Come with me into my new writing room, a place of my own. My sanctuary in troubled times. It’s just a corner in a bigger room with a desk a corner under a lower part of the ceiling that contains the pipes and ducts and such that keep the house alive. It is in the basement, below grade, where the windows are high up on the walls and the view is of pea stone and the base of a chain-link fence. Bits of primary colors can be seen from the playground next door where toddlers waddle around exploring what it means to be in this world. The walls of my little corner are painted a yellowy beige. My old blond wood desk clashes sharply with the paint. But it doesn’t matter. I was never one for beautiful vistas or stunning scenery to gaze upon while I write. I’ve always preferred closed and tucked in spaces. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s a way to anchor my mind as it explored the vast landscape of time and culture, gender and class.
I will sit down to write in this new room for the first time in a couple of weeks. Abby, one of the guide dogs in my novel, will sleep peacefully next to Zoe and Zephyr, my two whippets, who will be curled in their beds under the heating vent in the middle of the room. I will flip open my laptop and reread Adelaide’s 1930 letters, depicting her trials and successes as the first female trainer of guide dogs for the blind. Adelaide is the inspiration for my protagonist, a woman whose background is different but whose work with dogs is the same. Through Adelaide’s letters I become outraged at the societal norm at the time for New York debutantes to have a male chaperone wherever they go. I grow angry at how the dogs were treated from being declared public nuisances to attempts at poisoning them. I feel her satisfaction at wearing “pants and big boots” and can feel the pinch in her toes when she must go back to heels. I rub the leather of the leash she has wrapped around her body and smell the odors of dog, dirt, and hay embedded in her gloves. Adelaide takes me by the hand and helps me to understand what it’s like to be blind as she has learned what it was like to be blind through her students. I start to think with my ears, not with my eyes. I am in another world, yet I remain in my little corner of my basement, my real dogs breathing deeply beside me.
In this way, my corner is much larger than the measurable square footage. In my writing room, I can have a conversation with Frederick Douglass after his speech in Elmira, NY. I can then sit with Margaret Sanger in 1965, a year before her death, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalizes birth control. When Sanger gets too tired to speak, I can sneak into Washington DC in 2017, where a woman, let’s call her Olivia, is still marching for the right to control her reproductive choices. She is marching with her young daughter in a bright pink, hand knitted pussy hat. The woman is afraid for her daughter’s future in a land that once promised so much freedom. When my back starts to ache from the walking and standing, I can leave this world all together and hang out with a Muggle in the Gryffindor dorm. I can join the fight of good over evil. Good always wins.
Though my writing room is my space , where I prefer to be left alone, it is a vast and wondrous place. Its very air invites exploration and questioning. It is where I try to understand the motives of others to capture them for my pages. It is where my mind is open in attempt to see all sides of an individual –their strengths, their weaknesses, their consistent inconsistencies so they will be round and full as they navigate their worlds. There is not room to hate for the sake of hating for then my vast writing space grows quite small and tight, a place that is more suffocating than free. Do my characters hate? Yes. Are some of my characters unlikeable? Yes. But we all still manage to coexist despite our different practices and beliefs.
Zephyr howls in his sleep, startling out of my fictional world and Abby, Adelaide, Frederick, Olivia, and Margaret retreat. I’m left with the yellowy walls, my old desk, and my sleeping hounds, but my heart and mind are expansive and full. I have a greater understanding of some things. I can walk out into the world with some knowledge of the “other” and of that which is foreign to me. I am open to the world around me and that brings me peace.
This is our greatest capacity as writers, to imagine worlds not our own. Writers write about times not our own, places not our own, genders not our own, faiths not our own. Female writers write male characters. White writers write black characters. Gay writers right straight characters. This is what we do. Our writing spaces are crowded with the “other.” We welcome them. We talk to them, listen to them, and try to understand their points of view. We nod in agreement. We ask questions when we don’t understand. We attempt to put them all, be it black, male, gay, or Muslim, on the page. We will fail, but we will also succeed. We will become stronger because of them. We will be a better people because we will gain a little insight into someone not quite like ourselves.
I wish this ability on everyone.