Walden

Statue of Thoreau and cabin reproduction at Walden Pond.

You should not need an isolated cabin in the woods in order to write. And yet, many of us – writer and would-be writers – have probably fantasized about having an isolated place in the woods, a mountaintop or island retreat where we could go and find inspiration and peace.

There is no good evidence that those places actually do inspire writers or allow them to focus, and there are plenty of writers who work in cities and at home surrounded by distractions. I suppose I attribute it to a more Romantic than scientific notion that comes from reading books like Thoreau’s Walden.

Readers of this blog know that I have a thing about cabins though I have never built or owned one. I have stayed in them and there is something about them that affects my thinking process.  What is it about a small, plain, sparsely furnished cabin that is so appealing?

cabin autumn

Centre Hastings County, Ontario, Canada

Writers have written about having a writer’s cabin. Beyond Walden, some modern titles are: Heidegger’s Hut by Adam Sharr and A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams
by Michael Pollan. I like Michael Pollan‘s writing and I like that he starts this book imagining a cabin and then actually builds his own writing space.

Call it a cabin or hut or shed, a good number of famous writers have found them conducive to writing: Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Roald Dahl, and Carl Jung.

David Wood wrote about the lure of the writer’s cabin. He was building one himself.  We love the idea of being our own Thoreau.

There was a series that ran in a magazine back in the 1970s that I remember looking at it the library bound editions (I think it was the Saturday Review) that was a one-page feature with a photo of a writer’s desk and some text. I loved looking at the desks of contemporary writers. I guess I’m not the only person who likes this because I have a number of books about just that. Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz is a collection of photographs of writers at their desks. American Writers at Home has text by J. D. McClatchy and photos by Erica Lennard and looks at the physical spaces that seem to influence and stimulate some well-known American writers. Many of these are homes and not little simple cabins. The same is true of Writers’ Houses where you look into places like Hemingway’s Key West home.

We know that a writer’s genius does not come from the place where they do their writing. But I think that when writers find some kind of retreat or escape their homes for a place to write, that does tell you something about them, and that space may actually be the inspiration for their writing.

I like knowing about a writer’s tools. Does she use pad and paper, a fountain pen, legal pads, an old manual typewriter or a laptop computer. I have a clear picture in my mind of Hemingway with his pencils at his standup desk. I know that some writers like to go to a cafe or coffee shop and write. There must be something about the in and out of customers that is also inspiring. I notice that a lot of writers’ desks are placed in the center of the room or in a corner rather than looking out a window. Though the outside world may be a beautiful scene, is it more of a distraction? Isolation is always part of the cabin fantasy.

I would bet that you’re more likely to find a radio than a TV in a writer’s space. More likely to hear instrumental music than vocals.

I actually saw, when I was at the Newseum in Washington DC, an exhibit of of Ted Kaczynski’s 10×12 Montana shack.  I’m no fan of the Unabomber but I was fascinated to look into the little box he put in the woods to write his manifesto.

I read on Habitat for Humanity – The Morning News by Nell Boeschenstein about her move from New York back to her hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia after having a prophylactic mastectomy.  At that point, she had been living in a log cabin outside town for seven months. She knew it seems somewhat cliché.

If figurines were awarded for completing twentysomething life-experience clichés, I have been angling for the entire set: the search for myself in central European beer halls; the move west to try growing up with the country; graduate school in New York. A log cabin in the woods has the air of the final trinket on the mantle: the Walden moment. Collect them all.

She is another person who looks at the website Cabin Porn which is just perfect for people who fantasize about “chucking it all for some peace and quiet.” Lots of little places in lovely, lonely landscapes.

She calls her cabin a “poster cabin of American cabins.” Up a dirt road, on a hill between two rivers with a field of tall grasses, that transitions to woods. The cabin itself is off in a clearing surrounded on two sides by cow pastures and on two sides by forest. It is “really a log cabins” (as a friend told her upon seeing it) made of logs with white chinking and with two stone chimneys and a stone foundation and topped by cedar shingles.

She doesn’t promote it as a writer’s escape pod, but as a place that “symbolizes nothing if not equal parts nothing-doing, shit-shooting, porch-sitting, and classic American ideals of self-sufficiency and independence.” But she has some of the fantasy too. She had imagined days starting with coffee and walks through the woods which would generate “small-yet-big observations” and lead to afternoon writing that would “last hours and come fluently.”

But she left the cabin took a job in the big city  to pay the bills. (A pretty cool job – helping produce the fabulous Fresh Air radio show for NPR.) She says that she has been told “too many times and by too many writing instructors that the best stories are often found within single grains of sand. ”

I’m not sure I understand that notion. I do like William Blake’s idea in “Auguries of Innocence”:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

And I agree with Nell that “The ideal landscape is one in which there is an open field with a pond, some animals in the foreground, and the woods in the background, the border between field and forest marked by a fence.”

Her grains of sand seem to be the small pieces of her larger cabin experience: the view of a mountain from between the trees; the neighboring pony and the donkey grazing; the creak and bang of the screen door, and even the feared copperhead snakes.

Cabin + Island = my idea of getting away

You shouldn’t need a cabin in the woods in order to write. But it wouldn’t hurt.

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