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Several Windows and a Woodstove Wide: Jennifer Militello’s Study

(Third in a series about writers’ work-spaces — in particular, small, dedicated outbuildings. The first piece was about my own space; the second features fiction writer William Kowalski.)

How long has this been your little writing house? If you don’t call it your little writing house, what do you call it?

The “study” as I call it–I hardly call it, but when I do, I use this term–has existed since 2007. It was built for me by my husband in a carefully bartered, seemingly-fair trade for the baby-carrying I was doing that year.

How big (ish) is your little writing house? Amenities? (electric/water/heat/private parking/whirlpool tub) Where is it?

When I asked, I was told it was 16 by 20 feet, but to me it is two desks and three bookshelves long, several windows and a woodstove wide. It sits down the slope of the backyard, nestled into the trees, behind the wide tangles of wild raspberries, down a path I have to re-hew every spring. It was erected in a little sunken spot already cleared of trees where there stood the hollowed upright totem pole of a single tree trunk with peeling layers of bark.
I’d number the squat little cast iron woodstove, the untreated wood beams that span the ceiling, the door with its oval stained glass window, and even the unstained wooden siding among its amenities. The occasional foxes. And the quiet. And the many, many books.

Why have a little writing house? How has it helped you write?

After spending time at a few artist colonies over the years, I realized that space completely dedicated to writing was the way to go. I’d done my best work in these little alcoves. This particular space is modeled to some extent after a studio space I used at I-Park in Connecticut. In that studio, I wrote the first poems for the forthcoming book Body Thesaurus, while inspired by the visual artists there. I discovered what to do next in the energy of that space, and so I wanted to recreate that feel for my space here—a little heat source, a little white light, windows looking out onto long grasses and a sweep of trees.

Additionally, this space is in my mind even when I’m not there. It grounds the work and lets it stay with me even when I’m physically absent. It is a place where things remain as I’ve left them until I return. There is a museum-like preservation so I can come back to re-see the evolution of an idea even when I leave it for a period of time.

What has surprised you about the writing house?

Mostly, I’m surprised that it exists at all. The entirety of it rests on a foundation of concrete posts that I watched my husband pour as liquid, singlehandedly, from a wheelbarrow into the ground. He ordered the wood beams and propped them across the ceiling. In late fall, as a last step once my son was born, he layered the roof, shingle by shingle, through the fog of lack of sleep.

He would work after coming home from his job, and I would watch him out the window as the evenings got darker and darker and I would feel like I was watching a little space happen to preserve my former life from the very different place that my future life would be.

These days, I am surprised as well by the cranky heat that won’t stay on when the temperature outside falls below freezing and the mildew that grows in the creases of the window panes and once, when months of writer’s block kept me away, even covered the surface of my desk.

But also I’m surprised by how little I am there. This is a different life from the one I once lived. When I moved to this house, I had been living alone on over five acres of land, where all I did was write and teach and sleep, and where a writing space like this would have been redundant.

Best/most necessary thing(s) in your writing house?

Every single thing there is best. Every single thing is necessary. This room is filled with all the best and most necessary elements of my writing life. A woman’s dance mask I brought back from Africa. A lamp in the shape of two pastoral lovers that was a centerpiece in my grandmother’s apartment in Brooklyn until she died. The colossal desk I bought for $30 at a yard sale in Nashua, and the old childhood desk where I wrote my very first poem. Filing cabinets filled with old drafts that brought me over slow years of work to the poems I’m writing now. The typewriter and notebooks that lead me to the poems to come. The books that have shaped my beliefs, my thoughts, my dreams, my doubts. All this, and the reliable uninterruptedness. And the desk and chair and pens and walls and floor meant for nothing but that single thing.

Any writing house “rules” or norms? A schedule?

In terms of reliable writing time, Sunday mornings are it. I skip the family breakfast and before it is light amble down through the longish grass or crusted snow and turn the key, leave the woodstove going a bit before I commit to sitting and finding my way in. Other than that, there is too much clutter in my life to predict or stick to any one thing. I sneak away when I can. I write in places I never dreamed I’d write. I am forced to be a different writer than I was. So the study is the ideal. The reality is revising in the living room while the kids pretend they are jaguars and jotting down new ideas in the driver’s seat of the car between classes. But I have faith that someday I’ll be back to a routine. And when I am, that room, that very incredible and perfect room, will be waiting.

What’s next for your writing house?

I dream of built-in bookshelves. Someday.

What’s next for your writing?

Right now I’m working on two projects: a series of prose poems set in a laboratory and a group of poems exploring the vast impossibilities of motherhood, Though neither project is far enough along to be in the commitment stage, I’m happy to have started this work, as I recently finished a manuscript and there’s always a period of searching and struggle after that until the next undertaking happens to venture along.

________________

Jennifer Militello is the author of Body Thesaurus (Tupelo Press, 2013), Flinch of Song (Tupelo Press, 2009), winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award, and the chapbook Anchor Chain, Open Sail (Finishing Line Press, 2006). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The North American Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Best New Poets 2008. Her work has also been awarded the Barbara Bradley Award from the New England Poetry Club, the 49th Parallel Award from Bellingham Review, and grants and fellowships from the New Hampshire State Council of the Arts, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and Writers at Work.

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Writing Tools & Tips

Alone and Not Alone: How to Create Your Own Group Writing Retreat

This blog post was sparked by Molly Templeton’s call for submissions in response to the New York Times’ How-To issue.

Greetings from the last day of our writing retreat in beautiful Easton, New Hampshire.

We are satisfied. We are reflective. We saw moose. We are sad to go, happy to have come. We are four of us (Liz, Karen, Nancy, and Susan) who all pitch in below to share our experiences and suggestions so that you, too, might create for yourselves the kind of group writing retreat that leaves you feeling fine.

Those of us lucky enough to have saved up money and/or been awarded fellowship support to spend time at a writers’ residency program know and treasure that immense gift of time and space away from regular life to devote to writing.

Nancy: What has mattered most to me about having this writing retreat and making it work is breaking with my usual daily routine and developing, right away, a new one that’s devoted to a single task of writing fiction.

If it’s possible for you to carve out a chunk of time away from work, child care, relationship care, etc., and if you are admitted to (and funded for) such a program, it can be a great boon to your writing life, in material, but also psychological, and possibly even spiritual ways. The time alone to work is great – but also, for many, the presence and companionship of other writers and artists doing their work is also invigorating and inspiring.

In 2010, I fell in with four writers at just such a program, and as it wound down, it occurred to us that we might be able to create a retreat space for ourselves, outside the context of existing residency programs. We enjoyed one another’s company; our work habits, goals, and experiences seemed compatible; and we found great value in the residency experience. But we also thought we would prefer to do it for two weeks rather than a month, and supposed we could do it for not-too-much-moolah, if we did our research. So why not figure out how to do it, ourselves, the following summer?

Karen: It’s all about space and time. You need to be sure that there’s enough of both.

This summer we held our second successful self-made retreat, and our current plan is to do the next one in the summer of 2014. The tips that follow are from all of us, minus one who couldn’t make it this summer (and who was sorely missed). They are based on our experiences and offered with the understanding that there are many different ways to do what we’ve done.

Find your people. You may already have done this. The more you are, the more expensive and challenging it can be to find the right accommodations.

Karen: You know who you are—a group of friends who easily share both work and play. You’ve enjoyed spending time together talking about your writing and about your lives. You like to read and you talk about books and movies and music and politics and families etc etc together. You learn from each other. You live too far apart to see each other on a regular basis but when you can manage to get together there’s a feeling of rightness– like a family reunion without all the crap . . . . You have similar goals: to find more time for writing, to do things that matter with your lives.

Susan: Best to stay away from drama-queens, who tend to create drama at the retreat OR make everyone live through whatever drama is going on back home in their lives. These people may be exciting and fun in small doses, but that much self-absorption can get in the way of all progress in a long retreat in a remote location. You don’t have to be best friends with your retreat-mates, just be sure to go with people that you genuinely like, you respect what they do artistically, and with whom you have a comfortable level of compatibility. Often real and lasting friendship grows alongside the work, when the work is given the main attention. You can help each other stay focused, commiserate on work stalled out or problematic, and have some workshopping if wanted.

Commit to the dates. This is a commitment to yourself to your fellow writers, to your writing.

Make a commitment at least a year ahead of time. Start saving money and arranging for your absence. Put down a deposit. Make arrangements at work. Count down. In order for this to really work, you can’t be wishy-washy about it.

Depending on where you want to go, dates can impact things like “peak season” rates, so keep that in mind. Maybe January is your retreat time. For us, it’s two very specific weeks in the summer – the only time all of us could make it. Since all of us making it was a priority, those are our dates. End of story.

Susan: You have to give yourself the time, make it a genuine priority, sharpie it into the calendar . . . . You have to be willing to resist the world’s demands, at least for a while. Some years a retreat of more than a few long weekends or a week may not be possible, so be realistic about that. But when you can, go for it and hold on for dear life.

Figure out your priorities (besides writing), requirements, and limitations.

Where would you like to go? Where can you afford to go? What’s the per-week maximum folks are able to spend on accommodations? There are great sites like vrbo.com (Vacation Rentals by Owner), or you can just Google “vacation home rentals in _____________”) and you’ll get lots of hits.

Karen: (The money spent is) a valuable investment in your creative life and your sanity. A writing retreat feels like both a vacation—a time when you are able to turn off other obligations—and an intensive work session—a time when you can actually go deeper and further than you can during the rest of the year.

Don’t forget to factor in travel & food. Then you can talk about other stuff like sleeping and working arrangements, required/desired amenities, etc.  We’ve found that creating a private Facebook group for our communications has been very helpful both in terms of sharing planning and travel info, and for keeping in touch and posting/sharing things privately. Here’s what we’ve found we need:

–each writer should have her own private sleep/work space

–for the four/five of us, we prefer at least two full bathrooms to share

–well-stocked kitchen (we save money and keep focused at the retreat by cooking for ourselves/each other with one or two meals out)

–reliable coffee maker and lots of strong coffee (that this is its own item, separate from “well-stocked kitchen” should give you a sense of how important it is to our group)

–a communal area for sharing work, sharing meals, bottles of wine, etc.

–a porch or deck

–internet access

–at least one of us with a car

I have brought my printer the last two years for us to share, but we could do without it. I mention it because it might be something you can’t do without.

Internet access? Really? Isn’t it just a time-suck?

We’ve found that internet access has allowed some of us to “escape” more easily, and this is a good thing. So it’s on our list of must-haves. But maybe one of the things you and your group will prioritize is an escape from the internet. You decide.

Karen: While I love that I can go online in order to Google, blog, email etc at any hour of day or night (and we even use this means to communicate from room to room during our retreat!), I’ve also done a retreat where I did not have wireless in my little cabin but had to go to a main house where there was a shared computer with limited bandwidth for email and browsing. This allowed for a different kind of concentration in my writing– since it took away one major source of distraction.

Nancy: Early on especially I shunned Facebook until late in the day, looked at my email (for which I set up a vacation message) but not answered any of it, used the computer only to Google to find out how long it would take a character to travel from Rutland, Vermont, to a particular quarry in the Berkshires or the size and servings of a large Kroger sheet cake. Essential research.

How much planning? How much improvisation?

To my mind, as much advance planning as possible (about writing, about cooking, about what to bring) means more brain-space at the retreat itself focusing on important writing-related decisions. Lots of smart planning, in my experience, can create a space where improvisation is actually more possible. That doesn’t mean plans can’t change, but for example, bringing a couple of recipes you know you’ll make, and picking two nights when you know you’ll make them, and making one or two smart grocery shopping trips over two weeks, means you are DONE thinking about your meal duties, such as they are.

Both of the places we’ve been have provided linens, towels, paper products — at the least, I’d want to not have to deal with bringing my own linens, but maybe that’s just me. The main thing is to know in advance whether you’ll need to bring a towel or laundry detergent or salt or whatever, so you can plan accordingly.

Nancy: I imagine that it would be easy at the start of a retreat to want to be helpful and contribute to the household by volunteering to make first meals, go grocery shopping etc. Yet this is also the time when establishing writing as the central focus and alone time for that writing–shutting one’s self away at one’s desk–is so important. Our decision then to bring with us bags and coolers with first-days’ meals and basic provisions was really key plus the idea that we would make pizza for the first night (an idea that was reprised for the second night too). That meant no field trips required until we were well into the first week when taking an hour to drive into town provided a good-head clearing break from the writing rather than a chore that deferred starting the writing.

Karen: You need to strike a sane balance between over-planning and leaving everything to chance and the last minute. In a group of five there are likely to be at least a couple of compulsive list makers and ex-Girl Scouts who can help with the preparedness piece.

What’s it like? What do you do all day? Do you get work done? Do you have fun? Are you allowed to talk to each other? Who makes dinner?

I found it very helpful to come to the retreat with some set minimums – I was going to write at least 750 words every day, and read at least one volume of poetry every day. I had many other plans as well – poems to edit and revise, two book-length manuscripts to overhaul, ideas for new poems – but I found it grounding to have that set minimum, which I invariably took care of in the morning. Then I’d get to manuscript shuffling and poem writing in the afternoons; sometimes in the evening after dinner. Though more often, we’d play cards after dinner for a bit.

Regarding dinner: if you’ve got five people for two weeks, and everyone commits to organizing/preparing one dinner a week, you’re pretty much done. Bread, cheese, hummus, eggs, trail mix, and leftovers (fill in your own blanks here, of course), and you’re set for the week. I like to bake bread a couple of times, so I make sure there’s flour and yeast at hand.  If someone really hates cooking or doesn’t cook, they can be the boss of waste management, or do dishes, or make the grocery store run. It can all be worked out if you take some time to talk about these things ahead of time.

Susan: Hey, this time is about writing, not impressing your friends with an all-day recipe. Having said that, it is a good and joyful thing to be with people who love food and know how to fix some good stuff without sacrificing their writing time. AND who’ll take turns cleaning up cheerfully. Some people may need a schedule for that, but often it seems to work out naturally.

Karen: There’s a lovely choreography to the quiet comings and goings of the group throughout the day, into the kitchen, out to the deck, back to the desk, knowing we’re all working. Variations like a load of laundry or a trip to the grocery store or a late afternoon dip in the swimming hole can be easily accommodated and invitations issued via a FB message to the group.

Nancy: Get up, pour coffee, and while drinking a first cup and eating breakfast read from a short story collection I’ve brought or pull up and look through a story I’ve brought to revise or the latest writing I’ve done. Then start writing. For the first days I also brought two stories I knew I wanted to substantially revise, plus vague ideas about a new one to start. I spent most of the first week working on the stories to be revised, sending the first one out by that Friday, after a workshop with my sister retreaters. That revision work helped me establish the most basic ingredient for the retreat: ass in chair. The first days I stayed in my bedroom, at the small desk there, for most of the day, coming out for more coffee or an easy lunch I could take back to my desk with me. From 8 to 4 I wrote, sometimes taking my computer out to a little cabin nearby so I could read aloud my drafts without being overheard by anyone but birds and chipmunks, maybe a bear. Then after 4, I could do what I wanted: pick berries, respond to a few emails, call home, take a head-clearing swim or walk. The head-clearing swims and walks were especially grand because they often brought to me one insight or idea more so sometime between 4 and 7 I would sit back down, do just a little more work.
After the first several days I could also loosen up. I could move out of the bedroom and sit on the couch, with a wide airy view of the mountains and sister retreaters coming and going from the kitchen and living room. I could work there without feeling any sense of interruption because by that point I was fully pulled into the world of the story–by now, a new story–I was drafting. For the new story, I set the basic bar of 1,000 more words added to the length of the draft by day’s end. The result is that within six or so days I had a new 5,000-word short story (having added those 1,000 words in length by the end of each day but also spending the first part of the next day revising, editing, and extracting more than a few of those words). So where I am now on Day 13 of this retreat: one story revised and submitted, another story revised and with a little more tinkering today ready to submit, a full story draft I’ll be seeking feedback for and will likely take away from the retreat with me, to continue to think about and see what it may need before I decide where to send it.

Making it work

We have all gotten substantial work done during both last year’s retreat and this year’s. There’s something about the combination of solitude and togetherness that gets and keeps me going. The fellowship of writers – of writer-friends who know so well what I’m doing and going through – keeps me going, keeps me writing. Although I wouldn’t say we’re in competition, I would say that the presence of these sympathetic, talented, and hardworking others, combined with the absence of Those Usual Distractions (aka my life) motivates me to do the best work I can.

Karen: A writing retreat is not a writing workshop. It is not a meeting with the Great Visiting Writer Guru. It is not a series of Craft Talks. It’s a retreat. Not only from the job and the errands and the family dynamics and the daily worries and the porch roof that needs fixing and the job and the junk mail and the world . . . . but also from performance anxiety and productivity measures. You look forward to it because this time is yours to use as you see fit: reading, meditating, walking, staring at a bug on the wall, scribbling in your notebooks, revising the same poem twenty zillion times, trying new kinds of writing, preparing manuscripts, taking manuscripts apart, sending stuff out, setting your poems to music, researching obscure details, writing, not writing, changing your mind. And sharing– yes, that, too– but only as much as you want or are ready for when and how YOU decide. The group provides company without breathing down your neck. You are both alone and not alone. What could be better?

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Garlic As Big As Your Fist: Bill Kowalski’s Little Writing House

Last week, I posted about putting some final touches on what I called my “writing hut” in the backyard. After further thought, I have decided I prefer Little Writing House to Writing Hut, but will of course encourage all writers with the divine luck to be in possession of such digs to call them what you will. I got lots of great feedback on the post — ranging from decorating and outfitting tips to suggestions about writing schedules & routines to tales of unmet desires for little writing houses, or sheds, or whatever you shall call them. My old pal, novelist Bill Kowalski, sent me a few pictures of his writing shed, suggesting that one might devote a whole website to such buildings and their inhabitants, featuring a different one each week. So I threw together a list of questions, and Bill has gamely answered. And of course there are pictures.

How long has this been your little writing house? If you don’t call it your little writing house, what do you call it?

I’ve been using it for about five years. I simply call it “my shed.” As in, “I’m going out to my shed for a while.” This is a euphemism for “I want to smoke a cigarillo, stare at the ceiling, and pretend to get some writing done, please.”

How big (ish) is your shed? Amenities? (electric/water/heat/private parking/whirlpool tub) Where is it?

I feel that if I’m going to offer an honest appraisal of its physical characteristics, which can be uncomfortable even for the most emotionally secure and attractive of sheds, I should soften it first by saying this is the best damn shed ever. Shed, I love thee, but you are too damp, and you need new windows. And a new door. You are unkind to my books; you allow mold to grow upon them. Also, you are too popular with spiders.

My shed is about thirty feet from our house. It’s ten feet by fifteen feet, with a ten-foot peaked ceiling. It rests on a concrete pad, which reassures me that it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Some thoughtful soul wired it for electricity before I moved in. I installed a radiant heater on one of the rafters. It can get pretty cold in Nova Scotia in winter, but with the heat going full blast it’s good to about -5 Celsius. Below that, my fingers hurt, and it becomes difficult to type. I laid a laminated hardwood floor over the concrete. My shed has been winterized, although there are gaps around the door big enough to stick my fingers in, which renders the winterization largely ornamental. I keep meaning to get a new door. I keep forgetting. Artists are attached to their suffering.

I’ve been thinking about converting my desk into a kotatsu, which would mean installing a skirt around it and putting a heater underneath. Like most projects that threaten to interfere with my writing time, I haven’t gotten around to it yet, and probably never will.

Was it always a writing space? Did it used to be something else? Did it ever have other aspirations? Is it also used for anything else?

It was once a tool shed, and as a tool shed it was very fine—deluxe, even. It did well at holding tools, though it was somewhat overqualified for the job. I think that my shed was probably always expecting to be converted into a workshop. That’s how it was designed. It was surprised to find itself reincarnated as a writing studio instead, but it has adjusted nicely.

There were once barn doors in the north-facing end, through which one could have driven a rider lawnmower, or maybe even a small car. I had those sealed to form a wall. Then I had the whole thing insulated and drywalled. I did a kind of rough mud stuccoing on a couple of the interior walls, so that it would look like what I imagined a rustic French cottage would. (I was going through a French cottage phase at the time.) Then I painted it a nice, soothing yellow.

I swore up and down I wouldn’t use my writing shed to keep non-writing-related stuff in, but you can probably guess how that turned out. I keep my fishing rods and tackle in my shed now, as well as a bunch of random junk, including:

Today’s writing prompt: compose a poem featuring five items from this table.

* a didgeridoo I bought in Australia in 1998 and never learned to play

* a motorcycle helmet I wore on a cross-country trip in 1991

* a fishbowl (empty)

* a broken ostrich egg (full of trout flies)

* fluorescent orange hunting overalls

* a rock that somehow made its way in here (a lot of things somehow make their way in here)

In garlic-harvesting season, which is mid-July—though it came a little early this year—the writing shed doubles as a drying shed. Right now, therefore, my shed is redolent of garlic. Maybe redolent is too mild a word. It smells so strongly of garlic that it actually overloads the olfactory region of my brain and spills into my other senses. It’s a smell so powerful you can touch it. It will smell this way all fall and winter, until all of the garlic has been eaten, and even then it will linger. Goethe kept rotting apples in his desk; I hang garlic bunches from the ceiling. I am proud to say my shed has been vampire-free for over five years.

 

Anything disappointed you about the writing shed?

I have two shed-related regrets. The first is that because the door is nearly flush with the ground, I can’t put a raised porch on it. This means I track in a lot of dirt and pine needles. I dislike sweeping the floor, because sweeping is not writing, and any mundane task that isn’t writing strikes me as an annoyance that must be endured until I can write again. So, the floor is usually pretty crunchy until I get around to breaking out the broom.

My other regret is that my wireless internet signal leaks out of the house and through the shed walls. In one sense this is helpful, because I’m constantly looking for facts and definitions to keep my writing from descending into utter nonsense. It’s great that I can do this without leaving my chair. But, as you may have heard, the internet has a lot of interesting things on it, and can be distracting. James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway did not have this problem. Now, I am no Joyce or Hemingway, but sometimes I wonder what I would be if there were fewer amazing things contending for my attention. Like most writers, I have mixed feelings about the internet. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I have a co-dependent relationship with it. My greatest fear for the future is that there is another Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Atwood, or Liz Ahl out there who is too busy texting her friends to sit down and write something.

Best/most necessary thing(s) in your writing shed?

My most necessary implement is my Salton electric coffee mug warmer. My mother bought this for me in my junior year of college, in 1993. It’s nearly twenty years old and still does a great job of keeping my coffee warm.

My other most necessary implement is my MacBook, which as laptops go is ancient. I’ve had to replace the keyboard (twice), as well as the hard drive (twice), the memory, and the top case. This might lead one to wonder whether it’s still the same laptop, just as one wonders whether a rebuilt ship that contains just one original, symbolic timber is still the same ship. This is a pleasant debate to have, but I feel no pressing need to arrive at an answer.

Any writing shed “rules” or norms? A schedule?

I try to get up and visit my shed around five a.m. This is a great time, especially in summer. It’s beginning to get light, but the night world is going to sleep, which means I often startle a deer or a raccoon, or nameless scurrying things I can’t identify. Sometimes I hear loons—the bird kind, not the other kind. Getting up this early means I have around two hours of peace. Opening the shed door while holding both laptop and full coffee mug was always a balancing act, but recently I discovered I can simply kick the door in (like I said, it’s not a very good door.) Then the scents of garlic and yesterday’s cigarillos waft out at me. This might turn some stomachs, but it wakes me up, and it keeps the riffraff out.

The rule is that no one is supposed to interrupt me while I’m in my shed. When someone does interrupt me, I politely remind them of this rule, and they agree to follow it. This lasts until the next time they bother me—typically about fifteen to twenty minutes later. That’s my life. Being a father and husband is more important than being a writer.

What’s next for your writing shed?

I think the next thing I’m going to put in here is a new office chair. The one I have now is one of those OfficeMax specials, which cost around a hundred bucks ten or twelve years ago and makes me feel like an executive when I sit in it. But the mechanism that allows me to adjust the angle of the back is broken, so it’s permanently reclined. When I write, with my arms stretched out in front of me, I feel like I’m driving a go-kart at sixty miles an hour. This is probably having some deleterious effects on my posture.

What’s next for your writing?

I’ve just started a new novel. It seems to be a genre book, a mystery-thriller, I guess you could say. I have no idea what I’m doing, but that’s how I know I’m really creating something and not just repeating myself. My shed and I look forward to learning about this book together.

This past spring, I finished a novel and sent it out of my shed and into the world, with instructions to write when it found work. I hear from it from time to time. It’s doing well, meeting lots of nice people and having fun, but still bouncing around, apparently unwilling to settle anywhere just yet. I was the same way in my teens and twenties, so I sympathize, but I hope it puts down roots soon. It’s a cold, hard world out there for books, and I won’t be able to sleep soundly until I know it has found love, and a permanent address.

Anything else we should know about your shed?

I had the privilege of meeting the man who built this shed. His name was Roy, and he was a Newfoundlander, small of stature but with an impressive mustache. Roy told me it was the best shed he ever built, and he was proud of it. It was good enough to live in, he said. He asked me what I was using it for. I said it was where I did my writing. This earned me a look that was part disappointment and part suspicion. I find most men look at me this way when they learn what my shed has become. They all seem to think it ought to be some kind of man-cave, with a stereo, a nice couch, and a keg chiller. I tell them that someday I plan to build a garage, and on top of that I will put my man-cave; or, since it will be on the second floor, a man-aerie. But I say it quietly. I don’t want my shed to hear and become jealous; and besides, I don’t really want a man-aerie. With a shed like this, I don’t want anything else at all.

William Kowalski is the author of eight books, including four works of literary fiction and four Rapid Reads for reluctant adult readers. His novel Eddie’s Bastard (HarperCollins) was an international best-seller. His work has been translated into fifteen languages. You can visit him on the web at WilliamKowalski.com, and you can Like (or merely feel ambivalent about) his author page on FaceBook.

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The Writing Hut

When we bought our house nearly four years ago, one of the little details that charmed us was this outbuilding. There are two outbuildings; I find the other one significantly less charming, mainly because it is dark and creepy and full of spiders and chipmunks who knows what all. It’s where we keep the garbage can and lawnmower and garden implements and snow tires and ice melt. No, as you’ve inferred, we do not have a garage. Every year we talk a little more about the garage we plan to have. It’s one of the things we talk about. But that’s another blog for another time.

When we bought the house, the owner was using the charming little outbuilding as a pottery studio — she had a wheel and some supplies in there. Apparently, the outbuilding was originally supposed to be a sauna, but those plans got waylaid. It’s about eight feet by eleven feet. And, finally, last fall, we had some work done tidying it up a bit — putting in a proper ceiling, new flooring, and some linoleum on top of that, and buttoning up certain rodent-sized cracks around the outside and inside. It’s not encased in kryptonite or anything — but it’s much improved. (There are definitely some critters living in the wall/ceiling, but we do live in the woods, and so I am going to try to deal with that with a minimum of drama/carnage.)

Note, to the right, remnants of the tall pine that just barely did NOT fall on the little house.

So I’ve been working to get the little house outfitted, with the idea that it will be a kind of three-season writing retreat, and possibly a summer/early autumn bunkhouse if I put a daybed in there. The place has electricity (!) with two plug-in outlets, two vanilla ceiling fixtures, and even a little “porch light.” I haven’t spent any significant time there in the winter, and don’t plan to, but it will certainly work for spring/summer/fall. So far I’ve just got a few of the very basics in there — a writing desk and chair, a big wicker reading/lounging chair (still needs another cushion), and a little side table. I think I need some storage — a shelf and/or bin and/or drawer situation. I believe I’ll be laying down this old oriental carpet I haven’t used since we moved here. I’ve got a little desk lamp, but may keep my eyes open at the yard sales for a floor lamp as well. And the daybed. Along the back wall. Chaise lounge? I got the writing desk and wicker chair at a great yard sale in Peterborough — $27 for both.

The view as I stand just outside the door. Trying to give a sense of size/scale.

I was down in that part of the state to attend a poetry reading by Marilyn Annucci and Pat Fargnoli at Toadstool Books, and hit half a dozen or so yard sales along the way. It was a great reading, and somehow fitting that two major pieces for the writer hut (writing house? writing shed? retreat?) were acquired on my way to hear them read their outstanding poems.

I haven’t tested this theory yet, but I believe that one of the slight disadvantages of the location of the writer hut is that my wireless internet will work out there. If I get into a routine of going out there to work, I should probably plan on turning off the router on my way out. Yes, internet trolling is a legitimate part of the writing/research/thinking process, but it is also a distraction, and I think that having an internet-free space (at least SOME of the time?) is probably a good thing.

So, yes. The writing hut. Any suggestions about what all I need in there? What have you got in your writing space? What has helped to lure you into your writing space and what keeps you there?

Yeah, it’ll definitely be warmed up by the rug. Am thinking about having a daybed against that back wall…though I want room for the chair also. The wicker chair is actually massive, don’t know if the picture conveys its enormity.
Just big enough, I think.