Monday, July 23, 2012

My First Time: Tupelo Hassman

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Tupelo Hassman.  Her novel Girlchild came out earlier this year from Farrar, Straus & Giroux to great acclaim.  Publishers Weekly wrote: "Rory Hendrix will soon be a character readers around the country will know.  She’s the young heroine of Tupelo Hassman’s debut Girlchild, a novel that drops us into her home in a Reno trailer park and invites us to be the only other member of her Girl Scout troop."  Susannah Meadows, writing in the New York Times, had this to say: "Ms. Hassman is such a poised storyteller that her prose practically struts.  Her words are as elegant as they are fierce.  A voice as fresh as hers is so rare that at times I caught myself cheering....I don’t know about you, but I’d go anywhere with this writer."   Tupelo Hassman graduated from Columbia’s MFA program.  Her writing has been published in the Portland Review Literary Journal, Paper Street Press, Tantalum, We Still Like, and Zyzzyva, and by 100 Word Story, Five, and Invisible City Audio Tours.  Visit her website here and find her on Facebook here.

My First Writing Closet

A closet was, once upon a time, a sacred place where valuables were kept, heirlooms, linens and jewelry held in a transgenerational grip, items as irreplaceable and fantastic and necessary to a family as the phrase “once upon a time.”  The very same words I have written here, from inside a closet: once upon a time a sacred place, as recently explained by Lucy Worsley, discussing this lost bit of home history and her book, If Walls Could Talk: A History of the Home, on NPR’s Fresh Air.

I started writing in closets four years ago, when I moved to Oakland, California.  The inaugural closet, what I began calling “my cubby,” was big enough for a desk and had a small window, it felt fairly like an office and marked the first time my voodoo had a room of its own.  It was the first time I’d had a singular place to accumulate my writing tchotchkes, the things we gather around us before we plumb the depths, ready to explore words that are so mysterious, words like “plumb,” that they can at once by synonymous with stonefruit and yet slip in a silent b, a spy in the house of summer.  Writing is a spelunker’s journey, my writing cubby is my miner’s helmet or it is the elevator to the underground or it is a vein of metaphors for mining yet to be unearthed.  It’s where I go to shine the light.

The cubby’s window sill is crowded with the curios that move my mind.  A toy soldier holding binoculars stands lookout because a cubby is, above all, a private space and what’s in it must be guarded.  The soldier keeps watch over the fortune cookie slips that can’t be discarded, Despair is criminal, and Hallelujah!, the bit of ribbon embroidered with bicycles, the god box that shelters my concerns about how this essay might go, the expired lottery ticket that eternally wins $2.  From the window sash hangs a set of wind chimes that are of frightening size to the toy soldier but miniature to the rest of us, barely four inches tall and yet the clacker and the command it gives is the royal one of any writing space, loud and clear: LISTEN.

So I sit in my cubby and I listen and I begin to hear the stories of a house, I see the points of power where voodoo accumulates: the nightstand, the hidden shoebox, the kitchen window sill.  This cubby’s window sill isn’t so different from the ones created by my mother and grandmother and by many of the other mothers I’ve known, in the room that was their main work space.  What gathered on their kitchen sills is as powerful: pictures of grandchildren, wishbones, recipes, a coupon for Promise spread, the items in life that invite meditation.

The true work in a house isn’t in washing dishes or writing essays, but in attending to what has arrived.  And so, while I cherish my cubby and wish for us all to have a precious few square feet to sort out our metaphorical gear, I see that it isn’t as necessary to the writing life as what writers bring to any space anyway: their attention.  Whatever corner of the house we manage, whatever bit of sky seen from it, we are our own alert soldiers, we are our own winning lottery tickets, we write our own fortunes and promises and we are our own wind chimes demanding an ear.


  1. I love this piece. My writing space is the smallest bedroom, for many years a box room. I've always been drawn to the idea of making a writing nest in the tiniest space, stripped to simplicity, to submerge and - as you say - listen.

  2. Terrific. She's such an enchanting writer. Great segment, David.

  3. Loved this post. I just moved and now have a writing room for the first time in my life, and I can say that having the space itself doesn't automatically equal more or easier work. Work is still work and you have to bring your attention to it, no matter where you are.