Every writer, I think, needs a space. This need not be a room, as Virginia Woolf imagined. When I was trying to fairly contribute money and labour into raising children, paying mortgages and cars, maintaining a household and a couple relationship, writing at home was not possible. I wrote poetry in hotel rooms in Kathmandu or Nairobi or Bogota. For longer pieces, or to gather my thoughts into some semblance of coherence, the only place I could write was a cabin on the Bruce Trail, which we rented from a psychiatrist, a friend and colleague from my wife’s work. I would sit at a small wooden table and look out over Georgian Bay, and go for long walks along the escarpment.
When I retired from the university, I was afraid that my writing would suffer, and perhaps even disappear. How could I nudge open a head-space in the home that was so crowded with memories of a young family, of getting lectures ready, of fussing over academic articles? Every time I looked up from a story or poem my mind would be cheerfully assaulted by thoughts of yard work, housework, meals to plan. It took an effort, and a few turbulent years, but for me writing, like water, always finds its necessary way. I now mostly write at a computer in a room that overlooks our backyard. Within the room is a bookshelf with books that I have most recently pillaged for my latest books, a large painting from Vietnam, some family pictures, a couch. Looking out the windows, I see a yard surrounded by towering, ancient, black walnut trees. When the kids were teenagers, there was a clay tennis court back there. Now, I see a green space, shrubs, grasses, semi-feral flowers.
What both the cabin and this room have in common is the opportunity to lift my eyes from the writing task at hand, to rest and re-focus, to remind myself that these words I struggle with, that I forget, that so often fail me, are not all there is. I can’t always see the view directly—the spruce tree off our deck has grown so big that it partly obscures (or enriches) the view—but I know what’s there. I can get up and look out another window, or go downstairs (my main exercise!) and walk outside. I can talk to the chickens. I can be in a world greater than the word-nets I use to grasp it. At the cabin there were loons, mergansers, waves, crumbling cliffs, rocky beaches, and clusters of spruce and poplar; at my home in Kitchener, that mind-calming role is played by cardinals, forsythia, juniper, grasses, robins, crows, and, more recently, a small flock of chickens.
Photos courtesy of David Waltner-Toews.