By Maureen Morehead, Spalding MFA Poetry Faculty
For twenty years I have written in the first floor family room of my house. I have an office on the second. It’s a spacious room with manila-colored walls, a vaulted ceiling, a large palladium window, an antique desk, a trestle table with baskets and writing magazines, a magnifying mirror I use for putting on makeup, two red chairs, a filing cabinet, a printer, and a black three-drawer bow-front dresser in which I store paper and envelopes, folders, paper clips, staples, rubber bands—the stuff of a writer.
I like the room, but even though I could sit at the desk and look out at a full red maple whose buds are already visible this cold, snowy March afternoon, I do not write in this room. It’s too quiet. So I keep the ironing board set up in a corner, and I visit my office each morning when I iron a shirt for my husband to wear to work.
In the family room, where I write on one of two sofas with my Macbook charged, a fleece blanket over my legs and under the computer, I can sit for hours, lost in revision. The room temperature is consistent year round. I keep the thermostat down in winter and up in summer and often have no use for it in spring or fall. The room has a fireplace with a white wooden surround and mantle fastened onto a chimney that looks like salvaged old brick, but it’s not. Since I had a screen placed over the smoke stack, I no longer hear trapped birds fluttering in the darkness of the chimney, which was the one noise that made writing impossible. An impressionistic painting of a basket of apples I’ve had for forty years sits atop the mantle. On the wall with three floor-to-ceiling windows and a glass-paned door is a print of a painting of Andrew Wyeth’s “Writing Chair.” I’ve looked at it many times and written about it, imagining the Windsor chair with tray extended from one arm and a green jacket tossed over the other, to be mine. For some reason, I think the room with its thick walls and high window and that extraordinary chair could be another place I’d write. It is, in fact, the only hint in the room, besides me sitting for hours on the sofa with blanket and laptop (and I could be playing computer games), that this room has anything to do with writing.
When I was young, I romanticized poets and their writing spaces. Poets were mysterious beings who loved solitude and had an edge on wisdom. Their bedrooms had books in every corner, three or four on the bedside table beside elaborate iron beds. Poets wore clothing you might buy at Anthropologie today, bohemian-looking dresses, pretty fabrics, long skirts and boots, hoop earrings, multiple bracelets clicking on their arms as they walked. When I visited Emily Dickinson’s home a couple of years ago, her writing room was spacious but spare. The room with its small bed, three windows, two overlooking the road at the side of the house, a wooden floor, a dresser, and a tiny square writing desk is where she wrote her poems. Someone had placed on the bed a photocopied example of one of her fascicles, which was to me the most astonishing thing in the room. Sixteen pages of poems in Emily’s handwriting, arranged and sewn together by the poet herself, caused me to whisper a silent thank you to her sister Lavinia for saving the poetry. Emily’s famous white everyday dress had been fitted onto a mannequin and placed at the top of a stairway in a plexiglass box just outside Emily’s room.
If you were to analyze the room in which I write, I wonder what you’d make of the bird paraphernalia, the collection of colorful pottery, and other miscellany I’ve gathered there. On either side of the fireplace are large bookcases, sans books (but one). The shelves hold, instead, carved wooden birds, a walnut pintail and a mahogany mallard, bought at a street fair in Ann Arbor; two sharp-beaked boxes; a small Louisville Stoneware ceramic bird house I gave to my father one Christmas and he gave back to me the next; and two painted handmade houses, a small white church with a green roof and a large red barn with steeples, two curved doors, suggesting Churchill Downs and that it should be miniature horses, not birds, who’d nest there. Also on the shelves are old Ball jars, a pink one and the more familiar aqua, both with bubbles in the glass indicating their age, and several pieces of local Bybee pottery, three bowls, two pitchers, a casserole dish, and a cookie jar. I have a landline, so on one of the shelves is a telephone plugged into the wall, and on another, three yoga DVD’s, one about wolves in Yellowstone, and The Sibley Guide to Birds.
Elsewhere in the room: lamps, too few of them, tables, glass doors opening to the living room, an abstract floral dhurrie, a heavy, black mirror positioned to reflect the trees through the windows, two prints of trees photographed in Bernheim Forest, and a television, small by today’s standards, that is off now, but is usually on because I don’t need or want silence as I write. The furnace just came on, ice dropped into the bucket in the freezer, and something clicked inside a wall. If it weren’t cold and the door were open to the outside, I’d hear a wind-chime because I can see the few remaining leaves on oak trees in the narrow woods behind my house fluttering as if about to take wing, and I can see the golden tops of cedars bending, snow dropping from their upper branches and melting off the iron furniture beyond the three windows I am facing now.
In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard describes composing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek facing a window shade so she wouldn’t have to look at a roof and parking lot outside Hollins Library. She had observed Tinker Creek as if through a magnifying glass, taken copious notes, and she didn’t need to be in sight of it to write about it. I don’t find anything about this room or what I see in it or from it distracting, though I’ve stood at the windows so many times, I have memorized what I might see should I look out now. Early this morning, six deer poked their noses into the snow under the bird feeder, scavenging for seed kicked to the ground by the squirrels who’ve figured out how to get up there. Cardinals, male and female, doves, titmice, sparrows, wrens, and blackbirds don’t seem too bothered by the squirrels; there’s cooperation among them as they dig and peck at the ground or wait their turn at the feeder. Yesterday, however, I watched a young male deer with knobs where his antlers will be, kick at his sister as she approached him, expecting him to share the seed he was pecking, and the blackbirds attempted, to no avail, to scare the yellow-bellied sapsuckers, downy, and pileated woodpeckers away from their suet feeder. Raucous as bluejays are blackbirds, but not as effective.
Since it is winter, I can watch the sun rise through cross-hatched tree branches when I look toward the east. I’ve written its colors almost as many times as I’ve seen them. This morning’s sunrise began with deep-rose, slipped into burnt orange, then shimmering pink to bands of purple, rafters of lavender, gray-blue, yellow-blue, a tinge of green, strands of light moving in unison with the movement of the earth and the steadfastness of the sun. Inviolable.
A woman came to interview me a couple of years ago and wanted to see where I write. I don’t know what she expected, but I think she was disappointed. I do have a designated room, I told her, with a desk and a chair facing a red maple tree and, in summer, a cottage garden of day lilies and roses, iris, Russian sage, black-eyed Susans, and purple coneflowers I can see from the window in that room. I also have a wall of bookcases and books in the living room and I’ve taken over the bookcases in my son’s room, considering he’s living in California and no longer needs them, but I don’t write with books around me. I don’t write anymore with a yellow pad and pencil or at 3 o’clock in the morning before I take my shower, dress and drive to work. I can write just about anywhere, though: a classroom of seventh graders, an airplane, the waiting room at Sam Autos, but ordinarily I write in a family room without a family but with a television tuned to CNN, sometimes to gory detective shows, lots of good vs. evil where the good usually wins, and I always have a woods of old growth trees just outside to shield me, and a small herd of deer to keep me company.
Originally published March 7, 2015
Morehead has published five books of poetry: In a Yellow Room, Our Brothers’ War, A Sense of Time Left, The Melancholy Teacher, and Late August Blues: The Daylily Poems. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, The California Quarterly and other literary journals. She served as Kentucky Poet Laureate for 2011–2012 and has won fellowships for her poetry from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She earned a PhD in English with a creative writing thesis from the University of Louisville.