A Reading (and Writing) Room of My Own

A few months ago, someone asked me what my ideal reading space would look like.  At the time, I was in the thick of teaching my fall classes–and thicker into trudging through a bizarre and still-unidentified illness that left me, at best, feeling mired in the third day of the flu.  Hardly the best time for indulging fantasy–but, even so, the question kept popping into my head.

It’s mid-December now, the thicket of illness seems to have opened up into a field pocked with only a few low brambles and sole-sucking mud holes, and yesterday I posted my students’ semester grades.  I have just shy of a month before my spring classes begin, and, while I’ll need to start preparing for those classes soon, I’m now in that magic time when I’m free to give two, four–even eight–hours a day to reading whatever I want, just because I want to.

At the moment, like a siren song, the new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson is calling to me.  Nearby are the books that have been waiting longer in my when-you’re-free-to-read-all-day basket:  Helen Simonson’s novel The Summer Before the War, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Nahid Rachlin’s memoir Persian Girls, and John Edgar Wideman’s book about the father of Emmett Till, Writing to Save a Life.  Depending on the weather and my evolving mood, any of these might be supplanted by a mad hunger to read something by one or more old friends: Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, John Galsworthy, Theodore Dreiser, George Eliot, or Jane Austen.

Before I can fully settle into my magic reading days, I need to finish up some Christmas baking and candy-making for friends and family–and tend to some serious house-cleaning–but while I do all that, dreaming of my ideal reading (and writing) space sends a pleasant sizzle through my brain.

First, I need a house smack in the center of about an acre, all mine.  This acre would be filled with tall shade trees, sheltering smaller, flowering trees and shrubs–cherries, white dogwoods, redbuds, apples, Bradford pears, azaleas, lilacs, and forsythia.  Beyond my shady, flowering acre, there would be miles of deep forest, so that when I looked out the windows of my reading room–almost nothing but windows on three sides–the only man-made things I could see would be three or four sets of sonorous wind chimes, my hammock swing, a picnic table, and two or three Adirondack chairs with footstools for when I wanted to read, write, or just think outside.  All those windows would seal well for the colder weather, but they’d open fully to sturdy screens so that, from March through October, I could feel the breeze, smell the trees, and hear the birds and squirrels, along with my wind chimes.  I’d need a gas log fireplace along the wall where the room attaches to my house, because I intend to spend more time in this room than any other, all year long.  (Remember: I’m in the realm of the ideal here, where there’s always plenty of time to read.)

The furniture is harder to see, but I’d need one great, wide, soft chair where I could sit with my feet pulled up or lie on my back with my head on one arm and my knees crooked over the other.  I’d need a couch, too, for those times when I want to sit up with my legs stretched out–a couch, with a firm base and squashy surface that doesn’t need extra pillows for comfort, and a deep seat, so there’s room to my left and right for my cats, when they’re not sitting on the window ledges chattering at the birds.  No other furniture except a bed for my dog; a couple of side tables for books, mugs, notebooks and pens; and a small writing desk, because reading always flings me back to writing.

As for the rest, a cushiony rug on the wood floor–because my dog likes to have lots of napping options–and, for gray days and night, a couple of lamps with bright, focused light,  which I could lower to shine right on my book without bothering my eyes.  For my my desk, I’ll need another a great brighty that spills a generous corona–enough to light my spread of books and papers without crowding the inevitable cat, who shows no surprise at discovering a nap-worthy sunbeam in the midst of darkness.


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Taking Out the Lies: Work in Progress

When I was in graduate school at Vermont College, I was madly fortunate to be sitting on a couch in the lounge of Noble Hall, directly facing the amazing Grace Paley, who, for this informal talk, had chosen a small wooden chair.  I don’t remember whether it was winter or summer, whether it was 1988 or 1989.  I don’t remember who was sitting beside me, but I do remember thinking it strange that, even in our small MFA program, so few students–fewer than twenty–had come for the talk.

Of all the life-and-art altering things I read and heard during my time as a graduate student, no single phrase has resonated with me so deeply and so often as Grace Paley’s reply when another student asked her how she approached a story or a poem after getting down on paper the passionate mess of an early draft. Grace Paley said, “I try to take out the lies.  That’s it.  I take out the lies.”

This transcript of a talk given by Grace Paley around 1983 or 1984–before I knew her name–turned up in my email this afternoon in a newsletter, Work in Progress.  Most writers I know believe to some degree in serendipity, but, for me, the convergences this afternoon feel far beyond accident, however happy.  As I inch closer and closer to finishing my novel, my work in progress–which happens, in its way, to be about men making war–I find the need to go back, back, back through what I’ve already written and revised many times, hunting down and doing my best to take out the lies.  I’m trying my best to meet what Paley tells me is my responsibility as a writer, and, especially, as a woman writer:  “to  keep an eye on this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be listened to this time.”

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Sumer is Icumen In

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Those are the first two lines of the first poem I remember reading in my first English literature class in college.
It would have been fall, then, summer behind me, with more than two thousand hours of work and study to be done before I’d see another summer, but I remember taking such delight in the lines, snatching any opportunity I could to sing them out, that I could summon the speaker’s excitement even in the dark of a windy and rainy Saturday night while driving home from my job at Waldenbooks.
They’ve never been far from me since, those lines, and I caught myself singing them again this morning, feeling such a thrill in the words I might have been the 13th century poet who wrote them down.
It’s been a long, hard season, this academic year, and, in particular, this spring semester, which has been marked by illness, deaths, dire news about the financial state of the university that employs me, and work for that university that seems to pile higher every term.
But in three weeks and change this semester will be dust–maybe dust with a few specks of glittery gold left behind, but dust just the same–and I’ll be free to go my own way for a short while, which for me means my little house, warmly populated by my cats and my dog, where I will spend the hot months doing the work that pleases me most.  Writing and writing and writing.
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!

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Bertie’s Black Walnut Fudge

It’s that time of year again, so in case you missed it, here’s Bertie’s fudge recipe! (Okay, it’s mine, but I gave it to her for the sake of the story.)

Nancy Jensen - Author

Like a lot of you out there, I’ve started working on my Christmas goodies.  Today I made my first-of-the-season batch of Bertie’s Black Walnut Fudge to pack up for taking to the office tomorrow as gifts.   This is the fudge–at least it is in my imagination–that Bertie makes in Chapter Seven of The Sisters in anticipation of Alma’s Christmas visit.

Here’s the recipe!

Bertie’s Black Walnut Fudge

A Recipe by Nancy Jensen

(in honor of Chapter Seven of The Sisters)

3 T. butter (6 T total for recipe)

10 T. Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa

–Melt butter in 3 qt heavy saucepan over low heat.  Add ½ of the cocoa and stir into the melted butter.

¼ cup heavy cream

¾ cup whole milk

–Measure the cream and milk into a single cup.  Add ¼ to the butter and cocoa mixture, stir in, then add the remaining cocoa, stir, and…

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The Peculiar Madness

I’ve hit that point in writing my next novel where I know–or at least think I know–all the major beats left to come.  I can see these moments flashing through my head, turning on loop, and I get the feeling that all I have to do is keep showing up day after day at my writing desk, put down what I see, and pretty soon I’ll have it all done.

In one sense, that’s true: I have to keep showing up.  But what I forget in this rush of joy–when I can see how the rest of the story arcs to the end–is that I have to write all the connective tissue that joins those moments flashing in my head.  My goal, after all, is to create a complete, breathing, organically united world, not a slide show.

What I envision, for instance (always convinced I’m being generous in my estimates) is that a particular chapter focused on one or two of these major beats will take me four solid writing days to get down.  To get down in rough form, I’ll tell myself, but certainly to get down.  My present reality is that I’m ending what I think (I’ve lost count) is the ninth day on a chapter I thought I could draft in four, tops.  The end (for the chapter) is in sight but not yet in reach–and I don’t dare guess how many more labyrinth turns remain before I find my true way.

The trouble at this stage is always the same.  You can have a clear view from the mountaintop without having the least notion of how you’ll find your way through the forest.

For this chapter alone, I have two thick stacks of printed pages, marked up so heavily with notes I can barely make sense of them, and, in an effort not to confuse the paper piles still more, I have six MS Word Documents open on my computer at this moment, half of them with partial (but failed) drafts of the chapter (approached from completely different angles), and half mish-mashes of passages and scenes I’ve cut from other failed drafts along the way and pasted onto new pages in case I find I have need of them when the right path through the chapter at last begins to open up.

All this is happening even as I remind myself that there’s every possibility that I’m twisting round and round in this chapter because it’s wrong in every possible way–a mirage–and doesn’t belong in the book at all.

But still I turn up at my desk.  I can’t do otherwise.  I’ve come too far.  No matter how much fog rolls in day by day, I can still see clearly the story spooling out n the distance–and that makes me happy.  A peculiar madness indeed.

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