Creative spaces and small delights

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KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with author and filmmaker Jared Brock and Ross Gay, poet and professor of English at Indiana University in Bloomington about living and working in a small, confined space and how some of our greatest literary geniuses wrote in what might seem to be, less than ideal work spaces.  And later the poetry of joy and patience; how the smallest of things can provide the greatest delights.

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

 KCRW: Why are you interested in artists' workspaces? 

Jared Brock:  “I am a full time author and filmmaker and whenever my wife and I travel, we typically do three things; we eat good food, we try to visit monasteries and distilleries, and we check out the spaces of famous authors. I've always envisioned having this perfect little British writing hutch with a fire and very hobbit-like and that's never been the reality. So I like to see what it's been like for authors that have touched my life and what I found was that their spaces were very rarely ideal.”

A lot of us dream of crafting that perfect space in which we think we can work well. Why do you think that is?  

Brock: “I think there's potentially two things that I've thought about regarding this. One of them is that this could be a harkening back to the womb, or perhaps it's actually a glimpse forward to heaven. It's a place that's safe and perfect, and more importantly, conducive to the act of creation. So what it feels like to me is either a womb or a desire for something greater.

I’m thinking of Roald Dahl's writing room. It's this little nicotine stained office with a desk and a chair and a bunch of knickknacks, including a piece of his own spine, some spinal shaving but it was home for him, he spent 10 hours a day there for his whole life.”

When you visited these residences and spaces, were there any themes or was it kind of all over the place?

Brock: “The only thing that unites them all would be their uniqueness. And by that I mean, each space was so clearly that person's space. For instance, I visited Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord, Massachusetts. It's where she wrote ‘Little Women,’ one of the most moving, beautiful, timeless stories about sisterhood and family. Her desk, if you could even call it that, was just a board wrapped around a house beam in a frigid attic that they learned later had lead paint in it which led to lifelong pain and suffering for her. But that's what she wrote one of the most gorgeous stories of all time. That was 150 years ago and you can still feel the life of these sisters. You can still see the staircase where they came down to perform their plays before their mother. Every place I've visited, I'm like, ‘that is so clearly Dylan Thomas’s writing shed, or John Wesley's preachers booth.’”

What about the best seller Dan Brown, didn’t he also write in an austere and quiet spot?

Brock: “He's on my list but I haven't visited his house which is supposed to be amazing with revolving walls and all sorts of secret cool chambers and stuff. But before he made all this money, he actually wrote the outline for Da Vinci Code on an ironing board in his parents laundry closet. Talk about a not ideal place to write a blockbuster work of fiction.  It’s like JK Rowling writing her early books in a coffee shop, you just make do with what you've got where you're at. 

And that's really the definition of success when it comes to writing. As an author myself, I can't just wait for whim and I can't wait for inspiration. You just have to work. I wrote my first book in an attic in my wife's aunt's house in Marlborough, Massachusetts. There was no WiFi and that was great. I've written other books in completely different places and none of them have been ideal. It's always going to be painful, and yet hopefully something beautiful comes.”

Isn’t that the essence of creativity? As much as we're looking for that perfect space, the right set of ingredients, it's an internal practice, it's about going inside of ourselves.

Brock: “One hundred percent. The place  where that was most evident to me was when I visited William Wordsworth's house in the Lake District in England. It's called Dove Cottage, it's a centuries old, tiny stone cottage. He lived there with his sister, his wife, his sister in law, his three kids and a couple of servants. It's only five, six square feet, no hallways to go from room to room. You simply go through each room, so there's no privacy. Yet in this little space, he said; ‘we did many years of playing, living and high thinking.’ And it was during that time that he wrote the play The Prelude and his most famous poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,’ just gorgeous, gorgeous poetry written in this cramped and busy child filled space. So he clearly had something internal, that was stronger than the externality.”

How do we learn to embrace smaller spaces? It can be stressful and difficult when you have so many people crammed into a small space, so how do we reframe that perception?

Brock: “I don't think we're going to have a choice in the century to come. I think the economics of our late stage capitalist system are just going to require more people living in smaller spaces like we've done traditionally. We're already seeing a skyrocketing number of multi-generational families, which I think is really good -the grandmother effect; the kids are actually safer and the grandparents live longer if you live in a generational home. It’s going to become a necessity because of how expensive real estate is.

My wife Michelle and I lived in an Airstream for three years; a 1976, 33 foot land-yacht and that was good, bad, and ugly. There were some amazing things about that but it was also very difficult to run a home business, be a writer and creator, to have such a small space, so then quote unquote upgrading to a 600 square foot Victorian cottage feels like absolute luxury, it feels like we're living in a palace it's so wonderful. So it really is all relative. 

Henry David Thoreau, he wrote in a cabin that was about eight feet wide by 10 feet deep, and produced a work of literature that has changed my life and the lives of millions of people. Size matters, but perhaps not in the way we think, it's more about reframing our expectations.”

Ross Gay during this pandemic, a lot of people have been focusing on their gardens, why do you love your garden so much?

Ross Gay: “One of the things I like about gardens is that they’re like and I'm gonna use the wrong word, but I'll say it anyway, they're kind of distracting. I'm walking to one place in a garden and I never get there. They draw my attention in ways that I kind of like to have my attention be drawn. Gardens are places where you put things in the ground and wait, in part for the kindness of the earth.” 

Do you get any essential lessons from the garden? 

Ross: “All of the lessons but one is patience. There are a few metaphors as beautiful as the fact that contained in a seed like, a collard seed or a kale seed, there's in a seed that you could not even see if it was on the table in front of you, is food for so many and so many gathering? What a beautiful metaphor.”

I'd love for you to read something you wrote from “The Book of Delights” ? 

Ross: “This is sort of a gardening thing from an essay called ‘Joy is Such a Human Madness’  the death between us, or like this:

‘In healthy forests, which we might imagine to exist mostly above ground and be wrong in our imagining, given as the bulk of the tree, the roots are reaching through the earth below. There exists a constant communication between those roots and the mycelium where often the ill or weak or stressed are supported by the strong and surplus. 

By which I mean a tree over there needs nitrogen and a nearby tree has extra, so the hyphae so close to hyphen; the handshake of the punctuation world, the fungal ambulances, ferry it over, constantly this tree to that, that to this. And that in a tablespoon of rich fungal death, a delight, the phrase fungal death, meaning a healthy forest soil swirling with the living the dead make, are miles and miles of hyphae handshakes, who get a little sugar for their work. 

The pronoun who turned the mushrooms into people, yes, it did, evolved the people into mushrooms. Because in trying to articulate what perhaps joy is, it has occurred to me that among other things, the trees and the mushrooms have shown me this, joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and thing we love, going away. 

If we sink a spoon into that fact, into the death between us, we will find a teaming. It will look like all the books ever written. It will look like all the nerves in the body. We might call it sorrow, but we might call it a union, one that once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, might become flour and food. Might be joy.”




Andrea Brody