Shedding writer's block
Retreating to the confines of a tiny shed is the first step for many writers in freeing their imagination.
In May of 1845, Henry David Thoreau started building a cabin out of pitch pines and hickories in a young forest outside Concord, Mass. He went there, as many Americans have read, "to front only the essential facts of life."Skip to next paragraph
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Less known is that Thoreau also went there to write. In his two years, two months, and two days spent (in part) on the banks of Walden Pond, the 27-year-old composed his first book, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers." The cabin he built, which stood 10-foot square, served as a home and a laboratory for self-reliance. But it was also a writer's studio.
Writers before Thoreau had built similar structures. But the popular success of "Walden" - the chronicle of Thoreau's experiment - fixed in the world's literary consciousness the image of the isolated writer in a spartan shed, extracting poetry from solitude.
Call them cabins, huts, sheds, studies, or studios - the tiny structures have since become icons of the writing life and the unique demands the craft places on those who pursue it. They are normally one room, often unheated, undecorated, appointed only by a desk, a chair, and a window for viewing the world. Some provide beyond the basic creature comforts - modern electricity, plush carpeting, and antique furniture from floor to wall.
Common to all sheds, though, is isolation. Even structures standing no more than 10 feet from the writer's house offer the precious gift of a separate space. A space dedicated solely to writing, even a veritable hovel, is, for some writers, more sympathetic and more necessary than a house, an office building, or a classroom.
"Writers deliberately put themselves in exile by going into a shed," says novelist and historian Jane Smith. "Completing your writing is a way of integrating yourself back into the world."
One school of writers decries comfort. "Appealing workplaces are to be avoided," wrote Annie Dillard in "The Writing Life." "One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark."
Consider John Cheever's solution. While living in a New York City apartment, the fiction writer would wake up, have breakfast with his wife, take an elevator to the basement, and write all day on a card table facing a blank wall.
"I think the ideal writing room has to be a little uncomfortable - drafty is good," says Ms. Smith.
Other writers accept cushy appointments, or hoist their desks so close to a window that they seem to be writing more outside than in. Fiction writer Amy Hempel's shed on the east end of Long Island is, in the author's words, "almost too cute." The structure is 12-feet long by 9-feet wide, with pinewood floors, cedar shingles, and white paint trim. "It just sort of screams 'writer's studio.' Sometimes I'm self-conscious writing in there."
Proximity to a wood-burning stove is requisite. "It's a handy place for throwing what you wrote that day," says Ms. Hempel. "It's quite satisfying to watch it literally go up in smoke."
A distinguished pedigree of writers has incorporated sheds into their writing life. In 1906, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw built a hut on a rotating platform that he could move to follow the sun's path across the sky.
Mark Twain's sister-in-law built an octagonal one-room studio for the American humorist when he moved to Elmira, N.Y., in 1874. Twain exalted in the space:
"It is a cozy nest, with just room in it for a sofa and a table and three or four chairs.... And when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lightning flashes above the hills beyond, and the rain beats upon the roof over my head, imagine the luxury of it!"
Writing sheds were considered eccentric through most of the 19th century, when the ideal of the writer's workshop was a quiet corner of the home. "At that time, I think, most writers wanted to project an image of being connected to society, as defined by 'home and family,' not solitary artists in their own private 'homes,' " says Stephen Railton, a professor of American literature at the University of Virginia.