Though she is used to what happened by now, used to its being one of the underpinnings of her life, the pain and the sadness still catch Tillie Olsen unaware at times. "I had destruction happen in me," she says quietly, looking away. "I think that's clear enough."
The room Tillie Olsen is sitting in is very much a writer's room, a small space in Santa Cruz dominated by a large window and its view of the Pacific. Books are neatly stacked everywhere and on Tillie Olsen's desk is an equally neat row of postcard sized pictures of authors: Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, George Eilot, Colette, a dozen more. They are there not only as homage to what has been created, but out of respect for what has not - to symbolize the painful difficulties that keep writers from writing, that push them toward creative annihilation.
Tillie Olsen is an anomaly, a departure from the norm. A major Coles American voice of whom Robert Coles has said, "Everything she has written has become almost immmediately a classic," she has nevertheless written very little. Her first and best-known book, a collection of short stories called "Tell me a Riddle" - "It will be read as long as the American language lasts" wrote critic Julian Moynahan - was published when she was 50. Her second "Yonnondio," a fragment of a novel reclaimed from her youth, a decade later. Now, at age 65, comes the non-fiction "Silences," (Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence) a comprehensive and devastating elaboration on the theme that has been the leitmotif of Tillie Olsen's life, the theme that circumstance is essential to creativity, that "When the claims of creation cannot be primary, the results are atrophy."
"Literary history and the present are dark with silences," the book begins. "There are not natural silences, the necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural; the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being but cannot."
Tillie Olsen is a small woman whose presence combines an almost tangible intergrity with a warmth and kindness that causes her to kiss a visitor when he walks in the door. her once angular face is softened now, her short, gray hair swept back. And when she speaks of the current myth of creativity, though she can be hesitant at times, there is a sureness about what she knows to be true.
"What most people think," she says allowing a note of soft irony into her voice, "is that it's just a matter a determination and will. 'It doesn't matter what the obstacles if you have it, you're gonna do it."
What Tillie Olsen thinks is exactly the opposite. That unless circumstances, "including class color, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the times, climate into which one is born" are exactly right, the words simply will not come. "Silences" as filled with painful examples of this, with reminders of how both Hardy and Melville to insexplicable 30-year matuses from novel writing of Kafka's maddening struggle to find time to work, of Gerald Manley Hopkins' return to poetry after seven years of self-imposed abstinence only to produce but nineteen poems in his last nine years, feeling in his own words, "time's eunuch, unable to beget."
And though she feels beyond personal bitterness - "How can I be, I'm Olsen's story, the relating of how she joyfully came to writing only to lose the thread for a full twenty years never to fully recover it, that is among the most affecting of all.
She grew up in working-class Omaha, raised by "old country Socialist" parents, including a father who escaped from a Czarist prison after the abortive 1905 Revolution. She stuttered as a child, something she considers "part of my luck" because it made her listen. What she heard was a richness of speech that has intoxicated her from that day to this. "Just the music, the varieties, the ways of speaking," she says, smiling as she thinks back, "It all had a magical tone."
Yet when she came to reading, Tillie Olsen discovered that "not only the speech but so much of the human beings around me was not in literature. Walt Whitman's indictment of the aristocratic bias of literature was still true: Most of the people who wrote books came from the privileged classes."
So she became, in a phrase that still animates her when she uses it, "incited to literature. The factor which gave me confidence was that I had something to contribute. I had something which wasn't in there yet."
Out of this feeling came "Yonnondio" named after a Whitman poem, a novel of the Depression begun when she was nineteen. A portion of the manuscript appeared in 1934 in the second issue of the Partisan Review, but the novel was never finished and thought irretrievably lost. However, remnants were found among some old papers and pieced together and published in 1973 "by the girl of the thirties and the woman of the seventies, in ardous partnership."
If you were to ask Tillie Olsen why she never finished "Yonnondio," she would more or less tell you that life got in the way. She married, she raised four daughters, she held a starts, tling variety of jobs, ranging from ironing ties to capping Best Foods mayonnise jars, she was active in labor and school politics in her San San Francisco neighhorhood, she did everything, in fact, except write.
"In the twenty years I bore and reared my children, usually had to work on a paid job as well, the simplest circumstances for creation did not exists," she writes in "Silences." "Nevertheless writing, the hope of it, was 'in the air I breathed, so long as I shall breathe at all.'"
All this might have been so much genteel speculation had not Tillie Olsen's first book "Tell me a Riddle," been so extraordinary. "As if we were watching reality discovering its own form of expression," is how Richard Poirier described her style, a careful, direct, elegant use of words that draws you immediately into her world and is reminiscent of what Malcolm Cowley said of Nathaneal West: "He wrote as if he were composing cablegrams to a distant country, with the words so expensive that not one of them could be wasted, yet never forgetting that the message, at any cost, must be complete and clear."
A prime example of this is the first paragraph of the title work, one of the most moving of all American short stories: "For forty-seven years they had been married. How deep back the stubborn gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say - but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even the children, long since grown."
She wrote, as she knew she would, of ordinary people. "In all my work," she says with unexpected firmness, there is that celebration of human beings," the feeling that "there is so much more to people than their lives permit them to be. It almost kills you how much is lost and wasted in people who might have been you."
After "Tell Me a Riddle's" publication, recognition came to Tillie Olsen. She received a series of grants, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and taught creative writing at colleges around the country. Yet despite this encouragement the year since have seen, except for the resurrected fragment of "Yonnondio," almost no new published fiction from Tillie Olsen and it is because of that that "Silences" had to be written.
"The habits of a lifetime, when everything else had to come before writing, are not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for writing to be first," she writes. "What should take weeks, takes me sometimes months to write: what should take months, take years."
She know great portions of the book its extracts from the writings of trouble authors, by heart, and now she reaches for her copy and, without turning to the page, repeats the passage from Rainer Maria Rilke that says it best for her particular situation. "It is the great weight of what is not done that lies with all its weight on what want to come out of the soil."
Tillie Olsen is mostly a quiet person, but when she gets caught up in something she forgets her hesitancy and flares up into animation, as when she talks of other writers who have produced very little or even not at all.
"I'm embittered about the whole situation, unconsolably. I'm more and more in a rage about it, she says all in a rush. "I'm bitter about all those books that are unpublished or not yet finished, I'm bitter about all the richness there wanting to have that benificence of circumstances, that lifting of everyday necessity."
By the time, Tillie Olsen has moved outside to say goodbye to her visitor and to offer some final words. "We have to make some changes in that situation, it cannot go on," she says as she turns back to the house, sad but someshow hopeful, a small figure in the landscape, perhaps but a resolute one.