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Cabin Fever: My Own Private Walden Pond

For the writers who can muster it, building the cabin is as important as inhabiting it. These are male writers, as far as I know, and they get great joy out of detailing the steps in the construction process. Fran Lebowitz once said that men "have this sneaking suspicion that writing is not the most masculine profession." So they relish the shop-class aspect because they know the disparity between describing something and actually doing it. Writing, let's remember, is not a blue-collar trade. The risk is minimal (carpal tunnel syndrome and eyestrain), though any good and true writer faces psychic, economic, and social hazards as well. So they linger on the jargon, suspecting that the reader—a non–cabin builder—doesn't really understand about, say, pouring concrete for the foundation. I'm thinking chiefly of writer Michael Pollan, in his book A Place of My Own (Random House, 1997). A word man, Pollan had spent most of his working life dealing with what Thoreau called "the mud and slush of opinion." He decided to build a cabin on the land behind his Connecticut home, "hoping by a spell of unfamiliar and world work to open the eyes of the body, if only by a squinty crack."

Pollan's adventure, which is detailed in three hundred richly written pages, is rather safe and suburban compared to that of Dick Proenneke. You may have seen Proenneke on PBS, in a 2003 documentary called Alone in the Wilderness. In 1968, at the age of fifty-one, he flew to extremely rural Alaska and built himself a cabin from scratch. (He also spent a lot of time scribbling in a journal and making home movies of himself at work.) Proenneke was the ablest and most unwriterly outdoorsman-builder you can imagine. He worked with seeming instinctual efficiency, preparing his cabin for the onslaught of arctic winter. Seated in front of a big-screen TV, watching him, I knew I would have perished almost immediately had I been in the same situation. The irony: I never once thought of my incompetence or laziness while reading Walden—a book I've known since I was in high school. Shamefully, it took a TV show to bring this home to me.

Now, I don't have the time, energy, money, or carpentry skills to build my own writing shack. But in an effort to put my soft writer's hands to work, I downloaded the plans for a cardboard model of Thoreau's cabin from a Web site called fiddlersgreen.net—which seems to have been inspired by Lester Walker's A Little House of My Own: 47 Grand Designs for 47 Tiny Houses (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2000)—and tried to put it together.

Pay close attention to the word tried. Being a good Jewish craftsman—which is to say, a rather awkward craftsman—it took me a while (i.e., a considerably, ridiculously long time) to build my rickety little structure. Why? It may have been that my cabin was made, not of sturdy cardboard, but of flimsy copy paper, and that I held it together with staples rather than glue—and that my three-year-old daughter kept trying to help out with the cutting. The fireplace buckled; the writing desk was extremely unsturdy. My Thoreauvian chairs? A literary disaster.

And yet my fingers were happy to have built it. Happy to have spent a little time doing something other than typing. I couldn't live in this thing— indeed, my kids got their hands on it and it soon found its way into the trash, like so many rough drafts—but I came a little closer to understanding what draws writers to such environments.

Working on the scale model of Thoreau's cabin made me realize that dimensions are important. Build a tiny cabin and you're surrounded. A cabin is a whole little world, as is a book. Think of Thoreau in his "tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long," its "eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite." The late Arthur Miller secluded himself in a ten-by-twelve-foot cabin, and Amy Hempel's shack—a former chicken coop!—was twelve-by-nine feet. But both of these writers were bested by David McCullough. Not long ago, I was sleepwalking through a Newsweek article about McCullough, whose 1776 (Simon & Schuster, 2005) hit the best-seller lists like a pile driver, and learned that the man's big, fat books are produced in "a tiny book-lined shingled building, just 8 feet by 12."

Clearly, size matters.

A small cabin ensures a sense of solitude, allowing you to eavesdrop on the internal chatter that gets continually preempted in the crush of daily affairs. We let too many people into our houses, our studies, our lives as it is. As Philip Larkin once wrote, "Just think of all the spare time that has flown / Straight into nothingness by being filled / With forks and faces." Or as Søren Kierkegaard put it: "The crowd is untruth."

A cabin provides the ideal sort of protection from the things in our culture that can make a writer feel less than authoritative. Critics. Sales figures. Gossipy bloggers. Ridiculous book parties. Self-doubt. As the sagacious William Gass wrote, quite a while ago, in a preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (David R. Godine, 1981), "The contemporary American writer is in no way part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward."

For someone like Arthur Miller, the world did indeed greatly reward. But before it did, Miller built himself a cabin. In fact, the structure may have been responsible for his masterwork, Death of a Salesman. Back in 1948, Miller created, with his own two hands, a small cabin in which to write the Willy Loman story. "A pair of carpenters could have put up this ten-by-twelve cabin in two days at most," he writes in his autobiography, Timebends (Grove Press, 1987), "but for reasons I still do not understand it had to be my own hands that gave it form, on this ground, with a floor that I had made, upon which to sit to begin the risky expedition into myself."

Of course, no cabin—no writing room of any sort—is going to make our writing the stuff of genius. But there's something about building a cabin, writing in a cabin, that makes us think that we're playing the part of artist. The four walls, the austere little notebook, the desk and the door. It's like being onstage in a production of a drama called Major American Author.

Sad stuff, perhaps, but writing's a difficult business, and its practitioners are, by necessity, defensive and superstitious. If a cabin gets you to do good work, I wouldn't knock down the idea. Fact is, there's something touching about it. As for me, I suspect I'll continue to wake up early and write while my family sleeps. But I'll keep dreaming of my own little writing cabin. "And I shall have some peace there," as Yeats wrote, "for peace comes dropping slow."

Ken Gordon, the editor of JBooks.com, contributes to such publications as the Boston Globe Magazine and the New York Times. He lives in Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

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Cabin Fever: My Own Private Walden Pond (March/April 2006)
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