She made the drapes. Yards and yards of heavy silk graced the huge old windows, softly framing the view of the Tennessee River below. The red brick house where my mother-in-law measured the windows and cut the fabric, where she raised my husband and his two siblings, sits confidently at the top of a steep, oak-canopied lawn. It’s a substantial house—a 1920s federal-style Southern beauty, void of trendy architectural embellishments, just a classic portico over the front door, two strong chimneys and dormers on the third floor poking up like points of a crown. But it’s the windows you notice—drawing you in like the expressive eyes of a wise woman. My mother-in-law cared for this house daily for 25 years, as she hung the drapes after threading hours and hours into their careful making.
After my in-laws divorced, she moved to a more manageable one around the corner. I grieved the loss of this stately homestead. Sure, I had romanticized it—it had outdated plumbing and no hint of an “open floor plan”—but I loved the gracious proportions of its 14 rooms, its sturdiness. I loved the worn oak floors decked in thick oriental rugs; the ruby grasscloth walls in the entry hall that beckoned a jewel-toned welcome. The house had presence, a resonant warmth that came not from its well-placed antiques or ubiquitous dried flower arrangements (one of my mother-in-law’s specialties) but from the care, love and attention that went into it all—from making the drapes to lugging vintage rugs back from estate auctions to the custom bedspreads that matched the 1970s-era floral wallpaper upstairs.
She recreated that same warmth, that layered depth of presence that was so definitively her, in a newer house, blessedly one with updated plumbing (showers!) and a functional kitchen. Though she did not make new drapes, she crafted rooms of equal charm and wonder, where my children—her grandchildren—played with her trinkets, where antique mahogany secretaries cozy up to art from Tuesday Morning, where nothing is too precious but, together, it invites you to comfortably sit back and take it all in.
All this I was indeed taking in as our family gathered there recently after my mother-in-law’s death. We walked through her house, letting every picture, every stack of books topped with a philodendron, whisper her memory. My sisters-in-law and I asked who might take what rug, what antique chest? Who had room for that massive, elegant dining room buffet filled with silver and embroidered linens that no one uses anymore? How to dismantle rooms so thoughtfully constructed? Rooms filled with dark woods and hefty furnishings that are far from the currently coveted sleek, minimalist decor.
My mother-in-law left a legacy that goes beyond her interior decorating, but her home evokes her spirit like nothing else. As I mulled what art and furnishings might fit in my own home, I realized I was looking with a writer’s eye. I was looking for the stories conveyed by each piece, for the ambiance this lamp or that side table might imbue. For the feeling and/or memories embedded in various knickknacks. For the interesting rhythms created by juxtaposing an abstract painting with a vintage Chinese screen. Much the way I seek words or turns of phrase that add something ineffable to a description, a scene.
Strong writing, I realized, is similarly a roomy endeavor. A craft that entails the layering of textures and patterns, of contrasting the endless colors and hues of language, of thoughtfully placing words and paragraphs in such a way that there is an inviting, comfortable space to sit and consider whatever it is you are trying to say. Stuff too much in and a room or a sentence, an essay, can be cumbersome and stifling. Leave out poignant details and it’s bland, impersonal.
Sure, there are endless listicles of decorating how-tos. I’ve written my share of them for shelter magazines. Go Bold with Color! Embrace your Inner Animal Print! When In Doubt, Lean on Stripes! But there is no foolproof playbook or bullet-pointed list of tips to replace a gifted decorator’s gift (believe me, I’ve tried). Similarly, there’s no how-to for writing that can turn IKEA prose into Architectural Digest elegance, despite many helpful articles in Hippocampus’s CRAFT archive. But nuance can be intuited from reading an artfully crafted room and from reading well-crafted prose.
Like decorating, writing is a craft of trial and error, revision and re-revision. If a chair is too clunky for one corner, move it to another. If the paint color is too garish, then paint over it, or go for the deep ruby grasscloth, sure to make a statement. It worked for my mother-in-law.
As I take bits and pieces of her home to incorporate into the rooms of my family’s life, I do so with an eye and an ear for the stories the pieces tell, the beauty evoked. Just as I edit a sentence for clarity, for rhythm and for function, I think about what overly ornate mirror might go in my living room (or not), what rug might add a pop of color to my kitchen, what lamp would shed light on an overlooked corner and bring it to life. Writing and decorating should, I believe, be playful crafts, where you can try new things, risk making mistakes. Move things around and see if the phrase sings or the sofa fits. The life of the room, and a piece of writing, is more than the sum of its parts, and the magic, the craft, lies in the orchestrated details that create an overall atmosphere. The hand-sewn drapes that fall in gentle folds. The patina of antiques long-loved. Like my mother-in-law, Virginia Woolf knew something about this. A writer, she said, must have “a room of one’s own.” And of one’s own making.