By Howard Wolf
If I could afford to spend the winter in Boca Raton or Sarasota, Fla., I might choose to flee, but I can’t and find myself once again landlocked in Western New York as the view from my writer’s sort of studio window looks more and more like a Japanese scroll with snow-capped Mount Fuji in the distance.
It’s not easy for Buffalonians and their neighbors to get from the end of daylight saving time to Dec. 21 in good cheer when days begin to lengthen and one only can imagine another spring.
Buffalonians and their country cousins need to take a positive attitude out of storage along with a good pair of boots and an insulated overcoat to prepare themselves for the whiteouts they know they will face.
I cook up a different attitude every year, a new pair of poetic earmuffs, in order to brace myself for a possible arctic vortex or blizzard. As I rummaged in my mental attic this late autumn, it occurred to me that writers were historically prepared for winter.
After all, writers, other than those favored by patrons in earlier ages or having trust funds, usually have been poor. They have lived in ill-heated garrets, especially in Paris, or dilapidated railroad flats in Greenwich Village (I lived in one once, on West 13th Street.).
These digs forced them when winter came to wear turtleneck sweaters and scarves indoors. Think of the chilly flats in O. Henry’s stories or the crash-pads in Kerouac’s “On the Road” and those chilly Russian huts in Chekhov and Tolstoy.
For these writers, a Franklin stove wasn’t a charming antique, but a necessity. An Irish tweed jacket with weathered elbow patches wasn’t a sign of professorial affectation, but a source of protection against the elements.
Not able to afford comfortable homes and spacious apartments, they learned how to make small spaces cozy and artistic: a Van Gogh print on a wall, a chianti bottle with a candle on a folding table, a jade plant in this corner, a chipped Amish rocker with a tattered quilt in that one. Key word — “cozy.”
At some point, it occurred to writers that these quarters were not unlike an enlightened and creative mind. It made sense for writers to do good work in intimate spaces.
The furniture of a writer’s room isn’t unlike the décor of the imagination. The tight enclosure of a living space and the life of the imagination have something in common. Both mind and space belong only to the artist, no one else’s, until shared through publication.
This may explain why the parent of the essay, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), a landed aristocrat, moved into a turreted building on his Burgundy estate to write. He lined his rounded room with books. His mind, library and tower formed a coherent circle.
Hemingway felt much the same way about his rooms above a stable in Paris when he was starting out as a writer in the 1920s. He describes in “A Moveable Feast” the pleasures of first writing in a state of near poverty as the snow falls and he roasts chestnuts for warmth.
So, as winter comes to Buffalo and I get into “layers” and the glow of floor heaters, I feel, well, like a writer and am almost grateful for another Buffalo winter. The outer cold helps ignite an inner fire.
A recent Fellow of the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., Howard Wolf lives in Amherst.