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From the Desk... Vermont authors put themselves in the right place

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Grace Paley - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Grace Paley

Location, location, location. Okay, that’s about real estate, not literature. But plenty of authors do get attached to the spot in which they compose their novels, short stories and verse. Not to mention when, and with whom, and to which music they write. Sheffield poet Galway Kinnell goes for Vivaldi. Tunbridge novelist Jeffrey Lent grooves on the Grateful Dead. Though Burlington novelist Marc Estrin is a classical cellist, he prefers absolute quiet.

Notwithstanding their shared attraction to the local landscape, when it comes to personalizing their “writing places,” Vermont wordsmiths are all over the map. Calais author Howard Norman makes a pre-dawn exodus to his writing cabin. Grace Paley’s creative juices flow at the kitchen table, after breakfast, in longhand.

A surprising number of the writers we surveyed — Paley, Kinnell, Norman and even John Irving — have yet to make the switch to word processing. Joyce Johnson worried that converting to a computer would change her relationship to language. “I don’t want to think about computers,” she laments. “I just want to think about writing.”

Thinking too much can be deadly, though. Nothing lends itself to procrastination quite like writing — as anyone who has pulled an all-nighter for school surely knows. Ultimately, the trappings of a comfortable space — view, ambiance and tools — are secondary to the mindset required to pull off the poetry or prose.

As poet Jane Shore puts it, “It’s about finding that space inside yourself.”


GRACE PALEY

Grace Paley doesn’t keep an “office” in her part-time Vermont home. For composing stories, the former New York State Author prefers a more informal setting. “I work in the kitchen as a continuation of breakfast,” says the 79-year-old author of short-story collections The Little Disturbances of Man and Later the Same Day. “I stay in the kitchen for a while. It’s a very comfortable kitchen.”

Later she moves to her bedroom, where she keeps her Smith Corona typewriter. Given the idyllic scene beyond the windows, it’s hard to believe that Paley’s view was once almost blocked by bars. The outspoken feminist and anti-war activist was arrested in 1978 for protesting nuclear weapons. “It’s very pretty outside my window,” the Bronx native observes. “There’s a little garden, a Russian olive tree. Beyond the hill, I see Smartz Mountain in New Hampshire.”

The view inside is no less interesting. The nearest pile, Paley reports, includes a book of poems, Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. “Also The Talmud and the Internet, Serious Kissing by Barbara Selfridge, a new book by Amy Bloom called Normal People that somebody sent me, and a lot of papers.” Lying by her bed is progressive Texas columnist Jim Hightower’s newsletter, called The Lowdown, and a publication called The Non-Violent Activist, which comes from the War Resistance League.

Though Paley has so far resisted buying a computer, it sounds like she may be about to give in to the digital age.

“I am going to get a computer,” she declares, as if trying to convince herself. “There’s so much going on in the world that people are e-mailing each other about. I feel like somebody who doesn’t have a radio in the North Pole or something.”

Paley claims not to have any writing rituals, other than lingering with her work over breakfast. “My husband says I have no habits. I have flaws, but no habits,” she jokes.

Motherhood might have contributed to her flexibility — Paley has two grown children. “It probably started that way, being a mother,” she muses. It’s “the business of just taking the time when you can, grabbing at it.”


JOHN IRVING

In the world according to John Irving, the ideal writing space is an L-shaped desk with plenty of room for spreading out multiple works-in-progress. This is an important consideration for the Manchester-area author of The World According to Garp, A Prayer For Owen Meany and nine other novels. “For the past 17 years,” he points out, “I have been writing at least one screenplay concurrently with whatever novel I am working on.”

The arrangement clearly pays off: Among the photos and tchochkes that grace Irving’s office is his 1999 Oscar for the screen adaptation of Cider House Rules. His most recent novel, The Fourth Hand, was under contract with Miramax before the story came out in print.

Given the ease with which he switches between the page and the screen, Irving’s actual writing method seems surprisingly retro. He doesn’t use a computer, but writes his first drafts longhand and makes his revisions on an IBM Selectric II. But this traditional approach shouldn’t be misconstrued as ritualistic.

“There is no door on my office — I had it taken off,” clarifies Irving, who celebrated his 60th birthday in March. “There are often children of various ages running around the house and lots of activity around. I do not need peace and I don’t need quiet to be able to write. I can work on airplanes, in hotels — anywhere I am. I go every summer to an island in Canada, in Lake Huron; until recently, there was no electricity there. I can work there as well. There is nothing special to me about a work place. To me ‘writing space’ means the concentration you bring to the job.”


ALAN BROUGHTON

Retired UVM English professor Alan Broughton writes fiction and poetry in a small study in his Burlington home. “It’s very dull,” he says, sounding apologetic. “I should invent something like a yurt in my backyard, but no, I can’t do it.”

Broughton — the author of four novels, six books of poetry, and one collection of stories — cannot abide mess, either. “I get nervous when it gets cluttered,” he says of the wooden desk he scored from UVM years ago. But organizationally challenged writers take heart: Having a tidy space doesn’t necessarily make Broughton more productive. “It doesn’t mean I get everything done,” he says. “I just hide it when I can’t.”

Aside from the artwork — photos taken by his older son, drawings done by his younger one — 66-year-old Broughton doesn’t do decorations. His study offers the comfort that comes from familiarity and routine.

“I’ve never been the least bit tempted to go to a writers’ colony or any kind of retreat or anything,” he says. “I understand how people need that and like that, but I sort of need to be surrounded by family and animals.” Broughton and his wife live with a dog and two cats.

He identifies with the English setter. “You know how some breeds of dogs scratch and scratch and turn around in circles and finally lie down?” Broughton asks. “I guess I do my own version of that. Circling around the room, pushing things around on my desk, turning on the computer. I take my time doing it.”

His surroundings may sound humdrum and ordinary, but his poetry often starts in such a setting, then turns it on edge. His poem “Ice Fisher,” featured in the recent anthology Contemporary Poetry of New England, begins with a man describing the domestic joy of building an ice-fishing shack. In the second stanza, three people drown in the frozen lake. By the end of the poem, the speaker dreams he is trapped beneath the ice, looking up and seeing himself staring back.

Broughton suggests that his writing process is dreamlike as well. His handwriting is often so messy he can barely read it. “It’s like almost wanting not to see what I’ve written,” he says. “Our mind does the same thing in protecting us from our dreams, allowing us to see them for a minute, and then erasing them as quickly as it can.”


HOWARD NORMAN & JANE SHORE

Talk to novelist Howard Norman and poet Jane Shore about where and how they write and you’re left with the image of a compatible husband-and-wife dichotomy, a literary yin and yang. The creative couple and their 14-year-old daughter, Emma, split their time between Washington, D.C., and East Calais.

Norman, the author of a collection of short stories and four novels, including National Book Award nominees Northern Lights and The Bird Artist, sets his prose in Canada — the home he adopted after dropping out of high school and striking out on his own.

Shore, whose most recent collections of poetry are Music Minus One and Happy Family, plays childhood memories of New Jersey against her life as a wife and mother in Vermont.

Norman writes in longhand or at a typewriter — electric for manuscript, manual for letters. He gets up early and works in intense stretches that last several weeks. Sequestered in a cabin built especially for the purpose, he thrives in his place within shouting distance of — but not within — the house. The cabin’s propane stove keeps it “warm enough so you can sit in a T-shirt and shorts in the winter,” he says.

Shore taps her poems into a laptop. She sleeps late and works as time allows, week in and week out, in a space that originally served as the 1840 farmhouse’s birthing room. “I know there are other people in the house,” she says. “I can hear Emma’s music from upstairs.” Shore’s office, which faces north, is “nice and cool,” she comments.

Norman, who worked in various borrowed spaces before his cabin was built, has fallen into a routine that kick-starts his creativity: “Getting up, walking out to the cabin — it’s not a huge melodramatic pretentious thing at all, just everything’s designed to erase the self-indulgence of writer’s block.”

Back in the days before marriage and motherhood, Shore also relied on a prewriting ritual. But after Emma was born, she learned to take her writing time when she could. “You feel at home when you’re really writing,” she says. “It’s a mental space. When I get there and I start to be able to concentrate really hard, it’s as familiar as a room is.”


MARC ESTRIN

Books are everywhere in Marc Estrin’s house in Burlington’s Old North End. Smallish-looking on the claret-colored exterior, the inside feels spacious; that’s because the living room, dining room and kitchen are simply one big room, and around its periphery are bookshelves. Extra volumes — the ones in use — are piled here and there.

“I live in the middle of a very active library,” Estrin confirms. “Often, when I’m stuck, I’ll take a walk around the room. Sometimes I’ll actually consult something, but it’s just having these old, thoughtful friends who can inspire me.” The entire room has a talismanic quality for Estrin, who finished his imaginative first novel, Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, here last year.

The sparse furnishings hug the edges of the room like agoraphobics, leaving the hardwood floor empty in the middle. To one side of this expanse, Estrin’s simple table is a perpetually cluttered peninsula bearing an orange iMac and occasionally a gray cat named Hester. “It gets more cluttered monthly when we do the Old North End Rag,” Estrin says of the neighborhood paper he edits. “Then we have to dig out back to normal clutter.”

He’s now finishing up his next book — working title: Golem’s Song — at this table. But the words first come in bed, a habit that has provoked a sleeping disorder. Bed is a mattress on the floor upstairs, accompanied by another small pile of books, papers, a water bottle, pens. “I read magazines in bed, and I tear out all the subscription cards and take notes in the spaces around the print,” Estrin reveals.

His workspace does leave home, though: “I get a lot of thinking done on the treadmill at the gym in the morning,” he explains. “I take a lot of notes — it’s an extension of my writing environment.” But health club noise doesn’t suit him: When it’s time to buckle down, he needs silence.

Estrin and his wife Donna Bister have joked about building him a writer’s cabin. “But,” he points out, “I would have to basically reproduce the house. It feels human and homey and has a lot of soul.”


GALWAY KINNELL

Galway Kinnell works at a big table made of three planks of maple doweled and glued together. The part-time Sheffield resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet cut and dried the wood himself. “With a smaller one, you couldn’t have a mess,” he explains. “When I’m very busy, it piles up. Right now it’s about one-third a mess. I’ve got some time before I have to do anything about it.”

The table is on the top floor of Kinnell’s barn, along with an Encore woodstove, a rack for firewood and a wide variety of treasures you wouldn’t expect to find in a barn in the Northeast Kingdom. Kinnell keeps a photocopier, a map of Tehran — where he once taught writing — and a collection of typewriters.

He also displays a series of posters from the New York subway called “Poetry in Motion,” of which his work was an integral part. The title of the program also describes his literary lifestyle. The Rhode Island native has lived in several countries and currently divides his time between Vermont and New York City, where he teaches at New York University.

From his perch in the barn, Kinnell’s view takes in a hayfield, New Hampshire’s White Mountains and Vermont to the south. From one of his windows, he can see a black stone table on the hillside, fashioned from a cattle pass — cars could drive over it while cows walked underneath. Kinnell snatched it up when the town disposed of it. “Sometimes when the weather’s really beautiful I go and work at the stone table,” he says.

Kinnell has a way of making his surroundings poetic — that outdoor table is the subject of a poem he has just faxed to Poetry magazine. No e-mailing, though. Although the 75-year-old poet does have a computer, he writes with a fountain pen and types his poems on a Remington. “I don’t do Internet myself,” he says sheepishly, “if that’s the verb.”

Kinnell is picky when it comes to music. He prefers classical — something from that “100-year miraculous period” between Vivaldi and Brahms. “Some-times,” he explains, “I feel that in order to write a poem, to finish a poem, that last difficult stanza, I need to hear a certain piece of music. I feel it will lift me and carry me through.”


JOYCE JOHNSON

Joyce Johnson has a knack for “writing on the fly” — as did her famous boyfriend Jack Kerouac. The author of the remarkable Beat memoir Minor Characters is pretty flexible about where she sets down to scribble. That didn’t stop her from selling Kerouac’s letters, however, in order to finance an addition on her Vermont house — a “hippie cabin” in Marshfield that cost her $10,000 16 years ago. The renovation lets her do most of her writing in “one great big room with a lot of windows.” When it gets too hot, she retires to the screened-in porch, surrounded by a shady garden of hostas, primroses and foxgloves.

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