Tour of the Artists’ Home

Remove before entering shower.

Remove before entering shower.

One recent morning as I was second-guessing a paragraph for an article I was about to turn in, I stepped into the shower, and my glasses fogged up. ‘Good grief,’ I thought to myself as I dropped my glasses into the bathroom sink where it was relatively drier, ‘I’m turning into one of those absent-minded professor dads from the Disney movies.’

Later, as I was sweeping my bedroom for what I’m pretty sure was the first time this year, I thought, ‘I’d better hurry up and write something brilliant to excuse my failings in ordinary life.’ My mind wandered to the future, imagining the docent as she led a group through one of those writers’ homes tours.

“Of course,” she would say, “The house is not entirely authentic to what you would have seen if you had visited here in her lifetime. We had to make several major repairs to keep it standing and meet current safety standards. Gemma’s approach to home-ownership was apparently one of,” here she would chuckle, “deferred maintenance.”

The group would titter politely as the docent continued, “This room, which is now preserved as her bedroom, once held all of her books, until she ran out of space and moved the bookcases to the basement, which was actually larger and drier. When the bookcases were removed, it was discovered that one whole wall had molded behind them. Later, when the attic was finished to make a small secondary library, they discovered that sunlight was visible through holes in the roof. The images of pinhole light beams in the narrator’s poem in her third novel is thought to reference that experience.”

Halldor Laxness' House

Halldor Laxness’ House

The group will pause pensively, searching the walls for signs of mold and wishing they too had the single-minded literary focus to not notice their house crumbling around them before following the docent from the room. In the kitchen she leans against the pristine counter and relates another story. “When the author and her husband bought this house, the only one they would ever be able to afford, the kitchen was in complete disrepair. It is rumored that when the realtor started to talk about the room’s potential, Gemma interrupted, saying, ‘Oh, I don’t use this room.’”

As the tour group laughed appreciatively and headed downstairs to the gift shop where the laundry used to be, I remembered Geraldine Brooks. At the Iceland Writers Retreat she said the best thing about having been a journalist before a novelist was that it removed the preciousness from writing. She used the metaphor of the stone walls that litter New England, saying that you must stack stones every day, even if they don’t lay right, even if you know you’ll have to pull them down and try different ones tomorrow. You take the time and you do the work.

Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks

I thought of Geraldine Brooks laying stones in the walls of her novels every day from the time the kids leave for school until the bus drops them off in the afternoon. I remembered her speaking of historical research and the Martha’s Vineyard PTA with equal concentration in perfectly crafted, highly visual sentences. I’m pretty sure she sweeps her bedroom more than annually, and remembers to take off her glasses before entering the shower, because those are stones, too. Then I loaded the dishwasher and turned on the laptop.


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