The house, the one I will never have, is a Queen Anne Victorian with a deep wraparound porch, gingerbread trim, oddly-shaped windows aglow with stained glass, and at least one claw-footed bathtub. Asymmetrical rooms warmed by fireplaces emerge in surprising places. Elaborate carvings frame each doorway. And, crowning my real-estate fantasy is a turret, the fairy-tale tower of my dreams.
I have never seen a house like this from the inside, so my turret is built of imagination and deductive reasoning. With so many windows encircling a tight space, a turret must be full of sunlight and fresh air. Its defiant roundness in a world full of square rooms promises a wide arc of perspective. A house old enough to boast a turret is certain to have sheltered generations of dreamers who gazed out its many windows, leaving traces of their thoughts in the crown moldings and hardwood floors.
In its center sits an antique writing desk and chair. With no room for any other furniture, clutter can find nothing upon which to pile itself. The desk is drenched with natural light filtered through sheer white curtains. When I need inspiration, I commune with the maple branches that graze the windows on breezy days, or study the quiet street below.
Despite the creakiness of the floors, a turret-dweller cannot hear a sound from the household below. No unopened bills litter the dining room table because all the bills are paid. The pantry off the quaint, analog kitchen is stocked with everything needed to cook dinner later. The children’s closets and dresser drawers brim with clean, folded laundry. The breakfast dishes are put away. A small army of cleaning ladies comes every other day. The dust respects their fearsome power and dares not accumulate. Someone else is picking up the kids several hours from now.
Not even ambition violates the sanctity of the turret. It is a locus of pure creation.
In its most extreme version, the turret even has a resident character, a stout, rosy-cheeked, bustling housekeeper whom we may as well call Mrs. Dickens, since that’s where I found her. She keeps everything in the orbit of the turret running smoothly and ahead of schedule. Majestically competent in all the areas in which I am a pitiable failure, she is forever bringing me tea and telling me not to worry about anything downstairs. She enjoys the snippets I read to her from the latest chapter and offers me suggestions I never use.
Small wonder, given all these elaborate preconditions, that it took me over twenty years to write my first novel.
All frustrated creative people are haunted by their own turrets, though theirs may be less baroque than mine. Artistic work becomes that last, blessed item on the to-do list, the reward for having completed all the others. When all these tedious tasks are done, then I’ll finally have time to write.
Neither my writing nor yours gets done this way. Your to-do list is dominated by duties that have nothing to do with art for the eight to ten hours spent at work each day. Employers pay for most of your waking hours, your best thinking, and your periods of greatest productivity. After work, you must shop, cook, eat, pay bills, clean house, do the laundry, get the car inspected, the dog neutered, the chimney cleaned, the forms filled in, and that strange-looking mole checked out. It’s probably nothing. You would also like to spend time with your spouse, children, friends, family, community. You need to read, watch a movie, relax, update your status. When all these things are done, then you will have time to pay attention to the characters won’t stop whispering their motivations in your ears, the plot twists that occur to you in the shower, the scenes that enact themselves in your head in the car when you’ve shut the radio off for a minute. Then you will write.
That will never happen. The stack of forms that need to be filled out in a lifetime scales toward eternity, and the outfit you are wearing while you do that last load of laundry is tomorrow’s pile of unwashed clothes. Dust is relentless, as are chores and deadlines. You can never get to the item on the to-do list that forever drops to the bottom. And someday, you will die, and those characters and their longings with you, and then someone else will have to do the laundry and fill in the forms.
Waiting to enter the turret is the surest way never to write because the turret is not only an idealized, fictional writing environment (where is the computer? Won’t the glare from the windows make it impossible to see the monitor? Is that elegant writing desk ergonomic for hours of writing? Wouldn’t a small army of cleaning ladies three times a week be prohibitively expensive?). It is an idealized, fictional self. The woman who writes in that turret mirrors her orderly home. She is disciplined and focused, driven, yet serene. She is in the turret and of it, and its light and cleanliness, its order and isolation, are nothing less than the graceful state of her soul.
Even after I was old enough to realize that life was never going to place me in that Victorian dollhouse (an embarrassingly recent development), I clung to the idea of a turret of the spirit, a sanctuary of peace and order within my mind. This delusion is even less realistic than the Painted Lady. I might win the lottery and buy that gorgeous house, but I am never going to be the Writer in the Turret. An idealized, fictional self cannot write, so I have no choice but to write as Julie Goldberg and all therein.
The turret is not an objective, but an obstacle. It tells me that I cannot write until circumstances are clinically safe for creativity. But what kind of story could germinate in such a sterile environment?
I place part of the blame on Virginia Woolf, who wrote in A Room of One’s Own, a book I read repeatedly in my twenties, that a woman must possess a room of her own and £500 a year in order to write fiction. The £500 was not a salary, but the income Woolf earned on an inheritance, equivalent to a comfortable middle-class wage. A writer, Woolf believed, must not need to earn a living. Elsewhere, Woolf makes it clear that children do not occupy this room of one’s own, nor the one next door to it or upstairs or downstairs from it, or anywhere near it.
Two children wander in and out of the room in which I attempt to write, which is not a room of my own, but the bedroom I share with my husband, and they claim a large percentage of my £500 a year, which, in any case, I have to earn. The house itself is a decidedly unromantic bi-level ranch exactly like every other in my New York suburb, a utilitarian structure convenient for the raising of children. Architecturally, it’s a blank slate, but its rectilinear form doesn’t lend itself to the cozy nook, the hidden sewing room, the bower of poetry. Lacking a writing desk, lately I write propped up in bed after all the evening tasks are completed, and the only antique is my ancient laptop.
The day I am seized with the idea for the essay you are now reading, I have only forty-five minutes before it is time to pick my daughter up from dance class. I find a notebook on the floor and begin to sketch the concept of the turret while perched on the edge of our messily-made bed, a pile of half-sorted clean socks and underwear scattered over one side. A lamp on the dresser provides less light than I need. My son wanders in to read me the players’ names from the fifty baseball cards his teacher gave him.
After scrawling a page and half, it occurs to me that I should throw together a salad for dinner before running out to get my daughter. Only ten minutes remain. Should I spend the remaining time scribbling down these ideas before they dart away like minnows? Or get a head start on dinner?
I’m not the maiden in the turret, so I do both. I scrawl the last of my notes, reassured that my thoughts are recorded, though uncertain whether I’ll be able to decipher them later, rush to the kitchen, peel and slice vegetables, and hurry to the dance studio, where my daughter is already waiting outside. I am only a few minutes late.
Julie M. Goldberg is a writer, librarian, and teacher. She completed her first novel in 2013 and is working on a second. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Magnificent Nose and River, River. Julie lives in the Lower Hudson Valley with her husband and their two teenagers.