I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train. The walls were stucco, and a color rather like tobacco-spit. Everywhere, in the bathroom too, there were prints or Roman ruins freckled brown with age. The single window looked out on a fire escape. Even so, my sprits heightened whenever I felt in my pocket the key to this apartment; with all its gloom, it still was a place of my own, the first, and my books were there, and jars of pencils to sharpen, everything I needed, so I felt, to become the writer I wanted to be.
New York, a writer…two of my major interests, so of course I’ll keep reading. But also, notice the fact that we have a narrator with perspective on the story and extraordinary perception (“red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train”) and anyone would have to see that this is a voice to trust and follow.
It was instructive not only to reread some of the passages of these beloved books, but also to type them out. That’s the way to really take some time to examine what the writer is doing—why a comma there, why this word instead of that, why such-and-such phrasing.
When I was at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference one summer, workshop leader Tim O’Brien made us copy by hand three pages of one of Joseph Conrad’s novels (not Heart of Darkness, but I can’t remember which). I remember being very bitter about what a waste of time it was…except that it wasn’t. I could see the writing in a way that I hadn’t before.
Handwriting is probably better than typing on a computer. See for yourself: take one of your favorite books off the shelf, and start writing or typing. It’s amazing to see how things are pieced together—and to think that fingers just like yours created magic like that.
1 = The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
2 = To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
3 = The Spy Who Came Into the Cold by John LeCarre
4 = The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
5 = Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote