My whole life, I have been trying to find the nook—that place in every room that’s in some way shielded from the rest of it. In my childhood bedroom, I had a closet that was about two feet off the ground and three feet across—a horizontal burrow in the wall. When I was too little to hoist myself up, I’d use a stool to climb up and in, sliding the door closed but for a tiny stripe of light, and I’d marvel at how different the world looked from there. I’d delight in how I could hide in plain sight, within something so ordinary and known. I’d bask in how special I’d immediately feel in there, tucked into a place that felt like a secret, a place that felt purely mine. A room within the room of my own.
When I work from coffee shops or the library, I always seek out the tables that are tucked away, slightly removed from the rest or wedged at weird, ill-fitting angles. Often, these are the tables with a bum leg, the ones that rock back and forth as I type, threatening to spill my tea. I want to feel, as I write, ensconced. I want a bit of the cozy exhilaration I experienced as a kid perched up in my closet. Freud would probably say I am trying to return to the womb, and maybe, Virginia Woolf’s insults withstanding, he would be right. Maybe I am trying to find the ultimate privacy, the ultimate safety, which is oblivion.
As readers, we negotiate the space of the text. We traverse it, page by page, but we also time travel, entering its temporality, its moment. Time spent reading is time tucked into story, our reality suspended by our characters’ realities. Some of us read to escape; others read to get closer, further inside, terrifyingly near, even, to violence, heartbreak, and loss. We enter the booth of the book, and the booth shape-shifts into the Gothic South or Victorian London or a dystopic nowhere.
What most absorbs me, as a writer, is the mediation between the truthfulness of what I am trying to portray, and the inalienable futility of this effort, of the belief that something can be captured as it is. The page marks the division between what is real, so to speak, and what is captured, transcribed, imagined. Language is the room inside the room; the place where we set up camp with our ideas and try to build from them a shelter, or an armory, depending. The book is a finite, moveable feast, but it also goes on forever—we can enter it at whim, just as I could climb up into my strange closet whenever I needed a different sense of the world. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, the text opens up to the reader as a landscape, even as it closes around her like a room.
Occasionally, back in my teaching days, I’d have a student who would tell me they wanted to write, but they didn’t much want to read. Impossible, I’d say. You cannot be a writer—a good writer—unless you commit yourself to being a reader. There may be nothing I can teach you or give you, except this one instruction: Go. And. Read. The relationship to the book, to language itself, the sense of its vitality, necessity, urgency, is what keeps us writing, even when the inspiration stops flowing, even when the rejections mount ever higher. Familiarizing yourself with the work of a diverse range of authors gives you, the writer, a broader vocabulary, a well-stamped passport, an empathy for the strange or uncomfortable, a lineage. The act of writing is not always the act of physically typing words into a keyboard, or scribbling in a notebook. Our receptive energies are as important as our expressive ones; we can be writing while we read, while we take a walk, while we fold a pile of laundry. There’s a reason gardening metaphors are so legion: it helps to think of ourselves, our minds and creativity, in terms of soil, fallow earth that must be cultivated every day. Participating in the arts is not a straightforward, transactional yield; we don’t have the benefit of relying on binaries such as “x time spent means y pages written.” On some level, we choose to read, and to write, because we have been transfixed by the Mystery, the inexorable, intangible qualities of existence that we want to explore and prismatically reflect with our words—not browbeat into submission.
It may start with a phrase, a sentence, an image. It may start with a voice in your head, a voice that isn’t your own but that could also only be yours. Agnes’s voice came to me this way. I didn’t know what she looked like, but I knew what she sounded like, what the recesses of her mind busied themselves with. Emerson said—and I’m paraphrasing again—that to create is proof of the divine, and no matter what your beliefs or unbeliefs are, there’s a point at which you must concede, as a writer, to a certain spiritual alchemy. This is the most powerful aspect of writing: from nothing, you make something. From the silence, from the abyss—you draw forth a voice, a character, a home, a marriage, a monster, an artifact, a roar, a rip in the cosmos. It did not exist before you, and it would not exist if not for you. And in doing this, you are creating a place removed from all other places in your life—your home, your job, your friends, your other obligations—that is a kind of eternal threshold, brimming with potentiality every time you visit: this is the space of the liminal.
Liminality refers to a certain between-worlds “bothness,” a crossroads where we are permitted to experience the dual weight of where we’ve been and where we’re headed. Historically an anthropological term, it bears a lot of relevance in discussions of politics, cultural paradigm shifts, sociological phenomena, the occult, and for our purposes: craft. To engage with the liminal is to blend what we know with what we don’t know, in the hope of creating something new. There is the old workshop adage to “write what you know,” which has its merits—there’s nothing wrong with being an expert on a topic, and using it as material. But if that’s where you stop, you’re missing out on the key joy of fiction, which is invention, innovation. You may keep one foot firmly planted in the realm whose every contour is familiar, but the other foot needs to be willing to wobble, to sink, to falter. You cannot expect your reader to feel the exigency of a situation if you’ve removed the risk from your own process. The best advice I ever received as a writer—and I’m sure many of you have heard it—is to write the book you’d most like to read. This is another example of liminality—you’re doing two jobs at once. You are writing the Before from the point of view of the After. You are creating, and not merely declaiming. You are a human being, a mere mortal, but you are rubbing against the divine.
There are elements of MOTHEREST that connect to my own life. I’m a mother, and I’m a daughter. I come from a family of vast complexity, like most families, one that has undergone its fair share of difficulty. I attended a liberal arts college in New England, and experienced the bewilderment of being away from home, being lonely, and struggling to fit in. I have been in love, more than once, and in lust, more times than I can probably count. I have written hundreds of letters. But there are many features of the book that don’t coincide with my life at all. The writer’s job is make it all feel “true”—not from a nonfiction, journalistic, or ethical perspective, but from a readerly perspective. When we blur the lines between what is “real” and what is imagined, when we make the truth seem strange and the strange seem familiar, we will have fully inhabited our liminality, as writers. We will have occupied the edge. We will have chosen the rickety table in the corner, apart, and yet still a part of.
I want to close with a final exhortation: be alone. Build a meaningful relationship with solitude, which is getting harder and harder to do. It’s tough to truly be alone when our very wristwatches connect us to the world, to every single person we’ve ever met as well people we’re somehow friends with but don’t know. It’s precisely for how difficult it is—to be alone—that we must prioritize it even more rigorously. Writers are human beings, and therefore social animals—but writers are also different animals. We make worlds out of nothing, out of blankness, out of silence. If we don’t give ourselves intentional silence, our wells will run dry. Creativity, it’s true, can be born out of noise, chaos, and tumult, and often is—but in order to hear ourselves, we need to practice failsafe ways to regularly block that noise out. Find your nook and guard it with your life. Go to the nook with discipline and confidence, even when you’re feeling small and tired. Let your words find their proper order and arrangement; speak your sentences out loud to hear their cadence and rhythm. In doing this, you are training yourself to be both performer and audience; you are learning the difference between self-doubt and constructive criticism. Are you impressed with how you sound? Does your paragraph seem like one you’d pause to read in an open book laying on a bookstore shelf? Does it quicken the pulse, make something creak inside of you? You’ll know it when you hear it, when the small space you’ve carved for yourself becomes limitless, and the limitlessness finds its shape on the page. To close with Baudelaire: “To be away from home and yet to feel at home anywhere; to see the world, to be at the very centre of the world, and yet to be unseen of the world…things seen [and] born again on the paper, natural and more than natural, beautiful and better than beautiful, strange and endowed with an enthusiastic life, like the soul of their creator.”