When the writer Honor Moore was here for the Spring Green Literary Festival a few years ago, she declared that the area must be some kind of vortex. I’ve since learned that there are people called “vortex hunters” who track places with a particular kind of vibe. Spring Green isn’t on their online map of vortexes, but it’s hard to deny there is a lot of interesting stuff going on in the River Valley. Creativity researchers would probably attribute it to habits of mind — you’re more likely to be creative when you spend time with creative people.
Or with the legacy of creative people. I just finished an article by Elizabeth Collins Cromley called “Frank Lloyd Wright in the Kitchen,” in which she discusses her concept of the food axis — rooms and spaces connected to the preparing and serving of food. It’s a fascinating article, pointing out that originally dining rooms were far away from kitchens because cooking used to be even messier and smellier than it is now. Her question was whether Wright led the way with innovating kitchen spaces or if he was riding the wave of changes. Her conclusion was that in some ways, he rode the wave but in many ways was the lead innovator. He is part of why pantries went away and part of why all the shows I love on HGTV bust down walls for open concept spaces where you cannot hide your dirty dishes from your guests.
Cromley’s article on the food axis made me think of other basic functions that have and have not evolved.
We might, for example, think about the spaces connected to the preparing and sharing of writing. On my campus, that includes some classrooms with desks that are designed for taking notes, not for spreading out a laptop, notes and books — not designed for writing, in other words. Also on my campus, though, we have a space in our library called the Woodman Learning Center, which is not solely for writing, but works fantastically well for writing. There are tables where there is ample room to spread out, where tutors and students can meet, and computers along the wall in case students don’t have their own (they don’t all have multiple devices, contrary to the generational stereotype).
So long as we’re drawing analogies, why not push the writing axis further and consider the essay itself as a space that has traditionally housed writing? I think the essay is more like a dining room in a traditional house, where you don’t see the mess and the work. What would writing be like in a more open-concept design? Is that what a blog is? Is that what “track changes” does in a document? Are footnotes the pantry?
But more importantly — has the form of the essay evolved to meet our needs? Or is it a centuries-old idea we cling to? Maybe we are too devoted, to quote James Dickey, to “long drawers crammed with dim spoons.”
Marnie Dresser is a poet, creativity researcher and English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Richland. She lives in Spring Green with her husband and son and contributes to this space on a rotating basis ideas about creativity and education.