Steve Wasserman: “The world we carry in our heads is arguably the most important space of all.”


Back home in Berkeley

We’ve written about Steve Wasserman before – here and here and here. On Saturday, he gave the keynote address at the 17th Annual North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference at the College of the Redwoods, Del Norte, in Crescent City. The subject: “A Writer’s Space.” He’s given us permission to reprint his words on that occasion, and we’re delighted. Here they are:

Not long after I returned to California last year to take the helm of Heyday Books, a distinguished independent nonprofit press founded by the great Malcolm Margolin forty years ago in Berkeley, my hometown, I was asked to give the keynote speech at this annual conference. I found myself agreeing to do so almost too readily—so flattered was I to have been asked. Ken Letko told me the theme of the gathering was to be “A Writer’s Space.”

In the months that have elapsed since that kind invitation, I have brooded on this singular and curious formulation, seeking to understand what it might mean.

What do we think we mean when we say “a writer’s space”? Is such a space different than, say, any other citizen’s space? Is the space of a writer a physical place—the place where the writing is actually done, the den, the office, the hotel room, the bar or café, the bedroom, upon a desk or table or any available flat and stable surface?

Or is the “writer’s space” an inner region of the mind? Or is it a psychological place deep within the recesses of the heart, a storehouse of emotions containing a jumble of neurological circuitry? Is it the place, whether physical or spiritual, where the writer tries to make sense of otherwise inchoate lives? In either case, is it a zone of safety that permits the writer to be vulnerable and daring and honest so as to find meaning and order in the service of story?

Early Babylonian shopping list

Perhaps it will be useful to begin at the very dawn of writing when prehistory became history. Let’s think, for a moment, about the clay tablets that date from around 3200 B.C. on which were etched small, repetitive impressed characters that look like wedge-shape footprints that we call cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia. Along with the other ancient civilizations of the Chinese and the Maya, the Babylonians put spoken language into material form and for the first time people could store information, whether of lists of goods or taxes, and transmit it across time and space.

It would take two millennia for writing to become a carrier of narrative, of story, of epic, which arrives in the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh.

Writing was a secret code, the instrument of tax collectors and traders in the service of god-kings. Preeminently, it was the province of priests and guardians of holy texts. With the arrival of monotheism, there was a great need to record the word of God, and the many subsequent commentaries on the ethical and spiritual obligations of faithfully adhering to a set of religious precepts. This task required special places where scribes could carry out their sanctified work. Think the Caves of Qumran, some natural and some artificial, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, or later the medieval monasteries where illuminated manuscripts were painstakingly created.

First story

Illiteracy, it should be remembered, was commonplace. From the start, the creation of texts was bound up with a notion of the holy, of a place where experts—anointed by God—were tasked with making Scripture palpable. They were the translators and custodians of the ineffable and the unknowable, and they spent their lives making it possible for ordinary people to partake of the wisdom to be had from the all-seeing, all-powerful Deity from whom meaning, sustenance, and life itself was derived.

We needn’t rehearse the religious quarrels and sectarian strife that bloodied the struggle between the Age of Superstition and the Age of Enlightenment, except perhaps to note that the world was often divided—as, alas, it still sadly is—between those who insist all answers are to be found in a single book and those who believe in two, three, many books.

The point is that the notion of a repository where the writer (or religious shaman, adept, or priest) told or retold the parables and stories of God, was widely accepted. It meant that, from the start, a writer’s space was a space with a sacred aura. It was a place deemed to have special qualities—qualities that encouraged the communication of stories that in their detail and point conferred significance upon and gave importance to lives that otherwise might have seemed untethered and without meaning. The writer, by this measure, was a kind of oracle, with a special ability, by virtue of temperament and training, to pierce the veil of mystery and ignorance that was the usual lot of most people and to make sense of the past, parse the present, and even to predict the future.

A porous epidermis

This idea of the writer was powerful. It still is. By the time we enter the Romantic Age, the notion of a writer’s space has shed its religious origins without abandoning in the popular imagination the belief that writers have a special and enviable access to inner, truer worlds, often invisible to the rest of us. How to put it? That, by and large, artists generally, of which writers are a subset, are people whose epidermises, as it were, are more porous than most people’s. And thus they are more vulnerable, more open to the world around them, more alert, more perspicacious. Shelley put it well when he wrote that, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Think Virginia Woolf.

By the end of the nineteenth century, writers in their person and in their spaces are widely celebrated and revered, imbued with talents and special powers that arouse admiration bordering on worship. It is said that when Mark Twain came to London and strode down the gangplank as he disembarked from the ship that had brought him across the Atlantic, dockworkers that had never read a single word of his imperishable stories, burst into applause when the nimbus of white hair atop the head of the man in the white suit hove into view. Similarly, when Oscar Wilde was asked at the New York customs house if he had anything to declare, when he arrived in America in 1882 to deliver his lectures on aesthetics, he is said to have replied: “Only my genius.”

Applause, applause

Many writers were quickly enrolled in the service of nationalist movements of all kinds, even as many writers saw themselves as citizens in an international republic of letters, a far-flung fraternity of speakers of many diverse languages, but united in their fealty to story. Nonetheless, the space where they composed their work–their studies and offices and homes—quickly became tourist destinations, sites of pilgrimage where devoted readers could pay homage. The objects on the desk, writing instruments and inkwells, foolscap and notebooks, the arrangement of photographs and paintings on their walls, the pattern of wallpaper, the very furniture itself, and preeminently the desk and chair, favorite divan and reading sofa, lamps and carpets, all became invested with a sacredness and veneration previously reserved only for religious figures. Balzac’s home, Tolstoy’s dacha, Hemingway’s Cuban estate, are but three of many possible examples. Writers were now our secular saints.

Somehow it was thought that by entering these spaces, the key to unlocking the secret of literary creation could be had, and that by inhaling the very atmosphere which celebrated authors once breathed, one could, by a strange alchemy or osmosis, absorb the essence that animated the writer’s imagination and made possible the realization of native talent.

Our secular saint?

Somehow it was thought that by entering these spaces, the key to unlocking the secret of literary creation could be had, and that by inhaling the very atmosphere which celebrated authors once breathed, one could, by a strange alchemy or osmosis, absorb the essence that animated the writer’s imagination and made possible the realization of native talent.

This almost mystical space is not reserved to the worthy dead. Famous living authors are similarly regarded. How else to explain the palpably zealous efforts by many readers and aspiring writers to attend readings and book festivals, in order to be closer to the avatars of stories which give our lives meaning? The human desire, however understandable, to find oneself within the inner and invisible circle that surrounds celebrity, is accompanied by the conceit (or hope) that entering that space will provide a passport to a world more alive and more authentic, even wiser perhaps than the one most us know. And that somehow the admired author’s mojo will rub off. Entering a writer’s space is seen as a near-magical shortcut to the absorption of craft and insight.

Patti Smith, for one, has made such pilgrimages a central goal of her lifelong quest for ecstatic and artistic inspiration. Traveling with her sister on her first visit to Paris in the spring of 1969​, she arrived “with a handful of precious addresses of cafes and hotels” where the existentialists hung ​out and where Rimbaud and Verlaine presided over their circle of scruffy bohemians, and where Baudelaire “smoked hashish and penned the opening poems in Les fleurs du mal.” Nearly fifty years later, she recalled how “the interiors of our imaginations glowed, as we walked back and forth before these places synonymous with poets. Just to be near where they had written, sparred, and slept.”​​

I am myself not immune to such hocus-pocus. For a long time, I found myself under the spell of Susan Sontag. In a way, I still am. For decades, she was something of an Auntie Mame figure for me. We spent years haunting used bookstores in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and New York, talking for hours over ever-bizarre dishes of Chinese Hakka cuisine in a hole-in-the-wall eatery at Stockton and Broadway in San Francisco and other cities, watching Kenneth Anger flicks and the fevered stop-motion puppet masterpieces of Ladislas Starevich, which Tom Luddy would screen for us at the Pacific Film Archive, over and over until our eyeballs nearly fell out.

We met in the spring of 1974 at a dinner in Berkeley given by Robert Scheer, author of one of the first pamphlets against the Vietnam War and former editor of Ramparts, the radical slick magazine for which Susan had written in the 1960s. I especially remember a 15,000-word “Letter from Sweden,” which opened with a sentence I never forgot: “The experience of any new country is always a battle of clichés.” I was then a senior at Cal and was moonlighting as Scheer’s researcher on a book he was writing on multinational corporations and a growing phenomenon which years later would be called “globalism.”

I was to graduate in June and Scheer and I planned to go to New York to finish our work on the book. His editor at McGraw-Hill was Joyce Johnson, a former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac’s. Scheer was to bunk with his old pal, Jules Feiffer, the gifted cartoonist for The Village Voice, and I would repair, at her invitation, to Sontag’s penthouse, Jasper Johns’ former studio, located on the Upper West Side at 340 Riverside Drive.


I remember the apartment well. Flooded with sunlight, surrounded by a generous terrace overlooking the Hudson, it was spartan: hardwood floors, white walls, high ceilings; in the living room a single Eames chair, an original Andy Warhol of Chairman Mao, and in the dining room a long monk’s table made of oak with a brace of long benches on either side; in the kitchen’s cupboards a stack of plates, a few glasses, and row after row of back issues of Partisan Review; leaning against one wall of Susan’s bedroom a curious stained-glass window from Italy of a spooky Death’s Head, a kind of memento mori and, perhaps most impressive, by her bedside a 24-hour clock featuring time zones spanning the globe. Most important, of course, were the walls which bore the weight of her 8,000 books (by the time of her death thirty years later, she would possess 25,000), a library which Susan called her “personal retrieval system.”

I spent the summer nearly getting a crick in my neck from perusing the books and I remember thinking that, while I had just finished four years of college, my real education was only beginning. I discovered scores of writers I had never heard of as well as writers I distantly knew but had never read. For reasons wholly mysterious I found myself drawn to four blue-backed volumes: the Journals of Andre Gide. These, like others in Susan’s library, were filled with her lightly penciled under-linings and marginal notes. One such passage by Gide made a deep impression: “When I cease getting angry, I shall have already begun my old age.”

Know everything. And then some.

I confess: I wanted to be Susan Sontag when I grew up. Living as I did the entire summer of 1974 in her apartment, hoping that the space that was hers would be filled with molecules that would almost biologically enter my body, animate my circulatory system, awaken my brain, and spur an avid, even relentless curiosity about the world and about literature with a capital L. That space harbored the writer’s elixir that I believed could be mine if only I were to drink it all up at Chez Sontag. She was, of course, one of America’s most influential intellectuals, internationally renowned for the passionate engagement and breadth of her critical intelligence and her ceaseless efforts to promote the cause of human rights. She was, as a writer and as a citizen of the world, both a critic and a crusader.

All her life she aspired to live up to Goethe’s injunction that “you must know everything.” She wanted to devour the world. There were never enough hours in the day or night. She stole from sleep the hours she spent reading and rereading, reading and rereading. She was an insomniac omnivore, insatiable, driven, endlessly curious, obsessed collector of enthusiasms and passions. She was a paladin of seriousness. She was drawn to art that upends assumptions, challenges prejudices—turns them inside out and forces us to see the world through new eyes.

I admired the way this girl from Tucson and the San Fernando Valley and from North Hollywood High School had invented herself, had read her way through the great books in the Modern Library editions, and became a fearless Joan of Arc of the Eros of Literature.

Insurance by day, stories by night.

It was a space that I, too, wanted to inhabit.

It must be conceded, of course, that there isn’t only one writer’s space. There are many writers and we must acknowledge their many variegated spaces. Kafka sold insurance by day and wrote the stories he instructed his best friend, Max Brod, to burn upon his demise. Fortunately, Brod betrayed him.

“Why is one compelled to write?” asks Patti Smith in her new book, Devotion. “To set oneself apart, cocooned, wrapped in solitude, despite the wants of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed. All seeking an emptiness to imbue with words. The words that will penetrate virgin territory, crack unclaimed combinations, articulate the infinite.”

Every writer is different. The path to telling stories about our world is hard-won and the space that’s necessary to allow us to find our respective voices differs. The world we carry in our heads is arguably the most important space of all. It is a space whose suffocations and seductions compete for our attention. They shape the way we look at things, the way we shape the stories we tell. In the end, a writer’s space is determined by the circumstances bestowed by geography and family, gender, ethnicity, culture and class and the goddesses of serendipity and fate, and—not least—by the self-inventions, temperament, and aspirations of those of us willing to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of our own arrogance—an arrogance that inevitably constructs a space that both welcomes the world and seals us off from it, leaving us prisoners in disguise, unacknowledged victims of the necessary conceit that we are authors of our own space.

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2 Responses to “Steve Wasserman: “The world we carry in our heads is arguably the most important space of all.””

  1. Kathy Thomas Says:

    I was in the audience at the conference, a few rows away from the podium when Steve presented his keynote.

    I was thinking how much I wanted to share this with colleagues and friends.

    Thank you, Steve, for your beautiful words.

    Thank you, Cynthia Haven for the reprint! I’m sharing it as far and wide as possible!

    President, Napa Valley Writers

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    And thank you, Kathy, for checking in with us!