The Details of Home in a Daydream

In French, I learned recently, the word for home is similar to "in the house" or "at the house" or, occasionally "the house of me": the physical dwelling encompasses both one's heart and one's hearth; it is the structure that matters. Home as a concept does not translate otherwise from English to French. Gaston Bachelard (a Frenchman) spends quite a bit of time talking about the house in The Poetics of Space, a book I am reading for a class in creative nonfiction taught by Peter Orner.

The writing dwells on a few concepts that fascinate me: that the house in which we were born becomes the basis for all references thereafter to houses and homes; the notion that our daydreams are overlaid onto this place; and that a description of it, a sketch in words by one writer, will send the reader into his/her own reverie, out of the book and into an experienced place.

Our birth homes stay with us. We compare our subsequent dwellings to them. We look for the corners of comfort, solace, solitude, and inspiration that we might have had before. We may have had a place, or several places, in that house to go and think. When we remember that place, we may remember what we used to think or daydream about while there. I remember a covered patio, for example, and thinking about the phrase "childhood is the happiest time of your life" and wondering if it were going to be true. If this was a place we went or hid frequently, many daydreams might be housed here. We've sat there thinking many times before. Conversely, we might remember something, then see an image of the place. This is strange: remembering about thinking and remembering where we were when we were thinking.

And how does this translate to books or art or writing? I've written about the book as place before, and how it can function as an architectural space; now, thanks to Bachelard (who mentions it), I'm interested in how much detail the book needs to have to make it a space that interests the reader as well. Simply, a window, a door, a peaked roof says "house" to western culture. If you say "family room," I see both the playroom from when I was 0-4 years old and the family room I knew from ages 6 and up. Writing "family room" tickles my memories, and so I see that room in my mind, based on my experiences.  Those two rooms, even if I add wood paneling and a stone fireplace or linoleum floor and sliding glass windows won't create the same image in your mind. You will never see what I see (unless, perhaps, you lived in my house with me), no matter how many words I give you.

But if I don't give you enough words, hints, or details, I may leave you empty. What if I only write "room" or draw a square? Take a minute. Are the edges blurry as you try to dream up an image? Which room is it? Can you see it? It seems like that room has four blank walls. Well, now it does. Maybe you saw it more clearly since I mentioned empty and blank and four walls.

I wonder, then, how do we build for the reader? Maybe we are not building a solid space, but only painting a feeling or mood. Certain qualities live in words, colors, and textures and will conjure up universal feelings, I think—the warmth of wood or the coolness of stone, for instance. You don't and won't see my wood paneling, although I could tell you if it were maple or teak or pine, which might clarify your picture. The reader needs a few details as an entry point: to grab hold of; to cart back home; and to send her or him into a daydream so s/he can fill in the gaps and truly live in the space.

Blueprints for a Birdhouse, 2011


Velma said…
thank you for this. much to think on, and absolutely what i need to be thinking about right now.
Anonymous said…
enjoyed reading your post! and will definitely come back to think about it - more:-)