Wednesday, September 14, 2016

In the Garret, I ramble sometimes

My favorite image of the struggling artist in the proverbial garret is of the young Christian (played by Ewan McGregor) of Moulin Rouge, with that dramatic, sweeping view of Paris from his tiny room in which he wrote feverishly and scripted the grand tragedy of his life. The garret of my imagination draws from a small litho-print in my Hyderabad University office, a stylized view from (what must be) a writer's window, where books turn into buildings and line the roads with their hardbound spines. It reminds me of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala rendering of A Room with a View, some mythical space in Rome, or maybe southern France, where one had no responsibility other than to be creative (whatever that means).

And now here I am, in my own garret--not  quite so impoverished, not quite so struggling (well, writers and academics always struggle), and--need I say it--not quite so lost in love! But it certainly fits the definition of garret, the top floor or attic space of a house (which, the online dictionary tells me, is usually "dismal" and "unfinished"). My charming two-room apartment, sloping ceiling and all, is indeed in the top floor of a late nineteenth century historic home in the township of Somerville--one of the earliest established towns in New England. My gracious landlady tells me that she cannot undertake any renovations to the exterior of the house without permission from the local Historic Council. There are sepia-tinted photographs of old Cambridge on the walls, and a fire escape (modernist addition!) that could double up as a surreptitious entry for a teenager looking to sneak into the house after curfew.

Like most attic apartments, it is hot in the summer, and I suspect, it will be drafty in the winter, but it affords me a nice view of the tree-lined sidewalk and strains of Sunday song from the Haitian church at the end of the street. I am careful not to tread to heavily on the creaking floorboards, and shoo away the aroma of Indian spices from my occasional cooking, hoping they will lose their pungency as they waft down the stairs.

Anyway, so here I am, in my comfortable garret, and I think about all those writers and thinkers and the spaces they worked in, those feverish hours bent over paper, their pens scratching away furiously or fingers flying across keyboards.  Shakespeare, rumor has it, wrote primarily in taverns, so that he could save on candles and firewood. We know of at least one contemporary bestselling author who produced her work in cafes. Others have created their own retreats, within their homes or outside, where they go to get away from the intrusions of the material world and listen to their own words. You can look at some of them here

There is so much emphasis on the setting for creative work. You have to have just the right kind of room, the right kind of desk, writing implements...and in the absence of this, you work yourself into a list of excuses until, one day, you find yourself in that space, in that setting... and are left with no option but to hunker down and work. Speaking for myself, I had long given up waiting for that perfect setting. Surrounded as I am by a no-nonsense family that refuses to indulge my excuses, responding instead with: "If you really wanted to write you would do it--anywhere," or "You're just afraid to commit yourself to the task--so you keep finding ways to not begin." You get the drift. Somewhat less eloquent that the inimitable Hemingway, who is supposed to have said: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

The best advice I ever got in terms of writing came from one of those same no-nonsense members of my family. "Just sit down and do it, ma," she said. "Don't go to bed unless you've written your 400 words for the day." And that's the only way I've been able to get anything done. You just sit there and force your mind to yield the words--one at a time. Some days are better than others, and my words spill over each other and somehow make meaning, and I'm not watching the word count. Other days I type, re-type, delete, move chunks of text here and there and then wipe the screen clean, and then begin all over again, all the while feeling like those 400 words are a mountain I am just never going to scale.

Of course, there's writing and there's writing. With academic work, it is the thinking that takes a long time and by the time I'm ready to write the words come fairly easily. But with the other kind of writing--the so-called creative kind--the thoughts are there but they lack form and structure and it is the words that give them that. Finding those kinds of words is hard.

It does feel a bit like bleeding. Invisibly.

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