Where they Wrote

I have this fascination with where writers lived—it is as if seeing where they dwelt, called home, and took up a pen and paper gives remarkable insight into the words they wrote and helps me understand them a little better. I like to know the space they were inspired in—and, I’m sure, equally struggled in, fighting the demons of distraction and a blank page.

This was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s townhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village — just a sliver of a building between the two trees. According to my NYC guidebook, “rising real-estate prices inspired the construction of this house—the city’s narrowest house at just 91/2 feet wide—in 1873.” Millay was an American writer best known for her poetry–perhaps you’ve come across this sonnet before?

Sonnet XLIII

What my lips have kissed, and where, and why,

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

Under my head till morning; but the rain

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Upon the glass and listen for reply,

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain

For unremembered lads that not again

Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,

Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,

Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:

I cannot say what loves have come and gone,

I only know that summer sang in me

A little while, that in me sings no more.

The oval plaque on the brick exterior above the door reads,

The irreverent poet, who wrote “my candle burns at both ends” lived here in 1923-24 at the time she wrote the “Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” for which she won a Pulitzer Prize.

Staying in New York and the same time period, I’ll show you another literary abode—that of American author John Steinbeck famous for The Grapes of Wrath (for which he also won a Pulitzer Prize) and Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck lived at 38 Gramercy Park from 1925 to 1926 where he apparently struggled as a reporter for a New York newspaper.

Moving to Canada and the West Coast now, I’ll take you to two places Vancouver author Wayson Choy lived in on Keefer Street when his family first arrived from China. The mixed-use space on the left consists of a grocery store on the bottom and a Taoist church on top. As it was cramped, his family shortly moved to the house on the right in a more residential section of Keefer Street. The house has been dramatically fixed-up since the time he lived here, and he didn’t do his writing there, but still, visiting these sites helped me better understand his characters who grew up in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the 1930s and 40s that he describes in his book All that Matters and that I analyzed in my master’s essay. Space played such a big role in forming the characters’ friendships and sense of community.

Sneak preview of next week’s entry — I’ll invite you into one of my former writing spaces (where I wrote about said spaces above), so check back later!