Rebecca Pyle

Two Lions, and a Tea Cupboard

In my own kitchen are two wooden hand-carved Chinese lions on each
side of an empty, old, coffin-shaped, four-feet-long hand-carved
abandoned Korean tea cupboard; these lions are many feet above my head,
atop duller mass-produced manufactured cupboards.

Each of these gray-brown wooden lions is at opposite ends of the very old
tawnily-stained and varnished tea cupboard: a pair. Both carved dully gray
and brown two-feet-tall guarding lions, each with one paw arched over a
decorated ball, or circle. One lion is larger and more heavily maned, male;
the other female, but still ferocious: they’re mature, parents.

(The ornate carved wooden ball each lion guards, cupped under one
curved paw by each lion, are symbolic offspring: they symbolize parents
lions guarding their precious continuations and replacements, and by
extension guarding now you and the empty ornate Korean tea cupboard,
which you only several years ago found at the curb with the word “free”
written on a piece of paper taped to its front.)

Why is nothing now inside this high-up Korean antique tea cupboard/
chest? It’s large enough—if guarding lions lay down inside and slept, they
could fit, in its dark.

Empty because nothing yet is good enough for the cupboard? Or because
it’s too high to reach? Or because no distracted modern American
household could have so much precious tea? All these, and because also,
in this writer’s/artist’s house, this empty shaded space of tea cupboard, and
the two lions flanking the tea cupboard, symbolize what Virginia Woolf
called a writer’s room of his or her own. Emptiness is so important a
counterpoint for any writer’s always overly cluttered head.

The computer you write on should, I believe, be empty of all but your
creative work: as Virginia Woolf said, you need a room of your own.
Consider that a separate computer for creative writing is a portable,
solitary room, much more than a typewriter ever could have been even in
its traveling case; and on a table or desk it was only possibility of one
more new created dash of manuscript.

A computer is a manuscript case too; but it has collecting memory. (What
would we have thought if we lived a century ago, and heard of people
storing writing in a cloud? Of course, we would have nodded; it’s all in

In other writers’ houses, if you meet in them, you are likely among their
clutter: photographs of their parents, their trips, even their wedding
photos; you wish you didn’t have to be among these, wish they’d gotten
rid of the fluorescent light tubes in their kitchens after they bought the
house, or hadn’t thrown out the old beautiful wool rug and put in its place
one made of polyester filaments. You wish they wouldn’t give in to the
church lady’s entrapping impulse to prop tables with criss-cross folding
legs in front of everyone, only awaiting being tipped over; you wish they
hadn’t placed a large television screen over their fireplace, which, even
when empty, is filled with the arguing dimmed ghosts of dramas once
loudly displayed. This is the clutter of most houses; even an old sofa is
clutter, because it doesn’t feel good to sit on and think at the same time.
But you sit in their houses, and the food is good because it is many foods,
and you take turns reading, and, largely to use up time, give and take
advice, though the memory of the coffee shop or tea shop call to you and
make you think of the purity, repeatable, of alone.

But you don’t have to pretend to be grateful for advice; that is part of the
idea of the room of your own, and the real reason most writers’ groups are
folly. It’s painful to admit that most writing groups are writers pretending
to be writers, but they are; and there can be more wronging going on in
them than righting. If it is not led by a real writer, there might be a chance
for a real writer to survive there; but it is dim, that chance.

Each time you open it—your solo computer—it’s its own room. The
empty old Korean tea cupboard found at the curb in front of The New
Korean Church of Christ with “free” written on it—possibly a fading old
person’s last sacrifice for the church’s annual rummage sale—is also about
being free, in the enclosure of your own conscience, your own logic.

Writing is a quiet old empty cupboard of its own. The old cupboard/chest
found free at a curb, and soon symbolic of writing work, guarded by pride
matched by wariness (the two lions the writer or artist needs, always on
guard, either never sleeping or, perhaps, perpetually sleeping, as works of
art which symbolize solutions found in the brain’s repeated dreams, during

In every one of these community writing groups there seems always to be
someone offering up their old computer for sale. Each time you receive
this kind offer, you explain how dear your old computer is to you: you
could not part with it. And probably never will: wonderfully, even in a
half-empty coffee shop most thieves would pass it by, looking for better.

I’d let it go for three hundred dollars, they’ll say. Or two hundred dollars
or a hundred seventy-five dollars.

When you say nothing, they will add quickly, “It’s a really good deal for
that price.” They will then describe all its features, which are no longer
good enough for them; and to increase your desire, will say who in the
writing group they are going to offer it to next, if you take your
opportunity to acquire what they’re discarding.

But you, a writer, if it was free—still would not have accepted it, would
not have carried it home with you.

Because writing must not just become a room of your own; it must come
preferably with no known ghosts attached. To be your own. To buy a
computer, or accept a computer which is free, from a stranger is one thing;
to buy it from someone you know, another writer who might even
distinctly now and then be a bit on the jealous side, is another.

If you are to be a real writer, you must be mindful of sorrowful deals:
writing itself over and over brokers the sadnesses of exchange and loss,
and to add cash bargains from other writers who are also telling you about
how much finer their newer computer is, is really a pleasing transaction
only for that writer, who wants to pocket your desperation, perhaps, to be
like him or her, or to have a friend.

Another writer may urge you to save money by riding with them in their
car to writers’ group meetings or readings or social events; another may
ask you for the same reason to share a room with them at a writing retreat.

(Why are your savings their concerns? Are you a charity?)

Every painter knows someone who is angry because the artist will not sell
them a certain painting. They have already told you which wall they will
hang it on, which room. But just because the painting was in a show, or on
the cover of a magazine, does not mean you are interested in selling that
painting, or seeking its sale. Why must you? The last thing you made any
painting for is loss and profit.

But, clearly, the person who knows you and is offering a sum is not
comfortable with you as an artist—unless you can be symbolically
dispossessed or bought. Of course, you may argue or they may argue they
love your paintings, but their irritation about your not selling is what
makes you sure, very sure, you were wise not to sell. (Saloon girls of
American wild west of old must have known the feeling.)

If, in a community writing group—it’s not likely in a university or
college’s writing class, where parameters of independence are well-honed
—another writer repeatedly suggests you ride in his or her car, say no, just
as you would say no if they frequently importune you for a copy of
manuscripts. Always remember cars and manuscripts are a symbol of
independence, control; and that the time you leave in your own car and the
time you choose to return home in your car are your luxuries only if you
are alone. Who do you owe a copy of a manuscript? If it published they
can read it there.

Not to mention, per automobiles and travel, you may crave music most as
company; or soothing silence. You are preparing either to read or to listen;
and both are sacred to a writer, if they are even half-real. The painting?
The painting’s natural home is the artist’s, unless he/she is enthusiastic
about its adoption or sale. The computer? That is so sacred it need not be
said. Be wise and be wary—of overly enthusiastic scholarships.

Similarly, avoid those offering the scholarship of unrequested help,
particularly at bad times: a textbook example would be just before you
read a short story to an audience, and in the moments you are settling your
nerves in an alcove, rereading and thinking to yourself, someone helpful
appears. To give you, perhaps, a lecture about how important he or she
knows timing is; this is something you now, they feel, need to hear their
lecture about. Timing! How important it is!

If they are truly helpful, they would never appear moments before they
know you are about to read; they would be in their seat looking forward to
the next reading. Unless their dear wish is to rattle your timing, they
would not appear then. Does it need to be said that musicians and readers
need timing? And that timing could be inculcated by suggestion five
minutes before a performance? Really? To approach even a first-time-
performing musician or writer about to read and suggest they think hard
now about timing is important before they read or play before an audience
—is laughable. When and if this happens to you, remember it is funny.

Those are sacred moments before you read; your muttering to yourself;
hoping and wishing for the spell you need to fall over you does fall, in
time. In those moments only your own muttering, your own calling your
own ghosts out of the dark or the light, will do.

In sum, then: an artist or a writer must always remember there are those
who seek to distract them from their purposes. They are people who might
not even be aware they are envious of your soleness, centralness, what is
now being called your agency; who don’t want to imagine you getting too
heady charting your own course, even three-dimensionally in a car. They
will endlessly offer you over-helpful assistances or insistences: you can
write on their old computer; you can save money on gas, too. You can take
this seat on their family sofa because you are so welcome and it is so
comfortable (so comfortable your thinking brain slips away). You can take
ten different persons’ advice about rearrangement of your verses or your
paragraphs, or how you really ought avoid repeating the same adjective, or
make every tense with no exception exactly match: these are the cries
from the lost, wanting you to be lost with them, the same ones who dully
repeat the adage “Show, don’t tell,” though often an artful telling is five
times the superior of the supposed, but leaden and shallow-hearted

But advice all seems so helpful, so kind. Outwardly it looks like help,
shared wisdom. Yet, consider the truth: really the essence of most intense
insult is excessive cordiality.

If you are female, no matter what age you are, there will be men who will
ritually, dutifully, want to walk you to your car after a writer’s meeting. To
this writer, who has lived in many parts of New York, including
Manhattan, and even as a child, Alaska too, these offers seem especially
strange. Often these men have been or still are in a religious group which
seeks to underline again and again the helplessness of women; just as there
are those who offer advice about timing before you read, there will be men
who seek to inculcate a latent fear in you of streets, sidewalks, the men
who surely want to humiliate you in any given night neighborhood. This
can be a greater and longer-running threat. This threat of criminal men
surely waiting for me has only ever been truly felt when accompaniment
was offered; looking back, the persons who walked me to my car were a
greater and more unnerving and perpetual threat than fear of imagined
cruel men lurking in shadows hoping to harm me, frighten me, or rob me.

It is unfortunate, but there are many men who like to make women, often,
feel afraid. This may be the prime operative for men’s religions
dominating women. I don’t have fond memories of those supposedly
noble offers to guard me; and at last told men who offered me their
invisible arms in the only words I knew which could make my feelings
unmistakeable: Go away. It was a great relief for me, and, I think, what
they needed to be told.

I must say I could tell from their faces they thought no woman was
allowed to say this to them; and I must say I felt no guilt. I knew it was

The older you become the more you realize over-politeness can be a
façade much worse than the false fronts of old buildings; and a way to
wear people down; and these people can be icily disdainful if you refuse
them, revealing, as the angry would-be buyer of a painting reveals, that it
was not love of art which compelled them.

The false fronts of buildings in western frontier towns—only sought to
soothe you with their tallness, their beauty.

There is a difference between natural good manners and artificial ones. A
writer would almost always be made up of the former, naturally refusing
enactments of politenesses not felt but which are really only sugar-coated
hostilities. Their kindnesses would impress you with their unscriptedness.

Surprise, then! Your timing is yours; your paintings are yours; the
computer you have is all you want and naturally superior to others because
it is yours alone. You had no need to borrow or lean or apologize for what
you are or what your computer is. You are a writer and thus you love
solitude—love nothing better than moment of choosing when to leave
somewhere and when to arrive, the divine solodom of your car. When you
open your computer it is like a kingdom (perhaps Woolf would say
queendom?). When you paint it is for you, or you would not bother. The
sidewalk you walk on is not one of fear, nor will you allow someone to
make it that for you.

These are all proud things, all Virginia Woolf’s rooms of one’s own; the
Chinese carved lion-guardians are truth-guardians for you. You must
match their fierceness to guard yourself even from the outwardly helpful
or well-meaning, whose intent may be curiously—opposite.

What do you do with jealousy? You learn that it rarely changes spots; if
it’s virulent in someone it will remain that way. You cannot change it by
selling a painting or giving them a painting for free; by accepting rides in
their cars, or changing your written pieces to suit them. It could be truly
meant, yes; perhaps it is good gifts/friendship gifts or rituals/good advice.
But it could also be helping some cope with their jealousies or
inadequacies; in that case it will give them a sense of victory and of
making you feel small; but it will not help you. Jealousy received,
unfortunately, is both a good writer’s prize and a good writer’s inevitable

Life is made up of small crummy groups of people, a science fiction writer
once said to me. Expect it.

People will always over-attempt to help, to interfere. People will trouble
you. In the real writer and the real artist people sense, with some anger,
that person’s flag is their own. They are not buyable, or leaseable.

Only attend any writers’ group outside of college or university till it
becomes untenable; keep a sharp eye out for the corruption of the idea of
writing. Your writing group should become the journals your writing or
artwork appear in. It can exhaust you, but every day is Independence Day
for a writer. That flag—must always be one you’ve designed.

No enticing chair or food or beverage is worth acquiescence. Take with
raised eyebrow any group’s stated missions of being about excellence: the
proof is whether they ever excel, are brave explorers. Are they published?
To defend themselves against failing to be published do they claim they
have no desire to be published? Are they a group full of shame about being
different from others—filling an angry bottle with secret manuscripts
they’re sending out to sea sealed in a symbolic sort of bottle with a cork?
Do they tell other writers what they are not allowed to publish/write? (In
doing so, they admit they do not have the natural or right soul of a writer.)
Do they defend a writer’s sovereignty? Or is it really truly an extension of
the idea of a church group, regularly meeting, people luxuriate in the
maverick, too easily claimed description of being—writers?

Yes, they write. Because they do write sentences, put them together in
paragraphs, and put titles at the top, they wrote. And even signed their
name at top or bottom too. Yes, it’s to be agreed, they’ve written
something. But a very long time ago I realized the expression “I enjoyed
it” only means one must please recognize that very person was bodily
truly present somewhere, at an event; it represents making points, they
hope, by having announced that they actually turned up, somewhere, in
person. “Good for you” is the only proper response, because the
expression “I enjoyed it” really means not a thing.

Many who cannot write well become fixated upon the idea that if they
become expert at diagramming a sentence, they one-up all writers, own all
the clock pieces of language, thus all of writing. It’s only the mastery of a
fear-filled hobby; as anyone who studies another language even for only
a few weeks, or makes puppets for a day, is aware. All language is a
sculpting process; it only, awkwardly, does the best it can. The soul of the
writing, not the puppet parts, is what matters. Cutting a puppet string,
breaking a rule, is what matters: it begins good writing, good art.

Rules and titles about parts of speech are for those who have given up on
invention, and only like accounting and hoarding things. Those writers or
teachers who like diagramming sentences, naming all the parts of speech
(puppet parts) have been forced into this hobby because of their hopeless
lack of skill at invention, and their ever-more-terrible need to be right.
(Never forget “righter” as a sound is written right into writer.) Remember
diagrammed sentences, knowledge of names for parts of speech and terms
for their arrangement—is to great writing as Cheetos or Velveeta are to
cave-aged cheese, as a recipe with only tiny quarter-teaspoon amounts of
spice or spices is to Indian food; as tourism and bringing back elegant
souvenirs is to living and working somewhere for a year or two.

Adopt in some form the old Korean tea chest set out for free by the curb at
the end of the Korean Church of Christ rummage sale. Don’t ruin the free
chest which has travelled so far—by filling it.

Beside it place your guarding lions, two who are like parents-eternal. (In
strange sum, a good writer or a good artist is their own child, and their
own parents: the rounding Pi formula of parentage, dependency,
autonomy, endlessly recircling and thus recycling planets.)

Writing in some ways replaces whoever your parents once were. If you are
a writer, you parent yourself; only thus it is possible you could in some
small measure try to parent the outer world, a world (however small)
peopled by readers, viewers, possibly listening to your lonely advice.

Place your symbolic tea cupboard from another country and your symbolic
carved lions from another country high above you, like a guarding, musing
set of possible, not yet discovered, ideas—floating on the possible horizon
in the possible writer’s world.

It’s moat and far above the moat: protecting you from ordinary life.
Distant castle keep, castle doors, castle drawbridge. And somehow, a place
like a vault to store—all your dreaming, all your sleep, where everything
is balanced and made right.

I hope this was/is a letter to Virginia Woolf. And I hope it was/is received,
via my fine mailbox, my tea cupboard, guarded by—lions.