Aren’t we, as writers, also torn between the ideal writing life and the one we are given? May Sarton lived in several houses in New England. When she wrote Solitude, she was living in a white farm house whose property included trees and a path down to the sea. I longed for such a house of my own in which to write without interruption. To write without disturbance. To take long walks between writing sessions and think out the tangles I had gotten myself into. To hear the roar of the storm, the thunder of the sea, and to be gloved in the white muffle of snow! Can you see where this is going?
In a recent letter from a friend, he discussed his love of May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude. This was one of the first books I read when I began to think about writing. Solitude spurred my love affair with May Sarton. In her writing she is disarmingly honest about her struggles with personal relationship, her own difficult temperament, and her love-hate relationship with isolation. She revealed to me how writing can capture (through close observation) both the suffering and wonder that exist within a person.
I share Sarton’s love of cats, her fondness for cut flowers, and for living on one’s own. But my real kinship to Sarton comes from her writing about her own anger, mood swings, and tempestuousness. Beneath her proper exterior, she was often at odds with herself and the world around her. Who among us can’t relate? So often we are encourage to put on smile, a good front, and to play along nicely with others despite what may be happening below the surface.
Clearly, I am not going spend my entire life in a house agog with nature and my creative genius. There are names for folks like this: recluse and shut-in. We all have a friend or two who drops off the map from time to time. Perhaps they are also socially awkward. When they emerge from their social hibernation, they are a little too gregarious and bright. They may or may not have a smile like Jack Nicholas did in the shining. But we long for isolation in which to write, don’t we? We dream of the perfect writing retreat to escape from the big, bad world. If only we could “get away” THEN our writing would get itself done. THEN we would leave behind the writing slump we have been in like so much snow melt off a sun-warmed roof.
May Sarton struggled with these things in her journal. How life intrudes. How despite our best efforts, sometimes we scrub the floors to avoid putting words on the page. Or perhaps, how we have put off scrubbing our floors for so long working on our writing they demand to be scrubbed. She captures a woman whose inner life is as dynamic as the changeable and tyrannical Maine coastline’s weather. For this I am grateful.
May Sarton’s writing career spans poetry, memoir, novels and even a few essays on the writing life. If you haven’t read her yet, I encourage you to do so. From Journal of a Solitude:
“When I talk about solitude I am really talking also about making space for that intense, hungry face at the window, starved cat, starved person. It is making space to be there.”