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Shedding writer's block

Retreating to the confines of a tiny shed is the first step for many writers in freeing their imagination.

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Today, individualism and bohemianism largely characterize writers' social identity. Isolation, in turn, is far more acceptable, if not expected. For many writers pressed with domestic distractions, it is also pragmatic.

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"I have a theory that women escape from home to write, while men I know escape from the world by staying home to write," says novelist Katharine Weber. "I suspect that this is because the dishes and laundry do not call out their name."

As Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." When writer Adrianne Harun felt the squeeze of family life in her 700-square-foot home, her husband found an unorthodox solution: "He chainsawed off an end of the house and converted it into a shed," says Ms. Harun. "The shed is ideal in some ways. It's close enough to home so I can run back and forth for books and deal with things, but I'm not in the midst of phone ringing and the kids," she says.

R.W.B. Lewis's octagonal studio was born from a similar need: "I could see it would be awfully hard to get work done with our first child coming along, but I didn't have anything as imaginative as this in mind as a replacement," says Mr. Lewis. A walkway connects the house with the studio, which sits 30 feet away at the bottom of a shallow ravine. The studio stands on a circle of wooden stilts and a cinder block base. It's lit by a skylight.

For 40 years, the studio has been the crucible of Lewis's writing life, helping him nurse some of his best work - including his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Edith Wharton. Lewis still pecks out his work on a tiny typewriter. The technique is old-fashioned, he admits, but not nearly so anachronistic as that of his literary heroine.

"Wharton was a morning worker," says Lewis. "She wrote in bed for years, letting pages fall onto the floor for her maid to run and pick up."

An incentive to get dressed

Unlike Wharton, many writers testify to the necessity of simply getting up and moving. A shed, for some, is more a destination than a surrounding.

"You have to put your pants on in the morning and go someplace," says memoirist Frank Conroy, now director of the University of Iowa's writers' workshop.

The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., offers writers tiny studios in which to work for up to eight weeks. "Writers constantly tell us that the walk to their studio through nature proves invaluable to their creative process," says resident manager David Macy.

Leaving the house and heading for the studio, some writers say, is no easier than rolling out of bed and hopping into a cold shower. Many, as a result, detest their shed, even as they admit they would cease to function as human beings without it.

Will Campbell of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., is an exception. The fiction writer built his cabin in 1963 out of logs he obtained by trading a horse. Most everything inside the cabin has sentimental value, from a sitting chair he carved out of a walnut tree, to a plate with an engraving of his boyhood church in Mississippi.

Over the years, the cabin has evolved into a meeting place for friends and readers. A big-hearted man with a Southern drawl, Mr. Campbell once trained for the ministry. His writing on the experience attracts men and women facing spiritual crises of their own.

The meetings in his cabin, which often last into the morning hours, have interrupted his efforts to write his way out of the first writer's block of his career, but he accepts visitors regardless. "I try to discourage people. They think I know more than I do," says Campbell. "But I sort of run an open shop, don't turn folks away. I can get out of work and pretend I'm helping someone."