A Puzzle

sarah-ruhl-100-essays-i-didnt-have-time-to-writeI’ve been reading an interesting book by playwright Sarah Ruhl titled 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas, and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Children and Theater. Great title. And great little essays, with subject matter ranging all over, as you can tell from the subtitle. In the book, Ruhl examines paintings, participles, interruptions, Andy Goldsworthy, writing as reform school, smallness, Ovid, Italo Calvino, satyrs, secrets, neologisms, privacy, bad poetry, rhyme on stage – and that’s only in Part One of a four-part, six-page Table of Contents. If you’re picturing a book better suited for flower-pressing, picture again – the book is only 218-pages long, with essays coming in at 1-3 pages.

In the first essay of the book, Ruhl says something that stopped me in my tracks: “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, in not an intrusion.”

I certainly prefer that take on things to the often-quoted line from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: ““A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  Examining those two opposing views – “life” intruding on creativity vs. “life” sustaining creativity – would have made a great essay assignment for my students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. “Think this through and tell me what conclusions you come to” I would have suggested. I suspect most students would have agreed with Woolf.

RozChast2Implied in Woolf’s quotation is the idea that 1) writers must have money and 2) the room must have a door and the door must be lockable (figuratively if not literally) against “intrusions.” Is that what we long for as writers? Or do we simply use the absence of such a room as an excuse for not writing?

Of course, the best student essay would have told me that the truth lies somewhere in the middle (oh, that was interesting, typing the phrase “the truth lies”!) and that I skewed the assignment to get interesting results; in reality, the two views are not really diametrically opposed.  As in many areas of activity, balance makes more sense or – at the least – has more appeal, is more calming and leaves us less exhausted. Our “room” as artists probably should be neither all locked against the outside world nor all porous.

What I’m trying to sort out is the question of attitudes and how an attitude can affect creativity. One attitude implies that creativity owes its life to interruptions, since what’s interrupting is life (from which all creativity springs…?) The other attitude asks, “How can I sustain my creativity if I’m constantly interrupted?” The New Yorker this week had an interesting article about a writers’ “space,” whether that space is a dedicated room of one’s own, a counter at Starbucks, or the kitchen table. [Searching the New Yorker’s archives for past articles about writing spaces, I found this brilliant report by Ben McGrath about a project called Flux Factory where architects designed three rooms for three writers to live in for 30 days.]

Reading Ruhl’s book, I lean towards letting life intrude. I know many things intrude on my creative life. I’ve not only come to terms with that, I kind of like it that way. In fact, the longer I live, the more I like it that way, and the result is I write less. But look at how Ruhl smiles in that author photo. She looks supremely satisfied. Amused. Energized. And I’ve always been worried about portraits of Virginia Woolf:


Virginia Woolf

Obviously, not a good way to judge happiness – by a photo. Bipolarity was Woolf’s demon. And Ruhl’s youthful good health could be reason enough for the smile. But I do wonder. Meanwhile, I let family, friends, good books, walks, laundry, washing dishes, random moments of daydreaming intrude all they like. Should I circle the wagons and develop some kind of writer’s space? Come to think of it, a circle of wagons is pretty porous. Well then, should I find a door with a lock on it at this late date? Maybe I should focus on writing 1-3 page essays – absolutely do-able. Or maybe I should answer the question at hand: Which is it, intrusion or sustenance, this thing called life? Intrusion and sustenance? It’s a puzzle.

15 responses to “A Puzzle

  1. Lots to think about here! For shorter things one can write on the back of envelopes anywhere, anytime. Longer things, maybe not so much, since you need to research and take notes and sustain a thought! I write short. Envelopes and post-its are my medium. And, I’ll never be rich.

  2. Great article, Julie. Thanks. I let reading the article interrupt a packet I was in the middle of for VCFA and I know the interruption will not negatively affect my response to my student. I tend to let interruptions in and usually feel it’s not a good thing. Maybe I need to accept it more. Meanwhile, I don’t have a door I can lock to work in. I’m in a loft with a ladder. Not sure how that works metaphorically but it’s the way it is.

    • Tim, I love thinking of you in a loft with a ladder! Wish I could really interrupt you, knock on your front door and have a nice cuppa tea and a long catch-up conversation. I miss you.

  3. ” At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing…” – I need to read this book. I just saw the film, Begin Again last night and loved it for this same thing, adapting the art form (music) to intrusions and road blocks. Check it out if you haven’t already, Julie.

  4. What an interesting, thought-provoking post. Writing for me is all about selective intrusion. As you say, the truth lies in the middle — we need the privacy and space to write, but where to find inspiration and fodder without life’s experiences — which don’t come your way in neat, scheduled portions, but rather “intrusions”?

    It can be frustrating when you need the door “closed” to concentrate, and part of you fears you’ll miss something valuable outside. A constant balancing act.

    Another thing that occurred to me: extroverts welcome intrusions where introverts do not. As an introvert, I am learning more about how my brain processes data differently, and it’s taken YEARS to understand that this is not necessarily a defect/disadvantage. I would venture to say that introverts have a more difficult time juggling life’s interruptions because we live in a predominantly extroverted world.

    • Jama, you raise some interesting questions yourself about our true natures as extroverts/introverts. I’ve always believed myself to be an extrovert and have been a little disconcerted to see it shifting a bit – maybe that’s why I need reminding, lately, to let life in. Or, better said, maybe, to go out into life and not wait for it to intrude.

      I want to say again how much I loved your post at Alphabet Soup this week. Szybist’s Incarnadine took the top of my head off the first time I read it, and I want to keep it out in front of me as a model of what good writing sounds like.

      • Incarnadine had the same effect on me. She writes like no one else — there are so many layers of meaning. She’s truly a deep, deep thinker. Have you seen Ron Charles’s interview with her? It was interesting how thoroughly she contemplated her answers before speaking.

  5. Hm, very interesting question. I’m going to put this book on my wish list!

  6. Think this is a great statement on a question seldom written about. Thanks

  7. Thanks, Kit.

  8. Jama, thanks for that video link. I have a busy afternoon in the garden, but later tonight I’ll put on the kettle and watch the whole thing with a nice cup of tea.

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