Sunday Letter | #250
J. and I have made a number of design decisions on the house these past weeks, particularly on the kitchen and main bathroom. For inspiration we’ve been looking to Pinterest, but I’ve noticed that spending too much time there distorts my tastes. I save things because they’re visually appealing – because they are clean and calming, or photographed well. They’re quality images, but the context is a sea of other images, rather than actual, physical spaces. They’re not necessarily right for my own home, for the feelings I hope to invoke. When I’m down that Pinterest rabbit hole, it becomes easy to lose sight of my intentions, to get caught up in the game of “pinning good images.” I come away, more often than not, mentally drained.
Then the other day I got out my copy of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. I’ve written about another of Alexander’s books in the past, and A Pattern Language is a kind of reference manual, though it’s by no means dry and academic. It’s more a series small meditations on recurring themes and features of alive-feeling homes, neighborhoods, cities – each whole in itself but containing and contained by other wholes. The book is also intentionally frugal with images; the architectural drawings are more doodles than diagrams, and what photographs are present are old, grainy, black and white, often no bigger than four postage stamps. They’re low-res enough that they become handholds for imagination. When I read these words and look at these images, I still see a number of homes – actual and metaphorical – but they’re all my own.
Here’s a bit from one pattern in the book, called “Entrance Transition”:
The experience of entering a building influences the way you feel inside a building. If the transition is too abrupt there is no feeling of arrival, and the inside of the building fails to be an inner sanctum.
The following argument may help to explain it. While people are on the street, they adopt a kind of ‘street behavior.’ When they come into a house they naturally want to get rid of this street behavior and settle down completely into the more intimate spirit appropriate to a house. But it seems likely that they cannot do this unless there is a transition from one to the other which helps them lose the street behavior. The transition must, in effect, destroy the momentum of the closedness, tension and ‘distance’ which are appropriate to street behavior, before people can relax completely.
When I read this a different kind of entry comes to mind: the entry into a novel. When we approach an unopened book, we first notice its exterior – its shape and heft, the words and images on the jacket. Flipping open the cover and past those first copyright and dedication pages is like being welcomed through the door. Once inside, we land on the first page of the text, or, as Alexander puts it with another pattern, “The Entrance Room”:
The most impressionistic and intuitive way to describe the need for the entrance room is to say that the time of arriving, or leaving, seems to swell with respect to the minutes which precede and follow it, and that in order to be congruent with the importance of the moment, the space too must follow suit and swell with respect to the immediate inside and the immediate outside of the building.
When I read that, I think: voice. The voice of a story is a small room between reading and not reading. And just as an entrance room (or area) in a house is made up of a combination of things – a bench, a place for shoes, narrow table with a bowl for keys, a suggestion as to where to go next … voice arises out of perspective, meter, sentence length, sentence variation, vocabulary, emotional access, use of slang, mental agility, and so on. All these things, in mysterious relation with each other and the rest of the house – the rest of the story.
Maybe voice has been on my mind because getting the voice right has been the biggest challenge with the new manuscript. With my last novel the voice appeared, almost preternaturally, and I had to find the rest of the house. With this one, I’ve been working backwards, trying to find the right entry. My editor said, more or less, in her notes on the first draft: Is this the right voice to tell this story? I’ve since found a couple new entrances, but they also seem to suggest very different houses.
And I say this to reassure myself: That’s okay. That’s the process.