Forgotten Rooms by Ellen Estilai

I am overdue for that dream, the one in which I stumble upon a secret room in my house that I had forgotten about or maybe never knew existed. It’s been years since I’ve been visited by that kind of dream. The last one I had was not just about a room but a whole apartment—a series of dark rooms connected to one another, fully furnished—including an ungainly plaid couch I would never have chosen myself. Sometimes the rooms are dark, sometimes they’re full of light, but they always contain surprises—and cobwebs.

These dreams are a gift. I feel energized afterward, full of possibilities, but also enervated and melancholy. I spend the next few days revisiting the dream, yearning to be back in those rooms.

I was reminded of these forgotten room dreams by recent stories of two cultural finds. The first was the discovery of a long-lost manuscript by Harper Lee, the reclusive, famously unprolific author of the beloved classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Since her first book’s publication in 1960, the author’s legion of fans have waited in vain for another novel, but Lee saw no need to give them one. She explained she was overwhelmed by the attention surrounding Mockingbird, and that she had already said what she had to say in that book. She was done.

Done, that is, until late 2014, when Lee’s attorney found a long-forgotten manuscript in a drawer. Go Set a Watchman, the precursor to Mockingbird, is set for release on July 14, 2015. It’s not clear just how much the choice to publish was Lee’s own, since the 88-year-old author is deaf and blind and has been confined to an assisted living facility following a stroke in 2007.

Critics point out that 55 years ago, her original editor rejected Go Set a Watchman, telling her to write the story from young Scout’s point of view. That version went on to become a Pulitzer-Prize-winning bestseller, while the first version languished in a drawer, like many first novels—and perhaps rightly so.

However, her current publisher, HarperCollins, says that the book will be published as is; it needs no editing. The fact that publishers almost never say that only adds to the dreamlike quality of this “forgotten drawer” story. We will have to wait until its launch to see whether the book should have stayed in the drawer. Will the novel have literary merit or will it be merely an artifact for critics and scholars to study? And why is Lee publishing it now, after so many years of silence?

For me as a writer, the more immediate issue is the silence: how could Lee not publish for 55 years? How could she forget about a 300-page manuscript? What makes a 34-year-old, first time writer decide she has nothing more to say? Why did she stop doing the work? For those of us toiling away at our computers, hoping that tomorrow will bring the elusive phrase, unique insight, or epiphany, the thought of nothing more to say is chilling—like a death, like a forgotten room that is sealed forever.

The second cultural find was Vivian Maier, whose entire life was a forgotten room. That room was unsealed in 2007 when architectural historian John Maloof bought a box of hundreds of her photographic negatives at a Chicago auction house.   These images of Chicago streets scenes, taken in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, appeared to be the work of an accomplished professional street photographer whose work was on par with such mid-twentieth century giants as Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Weegee. However, Maloof’s Google search for Vivian Maier failed to turn up any record of exhibitions or other evidence of professional activity. When Maloof posted links to a few of Maier’s photos on social media, he received thousands of enthusiastic responses, but no clues to the photographer’s story.

When Maloof’s second Google search revealed that Maier had died in 2009 at the age of 83, he had the beginnings of information he needed to research her life and work. He learned that she had been a nanny for forty years, most of that time with a Rolleiflex around her neck, taking over 150,000 images—most of which were never printed and none of which were ever exhibited. Some images never even made it out of the film canisters. That seemingly selfless dedication to process over product is reminiscent of Tibetan monks who sweep away their sand paintings when they are finished.

Maloof eventually acquired about 90 percent of Maier’s work: including over 100,000 negatives and 2,700 rolls of undeveloped film, as well as a storage locker full of ephemera—hats, clothes, plane tickets, letters, tchotchkes, audio and video tapes—which he used to piece together the mystery of her hidden genius. His Oscar-nominated 2014 documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, co-directed by Charlie Siskel, is the culmination of this research.

Interviews with Maier’s former charges and their parents, neighbors, and photographers create a portrait of a complex, eccentric artist, independent yet dependent, voluble yet tight lipped, aggressive yet reclusive. She demanded that her employers put heavy locks on her bedroom door. “Don’t ever open this door,” she warned them. No one did.

In a recent LA Times article, filmmakers Maloof and Siskel noted that Maier’s isolation from the art world “never stopped her from doing the work of the artist, averaging a roll of film per day for five decades. That’s what artists do, they do the work.”

By the end of the documentary, we still don’t know why Maier chose to live her life closed off from the art world. What is abundantly clear is that, while she was unable to share her work, that work is self-assured, mature, masterful, technically sophisticated, and devoid of clichés. She was an outsider, but her work is not “outsider art.”

It is tempting to wonder what would have happened if Maier had gone to art school. On the other hand, some people are better off outside the academy. I am reminded of the Iranian sculptor, Esmail Tavakoli , known as Masht Esmail, (1923-1994) who started out as a janitor in the University of Tehran’s Fine Arts Faculty. After many years watching students at work, he decided to try his hand. The resulting iron sculptures of figures from classical Persian mythology, monumental and rough, have found their way into museums and private collections around the world. When asked if he wished he had had a traditional college education, he replied that if he had gone to school at eighteen, he probably would have ended up as an accountant.

While art schools can be nurturing, academia in the 1940s and 50s was often an unwelcoming place for young women artists, undervaluing and marginalizing them. Outside the academy, Maier was free to take her work seriously. Whether she took herself seriously is another matter.

Of course, it’s an artist’s business whether or not she writes or exhibits, but it’s hard not to see her refusal to do so as a kind of betrayal. That is why the stories of Harper Lee and Vivian Maier are unsettling. In Maloof’s documentary, photographer Mary Ellen Mark places Maier in the pantheon, citing her affinities with many twentieth century greats. “Had she made herself known,” she says, “she would have become a famous photographer.” The street photographer Joel Meyerowitz says, “She didn’t defend herself as an artist. She just did the work.”

Maier did the work, more than most artists ever do in a lifetime, but did she honor the work? It is very easy not to honor the work, to keep it hidden, to second-guess oneself, to assume rejection. That is what is so disquieting about the silence of these two women artists—one who thought she had said enough and one who had so much to say but couldn’t find someone to say it to. It is so easy to close that door. It is so easy to quit.

In a recent Inlandia workshop, our instructor, Jo Scott-Coe, assigned this twenty-minute exercise: “Why are you writing right now?” My response was this:

Actually, I haven’t been writing lately, but I will write so I don’t have to hear myself say that. I will write to make sense of my experience. I will write to have a conversation with myself—or that elusive intended reader. I will write to fall in love with writing again, as I did when I first started, when I couldn’t wait for the next sentence to see what I had to say, when I stole time from my day job to finish a paragraph, when I was amazed at what my experiences revealed, when I didn’t second-guess myself, when the pieces of the puzzle came together, one jagged sentence fragment at a time.

I am overdue for that dream, but I will not wait until I stumble into another forgotten room. Instead, I will do the work, because that’s what artists do.

Note: A shorter version of this essay ran in the Inlandia Literary Journeys column in the Press-Enterprise last spring.