lessons from a distance

lessons from a distance

The House and You: Intimate Spaces, Objects and Memory: A Lesson With Hannah VanderHart

Every last house with bone-bare walls. A fire
You left off tending. Another front door
Key lost in a storm. The slant of one night
Can silence a mother at her child’s bed,
Can starve all the songs in the vault of her
—from Molly Spencer’s “Meadow | A Reckoning”

We have all recently experienced a change in our relationship with our houses and homes. Whether you live in a room or a house with multiple levels, suddenly we are keeping to them as all of us adjust to living in a quarantine environment. The first and second week, I find myself going physically deeper into the spaces of my house—into the garage, cleaning it, pulling out the broken tools and toys. Into the cupboards, discovering a bag of grits to cook Sunday morning. Into the yard—raking the leaves away, pulling the plants out that have rooted themselves in the brickwork path. Our spaces are suddenly much more intimate, whether they are indoors, or the outdoors near our homes. We find ourselves cleaning things, both as a practical means of relieving anxiety and to make our spaces more livable for the long term. Houses are suddenly not the thing we fly from in the morning and return to, tired at night, but where we are—our work, our play, our spirits collapsed into one space.

If you are feeling the pressure of that space, and the need for fresh imaginative air, this is the writing exercise for you. It will take you to another space and house entirely. (It is child and pet friendly, as well, although children are better at doing the drawings with you than pets.)

Materials needed: two pieces of unlined paper and a pencil with a good eraser, and notebook paper.

I.   First Prompt: Draw

On your first piece of paper, draw the outline of the earliest house of your memory, as though you were looking down on doll house, without its roof. It can be an apartment, or even a room. Start with the floor plan—where are the doors, the windows? Does that room connect to a hallway, or to stairs? Stairs are always important: they are liminal spaces, go-betweens—as are doors. The first time I did this exercise with the poet Robyn Schiff, I drew the floor plan to a split-level home: a house with a front door that opened to stairs going up, and stairs going down—the bifurcated world of my childhood home.

As you draw, let yourself remember the spaces. Not only where things were, but the tiles or carpet or wood on the floor, the curtains. What the windows looked out at.

On your second piece of paper, draw the front of your house or building—what it looked like from the front lawn or the street view. Try to remember how you would have drawn it as a child. Let yourself feel childlike about your drawing. This activity will make more sense when you do the reading below.

(Do the above first! Don’t look ahead!)

II.   A Reading

Gaston Bachelard was a twentieth-century French philosopher and author of experimental, phenomenological-psychological texts such as The Psychoanalysis of Fire, The Poetics of Reverie, and, most relevant to this exercise: The Poetics of Space (which can be read in full and downloaded at The Internet Archive in a number of readable/accessible formats). Here is section X from Bachelard’s second chapter, “House and Universe.” I’ve italicized the first two sentences as being especially important to what we are thinking about with our childhood homes, but this entire section is a lovely and smart meditation on how children draw houses, and what our drawn houses can mean:

All great, simple images reveal a psychic state. The house,
even more than the landscape, is a “psychic state,” and
even when reproduced as it appears from the outside, it
bespeaks intimacy. Psychologists generally, and Franchise
Minkowska in particular, together with those whom she
has succeeded interesting in the subject, have studied the
drawings of houses made by children, and even used them
for testing. Indeed, the house-test has the advantage of
welcoming spontaneity, for many children draw a house
spontaneously while dreaming over their paper and pencil.
To quote Anne Balif: “Asking a child to draw his house
is asking him to reveal the deepest dream shelter he has
found for his happiness. If he is happy, he will succeed in
drawing a snug, protected house which is well built on
deeply-rooted foundations.” It will have the right shape,
and nearly always there will be some indication of its inner
strength. In certain drawings, quite obviously, to quote
Mme. Balif, “it is warm indoors, and there is a fire burn-
ing, such a big fire, in fact, that it can be seen coming out
of the chimney.” When the house is happy, soft smoke
rises in gay rings above the roof.

If the child is unhappy, however, the house bears traces
of his distress. In this connection, I recall that Françoise
Minkowska organized an unusually moving exhibition of
drawings by Polish and Jewish children who had suffered
the cruelties of the German occupation during the last war.
One child, who had been hidden in a closet every time there
was an alert, continued to draw narrow, cold, closed houses
long after those evil times were over. These are what Mme.
Minkowska calls “motionless” houses, houses that have
become motionless in their rigidity. “This rigidity and mo-
tionlessness are present in the smoke as well as in the win-
dow curtains. The surrounding trees are quite straight and
give the impression of standing guard over the house”
(loc. cit. p. 55). Mme. Minkowska knows that a live house
is not really “motionless,” that, particularly, it integrates
the movements by means of which one accedes to the door.
Thus the path that leads to the house is often a climbing
one. At times, even, it is inviting. In any case, it always
possesses certain kinesthetic features. If we were making a
Rorschach test, we should say that the house has “K.”

Often a simple detail suffices for Mme. Minkowska, a
distinguished psychologist, to recognize the way the house
functions. In one house, drawn by an eight-year-old child,
she notes that there is “a knob on the door; people go in
the house, they live there.” It is not merely a constructed
house, it is also a house that is “lived-in.” Quite obviously
the door-knob has a functional significance. This is the
kinesthetic sign, so frequently forgotten in the drawings of
“tense” children.

Naturally, too, the door-knob could hardly be drawn in
scale with the house, its function taking precedence over
any question of size. For it expresses the function of open-
ing, and only a logical mind could object that it is used to
close as well as to open the door. In the domain of values,
on the other hand, a key closes more often than it opens,
whereas the door-knob opens more often than it closes.
And the gesture of closing is always sharper, firmer and
briefer than that of opening. It is by weighing such fine
points as these that, like Françoise Minkowska, one becomes
a psychologist of houses.

III.   Reflection

Congratulations, you are now a psychologist of houses! Not just of any house, but your own house. In reality, this lesson could be entirely comprised of that first step: drawing the earliest house of your memory. That exercise is a wellspring of spaces and objects you will want to write about: your mother’s kitchen and curtains, that coconut-brown shag carpet, that stained glass lamp that looked like it belonged in an old-fashioned pizza parlor. I had a student respond with piece of writing about the particular grain of wood on a second-hand cedar dresser in their childhood home. This exercise wakes your mind up to your own memories, to spaces we have tried to hide in our own minds. The first time I did this exercise, I remembered where my mother kept her ironing board—at the top of the stairs. And I remembered how that iron fell onto my foot one early morning, the iron still plugged in and hot. Remembering the ironing board, the iron, and the burn (a childhood trauma), led to remembering other things I did not want to remember. So be gentle with yourself as you explore past spaces. This last exercise will help you think more about the life you have lived by thinking about objects.

IV.   Second Prompt: Make a List of a Hundred Objects

Pick a room of that early house you have remembered. Write a list of every object in that room you can think of. Try to reach at least one hundred objects. How specific can you be? How small are the objects? How large? What year of your life are you remembering the objects as existing in? I think that the best writing of any genre has a keen memory of what our physical world feels like to live in—when you write a story with a woman at a bus stop, you remember yourself standing at a bus stop, considering the route and trying to determine where you are going. When you remember the objects of your earliest house, you are doing the recovery work of memory that writers mine their whole lives, in different ways.

Identify your favorite section of your list—it might be a poem by itself, or might inspire a new piece.

V.   Third Prompt: A Writing Meditation Beginning with a Room and Object

Pick a room and an object, and begin writing from there. It might be the object you can’t stop thinking about—it might be the object you are avoiding looking at: clutter under the bed, a certain doll. This can be the start of a personal essay, a poem, or the setting of a character in a story.

Alternatively, begin your piece with a careful, detailed description of an object. Let the object show the life lived around it, like a still life painting. Either stay with that object throughout your piece, or branch out to other objects in the room, or go beyond the walls that hold that object. You probably already have an object and a room you are burning to write about—go write, with a blessing!

Further reading to think about houses, spaces, objects:

Further Listening:

Hannah VanderHart lives in Durham, North Carolina, under the pines. She has poetry and reviews published and forthcoming in Kenyon ReviewThe American Poetry ReviewThe Adroit JournalRHINO Poetry and elsewhere. Her book, What Pecan Light, is forthcoming from Bull City Press in 2020, and she is the reviews editor at EcoTheo Review. More at: hannahvanderhart.com

Artwork by: Elaine Casap