I am often asked the question that every writer is asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" Or if the questioner wants to sound more literary, "Where do you find inspiration?" I am never annoyed at the question, because I want to know the answer, too. After years of studying the subject, I have come to the conclusion that it's a kind of magic.
As a matter of fact, writing and magic have so much in common that it surprises me writers were not commonly burned at the stake for witchcraft. There was Giordano Bruno, poet and philosopher, and William Tyndale, translator of the Bible. Although it was their supposed heresy that got them into trouble, not the writing per se. I don't believe writing itself ever was considered to be a sign of witchcraft, but I don't know why.
Think about it. You make these marks on paper, and when another person looks at them, they imagine pretty much the same thing you imagined when you made the marks. It's like telepathy, like mind-reading. You write something as simple as "the cat sat on the mat," and it's like you're the greatest mentalist who ever lived. No, you're better. Because as long as that bit of stone tablet, vellum or paper exists, the image that you held in your mind exists. You exist. Some bit of you is as immortal as what you've written. Even if it's a grocery list.
But where does one find the magic of great writing? Are writers drawn to special, inspirational places? Places where there are ley lines or something? Is all Brooklyn on a ley line? This question logically leads me to the intrigue of writers' homes. The actual places they have written. The houses of writers do seem to be magical. Especially when they are made into museums: preserved, institutionalized, every pen the writer ever used assiduously collected, every plate the writer ate off of, every shoe or shaving brush. Maybe. Whatever it is, we seek it. We seek to find the magic.
I'm no different. Like most people, I have certain geeky streaks. I am a Cajun music geek, for instance. An X-Files geek, a bookmark geek (yes, I collect them). But I am perhaps at my geekiest when contemplating the houses of other writers. I am enchanted by the places where famous writers wrote, and were inspired.
I admit to literary pilgrimages. Many of them, over the years; most before I gave a thought to writing seriously (I was a lawyer before I was a writer, and a reader before I was anything at all).
Some people stumble upon the house museums of famous writers. I never stumble upon them. I seek them out, and am geeky about them. I pepper my long-suffering husband, and anyone else who will listen, with little factoids about the writer's life.
I've been to some of the biggies -- at Haworth, the Brontë's home, I wandered the moors as they did, but the signposts are in Japanese as well as English now -- young Japanese girls are cultish over the Brontës, apparently. I swooned with them over the sofa (black, appropriately) on which Emily died.
In Dublin, I took the James Joyce tours, walked in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom, even indulged in a James Joyce pub crawl. But there was nothing so startling and oddly inspirational as coming upon the man himself, or at least a pretty darn lifelike (and life-size) bronze statue of him as I turned a corner onto Earl Street, looking to buy an Irish sweater. There is no real house museum for Joyce, but I visited the Martello tower in Bray where he lived briefly, and where the first scene of Ulysses is set. The building that houses the James Joyce Centre is only tangentially connected to him through a dance academy that was run there by a Professor Maginni, who appears a few times in Ulysses in a silk hat and lavender trousers.
At the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, I coveted the camper John Steinbeck named Rocinante, which carried him and his standard Poodle, Charley, across America. It smelled wonderfully of leather and dust and old machine. It would give anyone inspiration. Salinas and Monterey would, too. Some parts of those towns are pretty unchanged from the time Steinbeck haunted them, especially the Pastures of Heaven, which still are, well, pastures. The Center is in a new building, but Steinbeck's childhood home is just down the street. I ate Crème Brulee in the restaurant there.
I am lucky to live in New England, where literary house museums grow like mushrooms after a rain. You can see a very dress that another Emily, Emily Dickinson, wore while she was penning poems, at the Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts. You can gaze out her bedroom window in the direction she gazed while she wrote. Although at the time, she looked out over farm fields, and now there is a view of houses and some newish Amherst College buildings.
At Edith Wharton's home, The Mount, in Lenox, you can check out the view from her bedroom, where she also wrote: not at a simple desk as Emily Dickinson did, but propped up luxuriously in bed, surrounded by her lapdogs. The view from her window is pretty much the same as when she wrote - Wharton's beloved gardens have been restored, with knots of formal, geometrical flower and foliage beds, even the lime walk (not actually lime trees, I learned -- 'lime' is the British equivalent of the linden tree). And you can take a ghost tour, on steamy summer nights. Wharton penned numerous ghost stories in the house, and manifestations were reported while it was a girl's school, then a dormitory for Shakespearian actors. Sadly, Shakespeare and Company has moved from the Mount, so the days when you might see Romeo and Juliet, with the real balcony as a set piece are over.
Just down the pike, as we say in New England, lies Arrowhead, Herman Melville's house in Pittsfield. He borrowed money to purchase it in 1850 (probably from his wife's wealthy family). Melville himself was a poor relation all his life, setting himself to a series of weird and scrappily paying occupations, including his work as a seaman, which inspired his greatest writing. But the 13 years he farmed and wrote at Arrowhead were his most productive, and where the bulk of Moby Dick was written. Pittsfield is about 50 miles due west of Amherst, on a parallel line, and I like to think of Emily Dickinson gazing out toward the west, while Melville gazed eastwards, of an evening, both dipping the nibs of their pens in the inkwell at the same moment.
My latest literary pilgrimage was to Rudyard Kipling's house, Naulakha. It's in Brattleboro, Vermont, of all places, and run by the British Landmark Trust. You can actually rent the entire house, so I rented it for a week last November. Kipling built it for his American wife, whose family lived just down the road. But it is far from a New England farmhouse. As you wend your way down a dirt road lined with maples, the prospect opens up to reveal the house, and you might think you were looking at a garden house in Darjeeling or Assam. Which seems appropriate, considering Kipling's years in India. I thought there must be some kind of inspiration to be gained where a Nobel prizewinner wrote. Of course, I invited all my writing buddies to the big house. And we cooked in his kitchen (where he probably never set foot), had splendid dinners in his formal dining room, played pool in his billiard room, and hunkered down by the fire in his study to write. Some of us even wrote in his bathtub. There is a little gold plaque that claims it as the same tub the great man plashed in.
I read somewhere that Stephen King once was delighted to write at a desk Charles Dickens had used, so I guess I'm not the only one. I don't know if the writing I did at Kipling's desk, or in his bathtub, was any more inspired than the writing I do in my recliner at home. But it sure felt that way. I guess for me, the answer to that perpetual question all writers are asked is that I get my inspiration, my magic, from the place I find myself in. Often, the place is just my house. But if I have to look for it, it comforts me that I can sit at the desk (or in the bathtub) of the literary greats. Where writers before me have found the magic.
Chrysler Szarlan is the author of The Hawley Book of the Dead.