It is 5:45 A.M., and after walking the thirty steps from my bed—quietly, so as not to wake my wife, or my three-year-old daughter or my almost-one-year-old son—I reach the study and blindly punch my computer's power button. As it starts up, I begin to inventory the various items on the oak desk I share with my wife. The papers and bills, the baby monitor from which sounds of my son coughing can be heard, my daughter's green butterfly princess wings, a pile of blank CDs, the phone, and the miniature toy "cubicle" that was given to my wife by her coworkers. "In this office, you're the boss!" reads the tag line on the box. Amid the detritus of my bourgeois lifestyle, I sit down to begin the day's writing.
What would Flaubert have said about my attempts at a writing life? Actually, he might have approved. "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois," he once wrote, "so that you may be violent and original in your work." Of course, what did the famed French novelist know about it? He didn't have to rise at an insanely early hour to write before feeding the kids, taking a shower, getting dressed, and then driving to his day job. As I survey my cluttered surroundings, my recently awoken mind clicks on another sound bite from my days as an English major. "Go to Innisfree," I think. "And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made."
The quote is from Yeats; the inspiration, Thoreau, who for two years lived in a cabin in the woods and indulged a fantasy shared by writers for centuries. And he's not the only one: Mark Twain wrote in a shack set on what was known as Jackass Hill, near Sonora, California; the room in which George Bernard Shaw wrote actually revolved so that he could follow the sun as he worked.
There are plenty of contemporary cabin-dwelling writers as well. Best-selling historian David McCullough's cabin sits just behind his house on Martha's Vineyard. Fiction writer Amy Hempel once had one in Bridgehampton, New York. And Rita Dove's writing cabin is plunked down just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. The former poet laureate once said in an interview with Sojourners: "When I go into my cabin to write, it takes a while for the junk of the world—and then the self-consciousness of being at the desk trying to write a poem—to fall away."
Of course, sometimes a cabin allows the writing itself to fall away. Perhaps the most honest and unpretentious view of cabin life comes from David Mamet, in his book of essays called The Cabin (Turtle Bay, 1992). In the title essay he writes about playing solitaire, throwing darts, smoking cigars, looking at deer, napping, reading, and generally avoiding work in his Vermont cabin. He recalls saying to anyone around him that he had to "Go and Work," and, having made the proclamation, would go off to the cabin, "happy with [this] happy fiction."
Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator of Philip Roth's novel I Married a Communist (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), describes the transformative power of the cabin this way: "The palliative of the primitive hut. The place where you are stripped back to essentials, to which you return—even if it happens not to be where you came from—to decontaminate yourself and absolve yourself of the striving. The place where you disrobe, molt it all, the uniforms you've worn and the costumes you've gotten into, where you shed your batteredness and your resentment, your appeasement of the world and your defiance of the world, your manipulation of the world and its manhandling of you." Sounds good to me, I think, as I try to clear away a few inches of space on my "writing desk." So I remind myself to take another drive out to Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, to see Thoreau's cabin, where the author lived from July 1845 to September 1847, and ultimately started all this cabin fever.
It costs five dollars to visit Thoreau's cabin. I feed the bill into an automatic ticketing machine, and it regurgitates a white-and-blue piece of paper that I place on my dashboard to show the authorities I have paid my way. Transcendentalism apparently needs to be financed nowadays, and if a little technology makes things easier, what the hell, right? The cabin isn't really Thoreau's cabin. It is, however, an authentic-looking replica—a life-size rustic dollhouse. A thin, temporary roof of snow rests on top of it. There are three architecturally accurate windows: One looks out on the tollbooth, one on the road you have to cross to reach Walden Pond, and one on the parking lot itself. Inside, I find a guest book, whose authors hail from such diverse locales as Madagascar, Japan, and Australia. They describe the place as "Small" and "Very small," "Tiny." Some write, "Cool" or "Wow" or "Well done," or "Better than reading."
I can imagine writing in this cabin—the small desk and the wood-burning stove are extremely appealing—though I have to work hard at imagining the place not infested by tourists. Thoreau would have despised us (all of us) for being here, for buying into the easy romanticism of the Walden experience, and for not trying harder to live an authentic life; for the note on the parking ticket that reminds us not to bring in booze or pets and the sign that reads, BUTTS Are Litter, Too.… Lug 'Em Out! He might, however, have smiled at the snowball someone had stuck in the hand of the Thoreau statue outside the replica of his cabin.
These thoughts follow me as I wander over to the actual site of Thoreau's home, which requires hiking a path of half-melted ice, brown leaves, and dry pine needles around the pond. Slap, slap go my Sambas. As I walk, I make notes in a little black book and feel like an idiot. The air is wonderfully fresh, the pond and foliage gorgeous, but I can't escape the feeling that it is all terribly inauthentic. Even the nerdy and effusive Advanced Placement (AP) English students and the Red Sox-capped naturalists must find the sight of me scribbling away unbearably pretentious.
Once I tuck the notebook into my coat pocket, however, I am happy to be out in the woods, away on an extremely rare weekend excursion without my wife and young children. Here I am, thinking about cabins, identifying the two trees I know on sight (Hi, Pine! What's up, Birch?), and having a grand old time. Then I see a young couple toting around a new baby, and I miss the mishpucha. It is a relatively warm day for New England in November—forty degrees—but halfway around the pond I feel my hands and nose and cheeks getting cold, and begin wishing, despite myself, for the comfort of my heated house.
The cabin site itself: deliberately underwhelming. Nearby is a big pile of rocks, called a "cairn," that visitors—Whitman and Emerson among them—have placed there. "That's the idea," I think. "Unpretentious and natural." I also think about the Jewish tradition of placing a small rock on the grave following a burial, and the annoying way Steven Spielberg incorporated this into his film Schindler's List. But the whole Walden Pond experience seems to say, Simplify! Simplify! I like it. And I am at peace. Until, that is, the AP kids come over and start yammering, in loud, awkward, adolescent voices, about transcendentalism and technology.
Thoreau left his cabin nearly one hundred and sixty years ago, and many contemporary American writers, it seems, lack his self-reliance, the kind that living in a cabin—not to mention building one—demands. Cabin life presents an austere contrast to those postmodern scribes who grew up in planned-unit developments and were fattened on Doritos, Three's Company, and Kasey Kasem's American Top 40. We know little of nature. We know nothing of hard, physical work. Thus we admire and envy cabin builders. There's something masculine and worldly—rugged stuff a world away from trying to locate le mot juste—about constructing one's own rough writing room.