The house, the one I will never have, is a Queen Anne Victorian with a large wraparound porch, a Painted Lady with gingerbread trim, oddly-shaped windows, and stained glass. It features little rooms that pop up in unexpected places, many with fireplaces, wooden trims with obscure names, like spandrel, corbel, capital and onlay, at least one claw-footed bathtub and, of course, a turret, a round castle-looking structure off to one side of the house, with windows all around.
I have never been inside a house like this, so the turret of which I dream is one of pure imagination and educated guesses. With so many windows opening into such a small round space, a turret must be full of sunlight and fresh air. The mere fact of its being round in a world full of perfectly square rooms guarantees a wide arc of perspective. And the age of a house that boasts a turret must mean that generations of dreamers have sat in it, staring out of those many windows, marveling at the roundness of it all, leaving traces of their thoughts in the crown mouldings and hardwood floors. Or at least, I imagine they would.
In this turret, the one in which I am destined to write novels, is a writing desk with an antique chair. The little room the tower forms is too small and round for much other furniture, so clutter can find nothing upon which to build itself. The desk is flooded with natural light from all those white-curtained windows, and when I want inspiration, I can look out to the maple branches that nearly touch the turret, or onto the quiet street below.
The turret is a neatly self-contained space, airy, but not large; in the house, but not of it. Despite the age and creakiness of the floors, one cannot hear a sound from the household below, which exists in a state of perfect order. There are no bills stacked on the dining room table because all the bills are paid. Companies do not even bother sending them. The pantry off the quaint, if somewhat inconvenient kitchen is stocked with everything I will need to cook dinner later, including that one crucial ingredient I’ve usually forgotten. The children’s closets and dressers are full of clean, folded laundry that won’t have to be done again for a long time. The breakfast dishes are put away already. A small army of cleaning ladies comes every other day. The dust is too frightened of them to accumulate. The kids don’t have to picked up until later, and someone else is doing it, anyway. Not even the dream of success violates the sanctity of the turret; it is a locus of pure creation.
In its most extreme form, the turret even has a resident character, a stout, rosy-cheeked, bustling housekeeper whom I may as well call Mrs. Dickens, since that is exactly where I found her. She keeps everything in the orbit of the turret running smoothly and on schedule. She is majestically competent in all the areas in which I am a pitiable failure, and she is forever bringing me tea and telling me not to worry about anything downstairs. She enjoys the little snippets I read to her from the latest chapter and gives me suggestions that I never use.
Small wonder, I suppose, that I have never written a novel.
I think that many secretly creative people are haunted by their own turrets, though their fantasies may well be less baroque than mine, because the turret isn’t really a charming architectural feature of a house I will never own; rather, it is the embodiment ad absurdum of all the perfect circumstances that must be in place for one to really, seriously write (or paint or draw or compose or whatever creative work you long to do but find yourself not doing). It is that last, blessed item on the to-do list, the one that is a reward for having completed all the others. When all this is done, then I’ll have time to sit down and write.
No writing at all gets done this way. If you do not support yourself by the art you wish to practice, then your daily to-do list is dominated by tasks that have nothing to do with art for the eight to ten hours you spend at work each day. Your employer pays you in exchange for most of your waking hours, your best thinking, and your periods of greatest productivity. After work, you must shop and cook and eat, pay bills, clean house, do the laundry, get the car inspected and the dog neutered and the chimney cleaned and the forms filled in and that strange-looking mole checked out. It’s probably nothing. You would also like to spend time with your spouse, your children, your friends, your family, your community. You need to read, watch a movie, relax, update your status. When all these things are done, then you will have time to pay attention to the characters who keep whispering their motivations in your ears, the plot twists that occur to you in the shower, the little scenes that enact themselves in your head in the car when you’ve shut the radio off for a minute. Then you will write.
But that will never happen. There is no end to the forms that need to be filled out, and the outfit you are wearing now while you do that very last load of laundry is tomorrow’s pile of unwashed clothes. Dust is relentless, as are chores and deadlines. You can never get to the item on the to-do list that forever drops to the bottom. And someday, you will die, and those characters and their longings die with you, and then someone else will have to do the laundry and fill in the forms.
Waiting to enter the turret is the surest way never to write because the turret is not only an idealized, fictional work environment (where is the computer? Won’t the glare from the windows make it impossible to see the monitor? Is that cunning little writing desk and antique chair ergonomic enough to sit in and write for hours on end? Wouldn’t a small army of cleaning ladies coming three times a week be prohibitively expensive?), it is an idealized, fictional self. The woman who writes in that turret is exactly analogous to her quiet, orderly house. She is disciplined and focused, driven, yet serene. She is in the turret and of it, and its light and cleanliness and order and isolation are nothing less than the state of her soul. Even after I was old enough to realize that life was never going to place me in that Victorian dollhouse (and, admittedly, this was probably only a year or two ago), I clung to the idea of a mental turret, a turret of the spirit, a place of peace and order inside my own mind. This is, if anything, less realistic than obtaining the Painted Lady: I might win the lottery someday and buy that very house, but I’m never going to be the Writer in the Turret. An idealized, fictional self cannot write anything, so I have no choice but to write as Julie Goldberg and all therein.
The unobtainable turret is, then, not a goal, but an obstacle, a symbol that tells me that I cannot write until circumstances are perfect, until the environment is clinically safe for creativity, though what kind of creativity would it be that encountered so little resistance? What kind of story could germinate in such sterile surroundings? I place part of the blame on Virginia Woolf, who wrote in A Room of One’s Own, a book I read a number of times in my twenties, that a woman must possess a room of her own and £500 a year in order to write fiction. Careful readers will recall that the £500 she meant was not a salary, but the income earned on an inheritance, equivalent in today’s terms to a very comfortable upper-middle-class wage. A writer, in other words, could only be a woman who did not need to earn a living. Elsewhere in Woolf’s essay it is clear that children did not occupy this room of one’s own, nor the one next door to it or upstairs from it or downstairs from it.
Two children wander in and out of the room in which I am attempting to write, which is not a room of my own, but one I share with my husband, and they claim a large percentage of my £500 a year, which, in any case, I have to earn. The house itself is a decidedly unromantic bi-level ranch exactly like every other one in Rockland County, New York, a fundamentally utilitarian structure convenient for the raising of children. Architecturally, it’s a blank slate, but its rectilinear form doesn’t really allow for the cozy nook, the surprise sewing room, the bower of poetry. Instead of a writing desk and an antique chair, lately I write propped up in bed after all the evening tasks are completed, and the only antique is my ancient laptop.
A few days ago, I was seized with the idea for the essay you are now reading, but had only forty-five minutes before it was time to pick my daughter up from dance class. I found a notebook on the floor and began to sketch the concept of the turret while perched on the edge of our messily-made bed, a pile of half-sorted clean socks and underwear scattered over one side. Two half-read books are thrown near damp towels from someone’s shower. Late-afternoon sun should be flooding the room, but no one opened the drapes this morning, so a lamp on the dresser provides the insufficient light. My son wanders in to read me all the players’ names on the fifty baseball cards his gym teacher gave him this morning. The chickens are squawking madly in their coop, probably at the rats that got into their feed again. No one has told them that they are the descendants of dinosaurs and could slaughter a dozen rats without ruffling a feather. They are still afraid.
After scrawling a page and half, it occurs to me that I should probably throw together a salad for dinner before running out to get my daughter. Only ten minutes remain. Which should it be? Spend the remaining time scribbling down these ideas before they dart away like minnows? Or get a head start on dinner?
What else can the answer be? I am not the writer in the turret, the maiden in the tower, so I do both. I finish off the notes, reassured that all my thoughts are recorded, though uncertain whether I’ll be able to decipher them later, run to the kitchen, peel and slice vegetables, and hurry to the dance studio, where my daughter is already waiting outside. I am only a few minutes late.