In 2007, I came to live, for a humid fall season, in the home where I am writing this now. In this home a woman, now long dead, hunched over a typewriter--at least, I always imagine Carson McCullers hunching when she wrote, because her shoulders in photos always look slightly rounded, and her body seems to curl into anything she cares most about, she loves--and here she dreamed and got up and paced around and looked at the patterns in the carpet, waiting for the words, the idea, the "illumination," as she called it, that would tell her what the story she was working on was really, in its heart, about. She worked on The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in this house, and eventually wrote:
"In the dusk the two mutes walked slowly home together. At home Singer was always talking to Antonapoulos. His hands shaped the words in a swift series of designs . . . With his thin, strong hands he told Antonapoulos all that had happened during the day."
When I first came to this house I was feeling for the shape of a story. It took me years to find and finish it--it has been published here and here--and now I've come to this house again to give thanks, and read from this story to friends and colleagues and strangers while celebrating the spirit of the woman who wrote here and later wrote many other places and could not stop writing, who wrote when she was sick and well, south or north, young and old, and then not old enough. We never live long enough to tell all of the stories we could. McCullers died at age 50, leaving her autobiography, Illuminations and Night Glare, unfinished. I write this at night, in her house, and there is no glare in the room. But if I walk over to the next, and turn on the light, McCullers' typewriter flashes behind its glass casement like a bank vault holding all the money in the world, its keys a combination, shut and locked. No help for me here, I think, and turn back toward my own keys.
I have, as I write this, a few chapters of a new story done. This was exactly the case when I came to this house in 2007, when its high-ceilinged rooms were handed over to me, as a gift, a fellowship, a borrowed address, by the Carson McCullers Center and the good people of Columbus, Georgia. I remember coming onto the porch and feeling as though I had stepped up over a bar, although now it seems more to me as if a bar was lifted, and room, space, made. I worked here on the first draft of what would become a strange, haunting story. I trusted that it would come, eventually, out of the darkness and into the light. Now that it is finished and I am here with my new tale (the bar generously lifted again and the space, however briefly, opened), I have to trust that illumination will come. Every time I start a new story, though, I worry that I will fail it. That I'll get stuck behind glass with it and won't be able to move. That I'll lose my knack.
Yes, I tell myself now, it could happen. Writing is like being lost in a dark wood and waiting for a meteor. McCullers, working on The Member of the Wedding, was confused about that novel until a fire broke out near the Brooklyn house she shared with W.H. Auden and Gypsy Rose Lee, until she ran out to see the blaze and in its flare shouted to Gypsy that she'd had a revelation and now knew what her book meant to be.
If you really loved me, I tell my friends, you would burn your house down so I could read my story in its entrails.
But not this house. This house I want to stand. For a very long time. Forever. I look to my right. There are the chapters of my new story. I don't know very much about it yet. I know there is a home with many people in it, and a backyard where strange things happen. I believe in the people, especially in the man whose heart has been broken, but I don't know what they are trying to tell me. I love my story and I know that like any lover if I twine my fingers with it I will not want to let go. Tonight, we share this space, this bed in the home of a dead woman, in a house where nobody really lives anymore, a house that is quietly passed through, with a typewriter stilled and a collection of books that is all that is left behind of a writer's imagination. It is dark and nothing is clear. Welcome.
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