Writing at Home

Tonight I am at home. Also in my home are, as I can see from a random look around, a cactus, a kitten, an overdue and crooked tree, a book on human anatomy, a recently completed puzzle on top of a table with too many chairs around it, and a stack of written but unsent letters. This will all become important later. Tomorrow at the Twain House we are having a writer, Anne Trubek, come to discuss her book A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses. I am currently midway through the book (as well as, as we discussed back in September, three or four other works) and find Trubek's skepticism interesting. She harshly posits that our cultural interest in authors' homes is little more than a mundane, cloying interest in irrelevant aspects of a writer's life. Trubek says that the books are all that matter.

At first glance, and as a happy employee of The Mark Twain House, I rolled my eyes. Come on. We visit writers' homes because we want to see that they, too, were human, a part of history, and could emerge from their historical moments to create something enduring and emotional. The way we create heroes out of our writers is the same way we create heroes out of any historic figure, and although of course we can never really know a complete person once the myths are made, no one would say a person who's changed history or literature isn't worth considering. And writers have the special benefit of handing over a voice. Often it feels as though they are speaking directly into our ears, saying this is who I am, this is who I am. That's what makes reading feel magical: the brain-to-brain transfer over vast swaths of time. It's amazing, really.

On the other hand, the devil's in the details. The fact that I listed two plants and a puzzle in my earlier selection makes me sound a lot homier than I am. Now I'll tell you that the plants are all dead or near dying and that should your perception. Or what if I had told you that in my house I had a completed puzzle, a completed Rubik's cube, a huge amount of IKEA furniture, and a hand-built computer? Makes me sound like I have good spacial reasoning. But I don't. Greg built all that stuff for me. (I helped with the puzzle. Along with twelve other people.) Or I could mention in some letter that I am drinking a glass of lemonade and, a hundred years down the line, somebody might be throwing an annual lemonade-themed birthday party because that's the only drink I ever mentioned in a letter.

It's just so easy to find evidence of any trait here in the middle of the room. Lazy: unsent letters, tons of beer bottles in the recycling, unmade bed, deployed recliner. Compassionate: rescued kittens, sympathy cards, pullout couch, open digital picture of a wounded friend. Dumb: seltzer next to computer, cheap stupid novels, misspelled words, pathetic bank account and receipts for unnecessary items. Smart: books and diplomas and whatnot. Socializer: texts and notes and missed calls and thousands of emails. Lonely: well, I'm the only one here right now, aren't I?

The point is, our objects can never fully represent us unless we fully represent them. And that would be exhausting. I can't point to everything I have, remember everything I once had, or describe everything I want. And yet these may be the things that someone uses to create a memory or a myth about me.

Faced, as I often am, with the impulse to list things, I will try and keep in mind that it is all part of one story. A story of myself, and my life, which I cannot completely control, but which I can edit carefully before I invite the skeptics in.