The Place Where I Write: Susan B. A. Somers-Willett

Since the birth of my daughter almost five years ago, the place where I write has been constructed haphazardly. I’ve scribbled on Post-It notes while breastfeeding in the rocker. I’ve spent moments propped-up late at night (the girl finally asleep) with a laptop balanced on my thigh. My husband’s first Mother’s Day gift to me was an entire day to myself to write. I spent it on the broken futon in our laundry room reading Sylvia Plath and writing down the bones of a sonnet.

When we moved into a small three-bedroom home, my husband and I had to decide who got the single office, the one where the door closed. He’s a novelist, I’m a poet, and his writing was drawing in more money and demanded more concentrated time. He got the corner room with a window looking out over the front yard; I set up a cozy space between two bookcases in the living room. There we wrote and there we fought, mostly about whose turn it was to entertain our toddler while the other typed furiously.

Three months ago, my husband told me that he was moving out. Two weeks later, he had packed, his clothes absent from the dresser and his belongings cleared. In his former office, he had arranged two old bookshelves dating back to my graduate school days and several photos and posters hung on the nails he left behind—pictures we never had the time or space to nail up, or ones that I liked but he didn’t. He hauled in boxes of my books from their storage in our scorching garage. “I hope you can use this space to write,” he said genuinely, before leaving to spend his first night in his new rental.

For a month, the office remained untouched, its door closed. I was devastated by the possibility (say it: inevitability) of our divorce, and the office made our separation more concrete. In his absence, the office was a room in which my grief had pitched its weary tent. Instead of using this space to write, I moved outside, ripping up the shrubs in our front yard with a vengeance. I dug up the bushes with stinky purple flowers and planted hibiscus bushes and bougainvillea vines. I pushed sunflower seeds into the yard with my thumbs, seeds threshed from the mammoth flowers that I had planted after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer last spring.

My husband left intact our daughter’s child-sized chair and desk on which a late-model PC whirs, heating up the entire room. He enjoyed having our daughter visit his workspace, and she could visit educational websites while he caught up on e-mails at his own desk. She was the one who brought me back into the office. “Mama, you come dance with me,” my daughter asserted as she wiggled to Dora and Boots singing the alphabet song on her computer screen. She clenched my hand with her four-year-old’s grip and tugged me across the threshold.

In that sad office, looking at the space my husband had arranged for me, I realized that this was not a space I would want to write in at all. The art was all wrong, the layout stagnant; the blackout curtains made the room a crypt instead of sanctuary. Over the course of a few weeks, I took down the posters and hung up my favorite Kandinsky reproduction. I asked my husband to remove the large steel-and-laminate techie desk he had left behind and replaced it with a small wooden desk that I had Allen-wrenched together myself. I left the bookshelves where they were (they were too heavy to move by myself anyway) and arranged my books on them. I pried his nails out of the walls and broke down my boxes.

In the room where I write this, stacks of books and papers gather on two chairs stolen from the dining room, and a dozen of my daughter’s multi-colored drawings of robots are tacked to the bulletin board on the far wall. A red velour armchair slouches in the corner where I spend most mornings reading and sipping coffee. Hilde, our spaniel-retriever mix who is afraid she’ll miss a party if she’s ever in a room without humans, curls into a furry comma on the hardwood floor. My daughter’s computer sleeps on her tiny desk. My lamp is on, my coffee cup sits in a milky ring on my cheap but sturdy desk, my laptop is hot to the touch. Tacked to the wall are drafts of several new poems with my notes scribbled in pencil. My trash can overflows with more drafts and wads of used Kleenex.

In the view through my office window, a single peach-colored hibiscus flower unfolds in the front yard like a piece of failed origami. One of the few sunflowers that grew this summer is puny and dried up—I waited too long to plant the seeds—but who cares? I’m in remission, my daughter will come home and fire up Dora in an hour, and I’m doing the best, hardest writing of my life.

My grief over the end of our marriage still camps out here, as I imagine it always will. But the cloth of its tent is starting to droop, and I am practicing letting go of its ropes. I look out of the window each morning to see which plant might be budding or which might be on its way out. Today, I taped on the window pane these lines by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, / there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Susan B. A. Somers-Willett is the author of three books of poetry and criticism, including Quiver, which won the Writers’ League of Texas Book Award. An assistant professor of English at Montclair State University, her poem “Tallahatchie” appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Orion.


  1. Thanks for this brave and beautiful portrait. Best wishes on your writing…

  2. I was 4 years old when I discovered the beautiful mystery incased in writing paper. I was in my den, actually a corner of the living room next to the davenport. Nothing unusual about that except I was blind. My mother had coached me into building up this space with paper, pencils, crayons, and other writing equipment. On this day I was in my den and I drew a map of our backyard. Who knows if the map had verisimilitude? But as I worked on it I noticed the sound the paper made when I marked it or moved it. A rich sound intriguing and crackling with possibilities, a sound that made my 4 years old juices flow. The sound of that paper so reassuring, so tranquil yet selectively stimulating so it left an indelible message in me. I know I was not conscious enough, or mature enough to understand this event. But the experience coelesceased my “undevelopedness” into a love of writing, and yes, writing paper. Writing has been my passion ever since.

    I took the map outside that day and unfolded it just to hear the sound of my writing. Of course I folded it back up, walked a ways and unfolded it again. I don’t know how long I did that but would not be surprised if it was a hour or more. I believe now, one of the things happening was a consciousness raising experience that gave me an unstated understanding that I could connect with the world in other ways than seeing it. Even later as I experienced a temporary return of vision, these other ways of participating in the world never left me. Now, as my eyesight has all but faded away again, I rely on the sound of writing paper to keep me connected to the world once more. And, yes, it must be paper, the click of computer keys is only the process of making writing paper.

    When I was not yet a toddler my parents discovered I was blind. Not totally but pretty close. I was one of the thousands of babies of the late 1940’s into the 1970″s that was harmed by the 100% pure oxygen pumped into the incubator for “premie” and at-risk babies. (read the opening of the book”Thunder Dog” for a better explanation). The infant mortality rate for those children went way down with the pure oxygen but the incidents of blindness, partial or total, went way up. There is a medical reason for that.

    My parents divorced when divorce carried the stigma of failure by the fault of not trying and generally blamed on the woman. Usually not true but that’s how others thought back then. Even a blind child feels the discrimination. Maybe, especially a blind child!

    With time I regained some vision. Never in the left eye which was completely destroyed but slowly in the other eye. I went from light and dark to movement and eventually to colors and shapes. For some reason, I retained more depth perception than one functioning eye normally allows

    My mother never treated me like I was blind. In fact she helped me build my first den between the davenport (there was no such thing as a couch in those days) and the wall. In this small corner with a tall, brass floor lamp we created a space for creating. Mostly with shoe boxes for cabinets and a piece of plywood for a lap desk she gathered scraps of paper, bundles of pencils and crayons, yummy paste, and a record player. The things a seeing child would have. The record player was made of plastic and shaped as a large figure eight. One loop of the eight held the turn table and the other loop the needle and tone arm. I had a collection of records that I played again and again many times until the needle broke through the vinyl. I was able to put the needle into the first track of a record. Normally not a depth perception skill of monocular vision.

    In front of my office space stood a classic, floor model, Philco radio. In the evening, after supper, my mom, grandmother, and I listened to what’s now called “old time radio”. Before I was old enough to go to school I was a fan of The Romance of Helen Trent, Mercury Mystery Theater, The Shadow, Amos’n Andy, Arthur Godfrey, Fred Allen and Allen’s alley, Gun Smoke, My Friend Margie. The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, and a host of other shows. I knew all the words to “The Tennessee Waltz. And still do.

    Each evening we turned off the radio for awhile and I sat between mom and grandma and we read. That is, mom or grandma read and I listened, meditating on images and sounds the words created in my head. And sometimes, in the background, I could hear rustling of writing paper.

    We read mostly from a collection of stories, poems, nursery rhymes, songs, letters, essays, myths, legends, and cartoons bound in a series of books published as “My Book House”.
    I have just one of those books left. The others in the collection were destroyed in a fire when I was in college. I think, at the time, “My Book House” was considered one of the best collections of children’s literature. And it was, especially the way my mom and grandma used them. But sadly, the books were also racist. I remember, Aunt Jemimah and Little Black Sambo were two of my favorites. I’m embarrassed to admit that today.

    Many, many times when mom and grandma were doing other things, I would go into my den, take out a piece of paper and write. It was emergent writing (Britton, Martin, “Language and Learning”) telling stories on paper with my feeble eyes and not yet small-muscle controlled fingers scribbling the words of my understanding of the world on to pieces of paper that I loved.

    As more time passed, the vision in my one good eye improved. And it came time for me to enter school. Doctors, school administrators, and teachers all told my mom I should go the blind school. But she would have none of it. I was going to “regular” school just like all the other children. I don’t know if she was that progressive, knowledgable before her time, or if she was concerned about appearances. A divorced woman with a child and all that. But because she insisted, I went to regular school and more than anything I learned to compensate. I have never, in my life, been able to read what’s on the board. Yet,eventually, I graduated from public school, went to college, and became a teacher. An example of inclusive education before anyone in education thought or talked with that language.

    From the time of the den in our upstairs apartment, through every place I have lived, I have had a den. It is always small, and cramped even if there is room to expand. Most of the time its made out of bricks and an old door for a desk, or a cast off table. It is filled with writing tools; pencils,markers, crayons, rulers, an eclectic supply of notebooks, for a long time a variety of typewriters, and now a computer and printer, of course. And it is always messy in other people’s eyes.

    Every den I’ve had was filled with writing paper. I never lost my love for writing paper. I have written poetry to my love of writing paper. Which probably sounds strange to say. I have never forgotten the map of my backyard, the sound of my writing paper, and the effect it had on me. I often wonder how such a simple act can have so profound an effect that it remains one of the most vivid memories of a lifetime. My theory is it’s part of the normal quest for literate behavior.

    I have grown into the belief that each person is wired up at birth to need literate behavior. How we get it and when we get it is a unique and individual process. Sometimes it never happens but that is never the fault of the individual. Other times the individual overcomes enormous obstacles and hardships that seem dauntingly impossible. But no matter what the handicap, those individuals cannot be denied their life of literate behavior. That if for no other reason, is why I find Steven Hawking a heroic figure. Of course there are many more like Dr. Hawking that are not as famous because they don’t get his kind of publicity. But are every bit as heroic. Hellen Keller is another example of how literate behavior cannot be denied in some individuals and should not be denied to all individuals. Especially citizens living in a democracy.

    I believe it is literate behavior that adds reward and meaning to a person’s life. It is the process of introspection and problem solving and art-making. There are many, many kinds of literate behavior; it is not limited to reading and writing which is my preferred method.

    As I sit in today’s den writing this I realize I’m always searching for more sounds of writing paper and the journey they might take me on.

  3. I have stumbled upon this quite by accident, and I am so touched by your honest, sad and beautiful, story. Thank you.

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