My Home is My Muse
July 5, 2021 § 9 Comments
By Jeanne Bonner
My mother once visited a book-loving relative on the West Coast, and when I asked her what the house was like, she said, “He decorates like you do.”
I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, but her tone of mild disapproval mixed with amusement (and delivered in her heavy Brooklyn accent) implied he had books strewn about, mementos from his travels, items tacked up casually on the wall and art of personal, rather than aesthetic, significance.
My parents’ house where I grew up was also filled with books, and my mother and father have always been voracious readers (not to mention appreciators of art).
But neither of them worked with books the way I do as a writer, teacher and translator. Their home was a place to raise children, sleep and eat. My home, where I do much of my work as an itinerant wordsmith, is the external manifestation of my thoughts, my ongoing projects, not to mention my plans for dozens of writing, translation and journalism ventures I’ve not even begun.
So I let the written word in all forms act as my decorating motif. This approach to home decor reflects where I write. Which is to say, not in an office at a college or on a magazine staff. And perhaps that’s because I began to keep a regular writing practice only as an older person with a day job. Translation: I don’t have a nice, tenured position that comes with a permanent office.
Even at home, my office is wherever I put my laptop at 6 a.m. But pity me not: I’ve arguably commandeered the whole house, with a table in the dining room for writing and another one in the sunroom, in addition to a large, vintage desk in the living room.
Books are everywhere, but that goes without saying. And besides, having stacks of books isn’t enough for me because book covers of favorite tomes are like the faces of loved ones. So I have books propped up on every flat surface the way other people might position vases or porcelain figures. Exhibit A: a French graphic novel sitting on the bedroom radiator so I can see the cover, which features a curly, girlish script overlaid on a thicket of green vines. I don’t read French fluently but I do read beautiful book covers with foreign titles fluently.
Anything that I find inspiring is taped up onto the wall if it’s made of paper or leaning against the wall if it’s solid. Any card that has words on it – especially words like amore or reading – goes on display. The notecard my Australian artist friend drew for me is tacked up next to a pink and green map of Florence, Italy (which is where I met the Australian friend, back when we were ex-pats in the city of Dante). There are also receipts from Italy, plus old letters from my mother, her familiar handwriting doubling as a writing prompt. The things other people would throw away feed my writing soul.
On the wall of the dining room, I have a large event poster the Italian town of Siena gave out for free before a Palio horse race that I witnessed during a semester abroad. Later, my father framed it, perhaps sensing that I would forever see my life as divided in two – the period before I visited Italy and every moment of reluctant exile that came afterward.
The whole house is wired to pulse me with inspiration, and to envelop me in cozy, literary familiarity.
Initially it wasn’t something I consciously sought. In my 20s and early 30s, I moved from place to place and state to state, working my through journalism jobs, and I wasn’t ever especially interested in interior decorating. I don’t care to know exactly what a pillow sham is. But the process by which I have assembled a kind of mosaic of visual influences and inspirations feels vital – and not a habit I want to part with. There never seems to be enough time for all the ideas I want to pursue but I take solace in the walls of my house and the surface of my desk beaming back to me all the things that occupy my mind.
Indeed, after a while, I realized this approach was essential. When we left Atlanta in 2017 for a new life in Connecticut, the boxes that rode with us in the car contained nothing anyone would ever want to steal, nothing that the movers could break, but everything that had nurtured a fledgling writer’s life: my journals, my books, my papers, my mementos, my private correspondence, and a manila envelope full of the special talismans I had placed around my computer for inspiration. I would desperately need them all in Connecticut when I felt completely untethered from the engine that had powered my writing life.
In essence, I want my home to look like the inside of my mind. And that’s where I store all my grand writing plans. To help me focus, I have seeded the house with photos, strategically chosen to stoke my memoir instinct. Take the photo of my uncle and my grandparents in their home in Bayonne, N.J., which I found after his premature death. They are in the kitchen during what’s likely a family party in the 1960s, judging by the type of photo paper. He had lived in the house his whole life, and it’s the house my father grew up in, where his grandparents had also lived, and which remains in the family. Other families may retain pedigreed estates with fancy names. Not our clan. It’s a rickety, three-story house in a quirky working-class, New Jersey city that doesn’t make you think “The Garden State.” But the house looms so large in my memory, perhaps because my father and his siblings have long referred to it as “Ten East,” an abbreviation of the street address. “Back when I was still living at Ten East…” Or, “Up in the third floor at Ten East…” This mythology is something I hope to probe through writing. Hence the photo, reminding me there are stories to tell.
You could call it all the chaos of reading and writing. Maybe it’s a consolation prize for trying to make it in the literary world, which is the wordsy equivalent of Hollywood — in other words, a cut-throat industry where few succeed but many aspire. I haven’t written a book nor do I have an agent. But one part of my literary life is thriving – and it’s this monument I am building day by day to all the things that fire my imagination.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. You can find her blog at http://ciambellina.blogspot.com.