Last year, on the October cusp of winter, Joan and I rented a studio space in a building not far outside of Fairbanks. Joan is a potter, and our best Saturdays are spent together here where I write using an old computer and she throws clay on her wheel. She is also a speech therapist, and I work at UAF. But our studio rule is that we do no work outside of our respective art – no paper grading or writing of reports, no planning of lessons or sessions. Though internet access is available if we so desire, we don’t. Our cell phones get poor reception. Few people know we have this space, and those who do know not to find us here. This space is for writing and pottery only.
On my desk I keep a dictionary and a thesaurus. The only books I bring are those I’ve chosen that inform whatever project I’m currently working on. Sometimes we listen to a variety of singer songwriters: Josh Ritter, Gregory Alan Isakov, Josh Rouse, Tift Merritt, Alexi Murdoch. Sometimes we just work in silence, save for the soothing hum of her wheel.
Above my desk, I have hung a string of prayer flags. I am neither Tibetan nor Buddhist, but the flags help me to think of the writing studio as a sacred space. I try to remember that, even as I write stories of infidelity, or murder, or take an irreverent tone. Even the flawed among us have souls; even the wildest must occasionally take pause to reflect. Relatedly, I keep an ornamental angel hovering from the ceiling above me. The angel is made of macramé like stitching, with a wooden face and hands and shoes. It was made in Sri Lanka, and was given me several years ago by a student at Georgia Tech. The student runs a non-profit charity now for a Christian organization. Occasionally, I see updates from her life on Facebook. I rarely correspond with her, but like a lot of former students who have friended me, I am proud of her, of what her life has become. It is good to live in an age where you can follow lives of people you have known, especially given how often Joan and I have moved.
Resting near the corner of my computer is a quote that was hand written on a small cut of colored card stock and given me by the writer Luis Alberto Urrea, no stranger to the mystical. The quote is from the mid-century journalist David Grayson: “It is never far to the unfamiliar; at any moment the wild, the eerie, the mysterious may ruffle the stagnant pools of our mediocre days.” The “ruffling of stagnant pools,” it seems to me, is at the heart of effective storytelling and writing. I return to this card often, use it as a reminder to create a ripple in the waters of all that I write.
A final item is a small tea cup sized vessel, a creation thrown, glazed and fired by my wife’s hands. When she gave it to me to keep near my desk, I asked her what I might use it for. “Whatever you wish,” she said “A shot glass,” I suggested. “If you must, “she said. The cup is mustard yellow on the inside, a light brown out. In triangles, she has placed small dots of raised slip. Sometimes when I take a break from writing to ponder my next literary move, I hold it, my wife’s creation, in my hand. It is always cool to the touch.
Tonight, at the end of our studio time together, we will share our work. Lately, she is making olive trays, experimenting with a new design using dollops of clay attached using a slip trailer decorating tool. I will read to her fresh scenes from the latest book project. It is March now, and we have made it through another Fairbanks winter. Each day, the light lingers a bit longer. Through winter we have shared this space, have shared our art. The winters here are long, and art is what we make to sustain us.
Thanks 49 Writers, for inviting me to guest blog, and thanks to everyone for reading. Happy spring!
Daryl Farmer’s first book Bicycling beyond the Divide received a Barnes and Noble Discover Award. His recent work has appeared in Grist, The Whitefish Review, The Potomac Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Fourth River. He is an assistant professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks where he teaches creative nonfiction writing. You’ll find a recent radio interview he did while he was in Chico, California at http://kchofm.podbean.com/