Lauren Slater’s oeuvre straddles the line between memoir and science writing — fair game for a practicing psychologist turned writer. “Welcome to my Country,” among her best-known works, recounts her journey as a mental health professional with deep empathy for her patients, and “Opening Skinner’s Box” brought complex psychological experiments to a lay audience. Her most recent book, “Playing House,” explores her own fraught emotional terrain of family, sex, and aging. Two years ago, Slater moved from Somerville to Harvard, where she writes in a small cottage with red walls.
CREATIVE SPRINTS: [Moving to Harvard from Somerville] has left me with less time to write . . . We have three horses, and I’m passionate about riding. We have five acres of land, and I’m also passionate about gardening. I’m probably a less consistent writer now; I’m more of a sprinter as a writer. I don’t sit down to write every day by any means. I didn’t do that in Somerville, but I really don’t do that now. Instead, I write in chunks — I’ll go through a fit [that lasts] about six weeks.
AN OFFICE OF ONE’S OWN: My office is separate from my house — it’s on my property, but it’s a separate building . . . It’s a very serene, beautiful space. It has a cathedral ceiling with huge beams that run across it. The walls are red, and there’s an accent wall that’s a fudge-colored brown. It has an antique door and bead board for the ceilings. I collect little glass bottles, so there are tiny, beautiful bottles on the window ledges. I got a desk from the 1880s from someone on Craigslist for $300 — I can’t believe someone was selling it for $300. It looks like a little gingerbread house. It’s a world without distractions. I may take a break to stretch or get a cup of coffee, but in general, I don’t get distracted. People are constantly frustrated with me because I’m so hard to reach. I don’t answer the phone or e-mails. I block out the world to make what it is that I’m making . . . My daughter has been using it for sleepovers, and I come in the next day and find popcorn wrappers, but I don’t go there except to write.
FEEDING THE MUSE: I think of all [my creative endeavors] as on a continuum. Writing is the most central art form to me. When I was in my 20s, I only wrote. When I entered my 30s, I started dabbling with crafts. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more and more serious about other kinds of artistic expression, which feeds my writing. I don’t want to sound new-agey, but it’s just another way of expressing creativity.
MAKING WORLDS: I remember when we lived in Somerville, I hung a big sign in the playroom that said, “Make things.” For me, that’s the credo by which I live my life. Life is about making things; making worlds is what I really want to do. I’m addicted to making glass beads. When you’re working with the beads and the flame, you can’t tell what they’re going to look like because the whole thing is just a molten ball of glow. You can’t tell until they cool and the colors resolve that you can actually tell what you’ve created — each one is an experiment and a surprise. I also make stained glass windows and panels. A bead is a tiny little planet. Stained glass is a representation of a world. A story or an essay — when it works — is a world unto itself.
DON’T LOOK BACK: By the time something is published, I’ve already written it, and once I’ve written it, I’ve already lost interest in it. I don’t even like to think about what I’ve written. Inevitably, I’m going to think one of two things: “Oh my god, this sucks, and I can’t believe I had the gall to publish it,” or, “This is really, really good and I obviously got lucky, and I once had ability, but I no longer have that talent.” Neither response is especially comfortable to have, so I never look back at my work.
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached eugenia.williamson @gmail.com.