the room or even might come into the room, so I was excited to read Leax’s description of his space. But then he addresses another aspect of our situations: privilege vs. need:
“As I sit in my studio, I often forget that I am a privileged man. I need to remember that Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitzen wrote under duress in a prison camp. Keats wrote in the anguish of ill health and poverty.”
And yes we will, we can, we must write wherever we are. I know this. But when there's the opportunity to find a better writing place, Leax says:
“Virginia Woolf’s classic A Room of One’s Own is nothing less than an exposition of how a person without a place is silenced.”
Yes. That’s how I’ve felt—silenced. And it’s about more than our writing space. Leax continues:
“When Woolf asked, ‘What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?’ she was, of course, addressing the topic of women and fiction. It would be disingenuous of me to hijack her text for my own purposes, but I am willing to risk it, for her conclusion, ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own,’ has import beyond the silencing of women. Her conclusion acknowledges the truth of what is necessary for any writer. Without a belief that one dwells in an authority-granting place, that one is empowered to speak, neither man nor woman can write.”
An authority-granting place. Much can be said about that. It’s not just about physical place, but also about having a place in the literary tradition. I don’t know if I will ever get to that place or not, but I am doing what I can to create a space in my own home that will feed my art. Again, from Leax's essay:
“Home, however, can be narrow and stultifying. Often it cannot meet the needs of the restless, intelligent, and creative.”
The needs of the restless. I’m hoping that my new space in our house on the river will help me find my place in the literary tradition. But Leax says that “one’s place within the created order and within a community… must be both granted and chosen. Fortunately, we have come to understand the literary tradition enlarged to include Virginia Woolf, but her point remains. To be placeless is to be silenced.”