“[A] woman must have money and a room of her own,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “if she is to write fiction.” 1
Fair enough. But what about men? What must guys have to write fiction?
My answer: a shed. Money wouldn’t hurt, but definitely a shed.
The American novelist John Gardner states in The Art of Fiction that when writing a novel, a fiction writer’s primary goal is to create “a vivid and continuous dream.”2 For me, at least, dreaming the dream requires almost complete isolation. An off-season shack on a beach near Tulum would do nicely. A cabin deep in the Colorado Rockies would be almost ideal. The 1840’s-era farmhouse that my wife and I own in Vermont is a good start. But even in this calm rural setting, distractions of any sort threaten the process. The ordinary activities of my family or out-of-town visitors jolt me out of the dream. I lose track of the plot. My characters stop talking to one another. The spontaneous, intense, sometimes torrential flow of words from the mind to the page—what I call “white-water thinking”—slows to a trickle. To dream the dream and, especially, to put the dream down on paper: this requires solitude.
Here’s how I address this dilemma: I purchase a cheap, ready-made wooden shell and have it transported to our property; then I upgrade it into a four-season writing space.
Step one of this process is hiring two local carpenters, Alfred and Eugene, to construct the shell where they live in a nearby town. These craftsmen specialize in building sheds. They start work in late June and finish a week later. On July fourth, Alfred and Eugene tow the shell here on a flatbed trailer, drive across our lawn, and back carefully into the meadow. My request for placement causes some concern. I want the shed to sit on slanted ground at an angle that will allow a view down the slope. “We can do that,” Alfred tells me, but his tone of voice suggests skepticism. Winching the shed off the flatbed trailer proves touch-and-go for several minutes—there’s a risk of it toppling over—but somehow the process takes shape without mishap. Alfred and Eugene use long iron pry bars to shove the shed into the position I’ve requested. Then they level it with cement blocks.
The result: an austere little shack with lots of potential. Properly shimmed, it’s now stable where it stands in the meadow. It isn’t ready for writerly activities, not by a long shot, but this shell provides the raw materials for what I intend to create. It certainly possesses the virtue that realtors so often tout: location, location, location. The shack rests about a hundred feet from the house, close enough to allow easy access but far enough to offer privacy and silence. I can’t imagine wanting a more serene spot.
“It [Twain’s house in Hartford, Connecticut] has a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and approvals, and solicitudes, and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we are in its confidence, and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.” —Mark Twain 3
Over the years I’ve visited many writers’ houses. Among my favorites have been Melville’s Arrowhead, located near Pittsfield, Massachusetts; Emily Dickinson’s Homestead in Amherst; Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage near Grasmere in the English Lake District; Emerson’s mansion in Concord; and Thoreau’s shack at Walden Pond (or, more accurately, the original shack’s replica). All of these visits revealed aspects of their owners’ creative lives, including vivid impressions of the authors’ domestic and artistic settings and perhaps a glimpse of how they worked. Especially vivid was a tour of Arrowhead, Melville’s residence from 1850-1862 and the locus for his writing Moby-Dick. Typical of many large nineteenth-century houses, Arrowhead feels spacious and gracious, and its somewhat musty odor helps to induce an almost immediate illusion of time travel. Most evocative is Melville’s study. This sparely furnished room features the broad table that Melville used as a desk, currently laid out with the some of the author’s books, a candlestick, an inkwell and two quill pens, and replica pages from long-past works-in-progress. As many visitors have noted, this study’s most powerful feature is the large window front-and-center before the desk, a window that looks out on Mount Greylock and the cetacean contour that apparently inspired Melville’s vision of the White Whale.
Why do writers visit other writers’ homes? The most obvious reason is curiosity about our literary betters. Passing two hours at Dove Cottage, I could more fully imagine Wordsworth’s life and his love of the Lake District. Touring Emily Dickinson’s Homestead, I gained a better sense of both the poet’s reclusiveness and her activities within a lively New England family. Exploring the state park surrounding Walden Pond and walking to the site where Thoreau’s shack once stood, I better understood this place and how its “beauty without grandeur,” as Thoreau called it, inspired and infused Walden. Beyond these specific insights, however, something else drives me, something that presumably drives other writers as well, to visit famous authors’ homes. It’s the hope that some lingering quantum of energy from the brilliant owners’ minds will somehow illuminate my work.
The American scholar Ann Trubek eloquently notes the folly of this approach: “For me, writers’ houses are by definition melancholy,” she writes in A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses. “[T]hey aim to do the impossible: to make physical—to make real—acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand.” Worse, “Writers’ houses expose the heartbreaking gap between writers and readers. Part of the pull of a writer’s house is the desire to get as close as possible to the precise, generative, ‘Aha!’ But we can never get there.” 4
At once the question arises: Why bother? If writers’ houses are merely secular shrines, as Trubek calls them (“places where one believes a miracle occurred—the penning of a masterpiece, the birth of a genius”), then why bother visiting at all? Maybe it’s a waste of time, money, and effort. But Trubek goes on to write that “People trek to pilgrimage sites because they believe it will strengthen their faith to pay homage in person.” 5 Faith in what? In the worth of literature? In the possibility that even a far less talented writer than Melville, Dickinson, or Wordsworth may still have something to offer?
“I have enough money now to finish my house.” —William Faulkner 6
With the pre-fab shell now in place, my own work starts in earnest. The goal is to create what Hemingway called “a clean, well-lighted place.” What Alfred and Eugene have constructed, however, is just a dusty, dark, eight-by-ten wooden box. The crude pine floor, the exposed studs and rafters, and the rough-sawn walls won’t provide a comfortable workspace even in the summer; during the winter months, it will offer no protection from the cold, the wind, or the snow. Worse of all, there is no light. Making it habitable and congenial will require extensive upgrades.
First and foremost, this means installing lots of windows. I insert two on the south wall and three in the west wall to provide views of the nearby woods. Installing another three windows in the east wall offers a panorama of the larger forest and of the ridge across the valley. Properly inserted and trimmed, these windows will let in the sunshine but keep out the rain, wind, and cold.
Then, to make the shed comfortable year-round, I install a four-inch-thick layer of rigid-foam insulation between the studs and the rafters. A series of intricate tasks follows: wiring two electrical outlets, paneling the interior walls with tongue-and-groove wainscoting boards, installing window trim and sills, sheet-rocking the ceiling, putting down a finished pine floor, and painting the interior. Some of these tasks exceed my skill set. My solutions: 1) if possible, acquire the skills; and 2) if necessary, lower my standards. This shed is a low-risk venture. If I do mediocre work, will there be any negative consequences? None that I can foresee. Somehow I pull off the tasks. The payoff is a cozy space conducive to turning inward. I lay down a rug, move in a table and two chairs, and bring in a small electric heater to complete my labors just in time for November’s first snowfall.
“What do you think?” I ask my wife, Edith, when I show her my finished handiwork.
“It’s really beautiful.”
“The place is for you too.”
She smiles but says nothing.
“Truly,” I tell her. “It’s for both of us.”
“It’s your place.”
“No—both of ours.”
We drop the issue, but I’m intent on convincing Edith to take turns.
Like a Pentagon battleship, the project has run late and over budget. Still, the deed is done. The little shed now sits out in the meadow. By mid-November, I start spending several hours there each week, and I feel cozy inside even when the temperature plummets.
Now comes the hard part: writing books.
“If you’re lucky, you might have an extra room to set aside for meditation. . . . Whichever room it is, it should be quiet, airy, and free of smoke.” —Bruce Newman 7
Although Edith and I call this shed “the writer’s shack,” I’ve never intended it solely for writing. Meditation has always been part of my agenda. Soon after completing the upgrades, I can see that the shed will meet my expectations. The isolation, the interior beauty, the sense of calm, the light, and the view down the meadow: all of these attributes make it consistently, deeply conducive to stilling the mind. The shed seems . . . perfect. Soon, however, I begin to wonder if perfection is really what I need. Buddhist teachers often state that meditation should be possible even under less-than-ideal circumstances—indeed, even under difficult, unpleasant circumstances. That’s part of the goal: equanimity regardless of external conditions. Would it be better, perhaps, to meditate in an unappealing place? In a setting that offers fewer aesthetic delights and presents more sensory challenges? The American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, for instance, has described how he mastered certain meditative techniques while living in a cacophonous Burmese city. 8 Is it possible that my shed is too pleasant, too calm, too lovely a place for meditation?
To clarify these issues, I consult Visuddhimagga (generally translated into English as The Path of Purification), a Fifth-century C.E. Buddhist treatise on monastic life. One chapter, “The Five Factors of the Resting Place,” outlines the attributes that practitioners in the Theravada tradition consider auspicious for a meditation site. As translated from the original Pali, here’s my phrasing of the Five Factors: 9
The meditation place should
- Be neither too far from nor too near the alms resort
- Be rarely frequented by day nor disrupted [by voices] at night
- Have little contact with gadflies, flies, wind, burning sun, or creeping things
- Allow meditators easy access to robes, alms food, lodging, and medicine
- Have access to elder bhikkhus [monks] who are learned, versed in the scriptures, observers of the Dharma, and amenable to questions such as “How is this, venerable sir?” and “What is the meaning of this?”
My shed strikes out on Factor 1 (no “alms resort” in sight), does fine on Factor 2 (minimal disruption), checks out on Factor 3 (no flies, wind, sun, or creepy-crawlies), and scores a bull’s-eye on Factor 4 (easy access to food, clothing, lodging, and medicine). Factor 5 is open to interpretation. Do I have access to elder monks? Edith is younger than I am, and she is certainly no monk—or nun—but I regard her as one of the wisest people I know. Is she an “observer of the Dharma?” She doesn’t talk the talk, but she walks the walk, so I feel confident that she fits the bill. In short, my shed scores 80% as an ideal locus for meditation.
However, the Visuddhimagga goes on to list “The Eighteen Faults of a Monastery.” My shed appears to avoid nine of these faults. Is it Large? No. Dilapidated? Nope. Famous? Not a chance. Near a City? Not at all. Near Incompatible Persons? Not in my view. Near a Port of Entry, Border Countries, or the Frontier of a Kingdom? Nein, non, nyet. Lacking in Good Friends? No way. Yet further consideration reveals that the shed manifests no fewer than eight of the Eighteen Faults: it is New, Near a Road, Near a Pond, Near Edible Leaves, Near Flowers, Near Fruits, Near Trees, and Near Arable Fields. (The Visuddhimagga regards each of these faults as problematic because they draw persons who may distract or disrupt resident monks.) Fault #17—being Unsuitable—is difficult to interpret. What does it mean for a meditation place to be Unsuitable? I can only guess. In any case, The Path of Purification states that a meditation place “with any of these faults is not favorable.” My shed’s score: 50%. In theory, it barely passes muster. In practice, it’s what I have, so it’s what I’ll use.
I start meditating there every day.
“I don’t know where it [Faulkner’s own literary gift] came from. I don’t know why God or gods or whoever it was selected me to be the vessel.” —William Faulkner 10
Are meditation and writing fiction compatible? Meditation strives to disengage from the mental chatter and to dispel the illusions that the mind creates, all of which obstruct a wider, fuller perception of reality. By contrast, writing fiction thrives on precisely that chatter and those illusions—on the flow, even the torrent, of thoughts, emotions, images, and fantasies welling up from within the mind. Properly tapped and channeled, this flow lets writers of fiction create the vivid and continuous dream within a novel. Is simultaneous encouragement and discouragement of the mental flow possible? Almost certainly not. These two states require altogether opposite habits of mind. Is it possible, however, that a writer-meditator might somehow make the flow or non-flow volitional, much as actors control the process of being “in character” or not? This approach seems a likelier option.
As a writer, I’ve struggled with these issues for many decades. Almost everything I’ve written has originated in insights, images, snippets of imagined dialogue, flights of fancy, and dreams that have come to me unbidden. In short, the sources of what I write have welled up from the unconscious. Acquiring these unconscious materials is, of course, just the start of the process. Writing novels, stories, or essays requires taking la ligne donnée, l’idée donnée, l’image donné, or whatever else has arisen, then linking, expanding, shaping, and polishing the initial insights into a fully crafted work. I have no doubt that craftsmanship is ninety-nine percent of the artistic task. However, the rational process of crafting the work starts with and relies upon the irrational process of letting insights, images, dreams, snippets of imagined dialogue, and flights of fancy bubble up unobstructed and unfiltered into the light of day. Without access to unconscious material, the conscious mind can’t do its work. The intensity, the unpredictability, and even the craziness of the mind: these are the wellspring. For me, as for most artists, everything I’ve accomplished as a writer has begun with my mind’s involuntary ebb and flow.
One evening in 1981, when I was finishing up my workday as the office manager of a clinical psychology program at the University of Denver, I started chatting with a therapist-in-training named Rick. We were discussing the relationship between the arts and psychology. Rick started asking me questions about the experience of being a novelist. He was particularly curious about the process of creating characters and shaping their interactions. “How do you make them do what you want?” he asked.
“Generally speaking,” I told him, “I don’t. I get them started, then let them do what they want.”
Rick seemed puzzled. “What do you mean, what they want?”
“I try to let them come alive in my mind. Alive to the point that they have autonomy. If I can coax that into happening, the characters make their own choices, take their own actions, and speak their own minds.”
“That’s really bizarre.”
“If I do my job right, they act out the drama and essentially write the book for me.”
“You’re not . . . directing them?”
“Not if I can help it. In fact, they’re directing me. Or at least they’re showing me what should happen. My role as the writer is to leave them alone to the greatest degree possible, then watch them interacting and listen to them talking to one another.”
Rick’s expression now showed deepening concern. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said, “but what you’re saying sounds almost schizophrenic.”
“Maybe it is,” I admitted. “But if I understand what I hear you guys discuss here at the clinic, the schizophrenic person hears voices and has delusions that he or she mistakes for reality. I hear voices and have delusions that I know aren’t reality. I observe and listen to what I imagine seeing and hearing. Then I put down what I’ve witnessed and overheard on paper. I never believe that my experiences are real, and I never attempt to live out the situation myself.” What I didn’t tell Rick is that the process of observing and listening to characters can grow more and more complex, can proceed for months or even years, can become as compelling as normal reality despite my awareness that the manifestations of this process are illusory. This situation evokes the old joke I heard during my boyhood: “The neurotic builds castles in the air, the psychotic moves into them, and the psychiatrist collects the rent.” As a novelist, I acquire all three roles.
Even at the time of my conversation with this young clinical psychologist, I wasn’t concerned that my mind was sliding toward schizophrenia. I had been observing and listening to imaginary human beings since at least the age of five or six. (And not just to human beings: to animals as well. Mythical beasts. Alien creatures. Even inanimate objects.) All young children conjure imaginary worlds and the denizens who live there. The difference for me, and probably for many writers, is that these phenomena didn’t fully diminish when I reached later childhood, adolescence, or adulthood. By the age of thirty-one, when I happened to converse with Rick in the offices of the Psy.D. program, I’d been having these experiences more or less constantly for over twenty-five years. Were they alarming? Not at all. Disruptive, perhaps? At times. When the voices I overheard and the interactions I witnessed grew intense—and they were often most intense when I was immersed in writing a novel, a story, or a poem—imaginary personages sometimes demanded attention in ways I found annoying. I routinely passed nights during my teens, twenties, and thirties when visions of scenes or snippets of dialogue, arising while I was asleep or half-asleep, felt so compelling that I would get out of bed, turn on the light, scribble some notes in a notebook, and then attempt (often unsuccessfully) to fall asleep again. Gambits such as keeping a notepad beside my bed or using pens with built-in lights intensified rather than dampened the process. Overall, however, I felt that ignoring middle-of-the-night ideas was a bad idea. When the Muse crawls into bed with me at 3 a.m., I don’t rebuff her affections.
“All my books were great until I wrote them.” —Virginia Woolf 11
On September 14, 1982, I sweated through and reveled in my richest and most intense experience of literary inspiration. This experience lasted for several hours but unfolded seamlessly and without any temporal awareness. I was living in Denver at the time but preparing to move East, settle into New York City, and start a new life with Edith. While packing up my rented carriage house (a refurbished garage, actually) near the University of Denver, I was alone late one evening while plotting the logistics of my imminent move. At some point an idea arose spontaneously in my mind. What if during the mid-1530’s, when Francisco Pizarro and his band of conquistadores arrived in Peru, some of the indigenous population fled deep into the Andean cordilleras . . . and then stayed there? What if the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire had been incomplete? What if a remnant of the Incas had not only survived in isolation over the ensuing centuries but had evolved into a distinct culture? In reality, something similar actually took place in the Amazonian rainforest. Isolated, un-Westernized indigenous communities survive to this day in Brazil and perhaps in parts of Venezuela and Ecuador. Anthropologists conjecture that even in the present time, a scattering of “uncontacted” cultures may still exist in South America. It isn’t possible that any similar refugees had survived in the Andes all the way to the 1980’s . . . but was it plausible that some people might have avoided detection as late as the early twentieth century? Maybe, maybe not. On that September evening, I started mulling over the possibility and began taking notes on the ideas that sprang forth, one after another, without letup. I wrote as fast as I could. One thing led to another. Each concept brought forth two, five, eight, or thirteen more. Images, bits of dialogue, concepts, plot points, questions, conjectures: all of these came to me as fragments, none as coherent thoughts, all of them flighty as hummingbirds, but all related to the conceit of a high-altitude indigenous culture in which mountains were the refuge, the organizing principle, and the object of veneration. My scribbling went on and on. Eventually, dazed and exhausted, I returned to normal consciousness. When I looked at the time, I realized that more than four hours had passed. I had written down forty-seven discrete but often detailed entries in my notes.
Was this event a state of inspiration? Yes, and it lasted longer and was more continuous than any I had experienced before or have experienced since then. Were the resulting notes a work of art? Not at all. My scribblings were only a packet of seeds to plant, water, tend, and cultivate. Bringing them to fruition took ten years of strenuous work. The result: The Mountain Trilogy. Spanning 1,200 pages, these books are the longest and most complex work I’ve ever written. The first of the books, The Mountain Made of Light, was published in 1992. The other two volumes, Fire and Ice and The Summit, followed two years later.
I would have hobbled this process if I’d told myself: This is just Monkey Mind. These are pointless, random delusions. Ignore them, center yourself, and go to bed. How would I have benefited if I’d ignored the voices and images, the metaphors and notions, and then sat down to meditate—perchance to stop the flow of white-water thinking?
An even more disturbing question: why did I bother? What did I accomplish? The Mountain Trilogy remains my most ambitious work of fiction, but so what? Even these complex, carefully thought-through novels fall far short of the vision I received (if that’s the right word) in September of 1982. The plot is messy, the characters aren’t as fully developed as I’d hoped, the Andean culture is inadequately limned, and the philosophical-spiritual implications fall short of what I’d hoped to explore. As a commercial venture, the three books had a depressing trajectory. The critical response was positive for all three volumes—at times glowingly so—yet strong reviews didn’t generate long-term sales. The first volume, The Mountain Made of Light, sold almost a hundred thousand copies—not bad for a first novel back in the early 1990’s. The second book, Fire and Ice, sold two or three thousand. The third, The Summit, sold just a few hundred. All three are now out of print.
I can’t help but ask myself two mutually exclusive questions:
Was it good that I shot the rapids and gained the benefit of white-water thinking?
Or would I have benefited far more instead by meditating more often and more deeply over the ten years I devoted to writing the trilogy?
“This is it: the place, the house, the workroom, the time.” —Dylan Thomas 12
Eight months after Alfred and Eugene transported the wooden shell to Hyland Hill, the carpenters stop by unannounced. I chat with them about their work, the weather, and other topics typical of Vermont conversation. I decide on impulse to show them the now-upgraded writer’s shack. My hope: they’ll say wonderful things about my craftsmanship and will marvel at how I transformed the shell into a fully insulated, fully finished, cozy work space. We walk across the lawn into the meadow. I pull open the bank vault-like door to reveal the beautiful interior. Alfred and Eugene look the place over. Neither of them comments for a long time. Then Alfred says, “Looks good.” Eugene’s only comment: “Nice view down the meadow.” That’s it. No praise, no expressions of surprise, no questions. I’m baffled. Several carpenters within our circle of friends and acquaintances, as well as other friends, have often commented on how beautiful they find the place. From Alfred and Eugene, the craftsman who made the shed possible by building the shell, I hear next to nothing. Are they so unimpressed that they hold off to spare my feelings from their low opinions of the work? Are they baffled that the shed came out so well? Are they simply not interested?
“This is where you write?” Eugene asks.
“What do you write?”
That’s that. Literary work probably makes no sense to these carpenters: my sitting alone for hours in this little place, my attempts to eavesdrop on people who don’t exist, my struggle to take notes on imaginary events. I can hardly blame these practical, handy craftsmen for their dim view. They build tangible objects—utility sheds, picnic tables, doghouses. Wisps of ink on paper must seem insubstantial and frivolous. And are.
I write anyway. I walk down to the writer’s shack each morning and hide there for two or three hours. I think and wonder and scribble. During the spring after I’ve upgraded the shell, I write the second half of a novel that had defied completion for forty-one years. Late that autumn and winter, I finish a second novel, one for which the initial drafting had dragged on since the mid-2000’s. I rewrite and publish a novella during January of the new year. I resume work on my long-delayed nonfiction book about Vermont. I’m still not sure what I’m doing, but the river is full, the current strong, the water cold and bracing.
“We write for the total immersion of experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here, right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration.” —Alan Shapiro, “Why We Write” 13
Now that I’ve waded more than neck-deep into my sixties, I grow doubtful that white-water thinking—the rush of ideas, of imagined scenes, of imaginary dialogue—is truly what I need and want. Coping with the cataract of thoughts, emotions, and fantasies now feels more daunting than in the past. At times it feels worse than daunting: disruptive. Does this chaotic mental process still serve my purposes? If it’s the wellspring for writing fiction, am I willing to shoot the rapids despite its potential threat to the equanimity and the insights that meditation confers? To switch metaphors: is building castles-in-air such difficult work—often mind-twisting, mind-warping work—that I should hesitate to undertake these construction projects? Monitoring the gush of unconscious chatter increasingly seems the opposite of the samatha (calm abiding) that is the bedrock of Buddhist meditation. This is never truer than when the castles in question are complex and when the construction projects require strenuous, recurrent, even compulsive effort. I can no longer imagine struggling for ten years to write a 1,200-page trilogy of novels. A failure of imagination? Maybe so. Of will? Perhaps. If I experience a sudden flow of ideas hinting at the possibility of an ambitious novel, I’ll consort with the Muse, will give her my attention, will listen to what she whispers in my ear, will take notes on her suggestions. But I’ll proceed skeptically. The Muse is a sexy flirt but not a reliable partner. I’ll start work only after assessing whatever is necessary to assemble the initial inspirations into something substantial.
I’m uncertain about all these issues, but my uncertainty doesn’t stop me from spending time in the writer’s shack. I go out there almost every day to write, meditate, or do both. The place is comfortable, quiet, serene. During spring, it’s a perfect place for watching the onset of green: first a hint, then a haze, then a luminosity of leaves. In the summer, I revel in the luxury of feeling warm wind blow in through the windows, bringing me the scents of the forest; of watching butterflies, dragonflies, and other insects go about their business in the fields; of hearing Edith’s flute melodies—Bach, Handel, Mozart, Fauré—wafting out of the house and down the meadow. In the autumn, yellow sunlight streams through foliage on the nearby trees, and I can smell the leaves and hear their complex rustle and clatter as they fall. In the winter, spending time in the writer’s shack is like living inside a snow globe: flakes swarm all around me while a sit in a bubble of warmth. All these modes of sensory richness intensify my experience of spending time there. Both writing and meditating feel deeper and more substantial in that place.
Is it possible that writing and meditation can overlap, or at least coexist? Is it possible that these two radically different disciplines serve a similar purpose? Pondering these questions, I consider the poet Alan Shapiro’s observation: “[Writing] is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self, because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making: your identity . . . has been obliterated in the rapture of complete attentiveness. In that extended moment, opposites cohere: the mind feels and the heart thinks, and receptivity’s a form of fierce activity. Quotidian distinctions between mind and body, self and other, space and time, dissolve.” 14 If Shapiro had been describing meditation rather than writing, his words couldn’t have been much more accurate.
“One does not find solitude, one creates it. Solitude creates itself. Alone.” —Marguerite Duras 15
Even before I finish my upgrades to the writer’s shack, I’ve told Edith that I don’t consider this place to be mine alone. I want to spend time there, of course, but not to the point of excluding her. In fact, I want her to regard the shed as equally her own. Despite these reassurances (entreaties, even) she never takes me up on this offer. Edith spends time in what we call the upper shed—a larger outbuilding at the high end of our property that I recently emptied of machinery and tools, cleaned up, electrified, and paneled with pine lumber—but she doesn’t venture down to what she calls “your shack.”
I tell her, “Please take your share of time.”
“It’s your space,” she responds, “so I don’t want to intrude.”
“You’re not intruding. It’s an equal-opportunity shed.”
“No, it’s yours.”
I can’t persuade her. She sometimes visits me when I’m there, but she won’t utilize the writer’s shack—or the writers’ shack—for her own work. We go back and forth on this issue for months. She never takes up my offer. She won’t even use my shack during the winter months, when the uninsulated upper shed is as cold as the outside air.
Following further discussion, however, Edith and I reach a decision: we’ll renovate the upper shed into a year-‘round cottage. We arrange to have local craftsmen dense-pack the walls with cellulose insulation. We hire them to remove the shabby old metal roof, put down layers of rigid foam insulation and plywood, and re-roof the shed with new sheet metal. Then I add four inches of rigid form insulation between the rafters and install a ceiling with nineteenth-century-style center-bead boards. After insulating the doors and weather-stripping the jambs, we have a contractor put in a small propane heater and two external propane tanks to heat the place during the cold seasons. Edith and I then furnish the cottage with a bed, a desk, a bookcase, two lamps, and framed art on the walls. The result looks like a small but well-appointed Swiss chalet or a Russian dacha.
Finished, both of us are thrilled with the result. It’ll be a cozy haven during Vermont’s harsh winters. It’s beautiful, calm, private. What will Edith do there? That’s hers to decide. It’s Edith’s place now—truly a Shed of Her Own.
1 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1989), p. 1.
2 John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist (New York: Norton, 1999), p. 45.
3 Francesca Premoli-Droulers, Writers’ Houses (New York: The Vendome Press, 1995), p. 168.
4 Ann Trubek, A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), p. 5.
5 Ibid., p. 46.
6 Premoli-Droulers, pp. 69-70.
7 Bruce Newman, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism (Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2004), p. 63.
8 Jack Kornfield, “Natural Freedom of the Heart: The Teachings of Ajahn Chah” in Voices of Insight, Sharon Salzberg, ed. (Boston and London: Shambhala, 2001), p. 37.
9 Bhadantácariya Buddhaghosa, Bhikkhu Ñáóamoli, trans. “The Five Factors of the Resting Place,” from The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2010), pp. 113-116.
10 Premoli-Droulers, p. 71.
11 Woolf, Virginia: source uncertain.
12 Premoli-Droulers, p. 154.
13 Alan Shapiro, “Why Write?” in Best American Essays, Robert Atwan, ed. (New York: Mariner, 2006), p. 205.
14 Ibid., p. 206.
15 Premoli-Droulers, p. 4.
Born into a multicultural family (Mexican/German-American), E. J. Myers grew up in Colorado, Mexico, and Peru. He attended Grinnell College and the University of Denver, after which his several careers focused on inpatient health care, emergency medical services, and freelance writing. He is the author of twenty-two published books—five novels, four nonfiction books, and thirteen children’s novels. He lives in central Vermont.
Cagibi Issue 6