I nearly missed it. Hardly larger than a child’s playhouse, tucked into a bend of Oklahoma highway, its red stone walls flickered in the rising light and complemented the hand-lettered sign. For rent? I thought as I drove past. Furnished?
Pulling onto the side of the road, I turned around and headed back to park in the dirt driveway that edged the property. A house to the east seemed vacant. An air conditioner humming in one of three slightly larger brick cabins to the west only added to the sense of desertion, if not desolation. Camera in hand, I walked around the car to get a better look at the cottage, and stopped.
Above the battered door, a carved stone lintel betokened human presence: friendship and welcome, affection, familial bonds. Beautiful and unexpected, it brought tears to my eyes and unexpected longing to my heart. I wanted that cabin.
Granted, it might not be the best place to live, with a highway running only fifty feet from the front door. Certainly it lacked a few amenities – window glass and a floor, just for starters. But the roof looked good and the thick, compacted vines running along the sides and back of the place would help keep the stones in place as the mortar crumbled away. Walking around the building, I pondered.
No, I thought, not a home. But maybe a fine place to write. Under the spell of those clasped hands I imagined table and chairs, a coffee pot. In the silence I dreamed the burble of vine-wrens and the soughing of tires on pavement. Sniffing the air, I caught not merely the dust and dessication of early autumn drought but the fragrance of leather-bound books purchased at farm sales, and the scent of fresh-mown hay. In this perfect writing space, thoughts would heap up like the roiling clouds and words stream down like rain. A perfect writing place is hard to come by, yet here it was – in my imagination, possessing infinite appeal.
Later, driving down a real-world road but still entranced by my vision of perfection, I remembered Annie Dillard’s words on writing space.
“Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view… When I furnished this study seven years ago, I pushed the long desk against a blank wall, so I could not see from either window. Once, fifteen years ago, I wrote in a cinder-block cell over a parking lot. It overlooked a tar-and-gravel roof. This pine shed under trees is not quite so good as the cinder-block study was, but it will do.”
Clearly the cinder-block cell served Dillard well, but not everyone requires – or delights in – such a spartan environment. Harper Lee moved to New York. Flannery O’Connor gravitated at first toward writers’ “colonies” but thrived even after disease forced her return to Andalusia, the family farm in Georgia. T.S. Eliot embedded himself into the literary life of England, while Wendell Berry returned to Kentucky – not only to write, but to work.
I suspect each of us functions better in one sort of environment than another, and the places we choose become part of our writing “tool kit”, as necessary for productive work as any dictionary or thesaurus. Some favor cafés, some seek out libraries. Some prefer isolation, others are stimulated by the bustle of open, public spaces.
As for the act of writing itself, Claire Tomalin, biographer of Jane Austen, once said, “All you need if you are a writer is a desk, a pencil and, of course, a great brain”.
I presume she’d allow for a little paper, too. But different approaches to the writing process are as natural as preference in matters of place. Some enjoy composing by hand. Others depend exclusively on computers. Some writers love the tactile experience of inked words flowing across leather-bound pages, while at least one poet in the world contents himself with the kind of cheap ruled tablet common to second-graders and a clutch of number 2 pencils.
Sometimes, a writer’s favorite tools are even more surprising. An interviewer once asked a musician, “What’s the one thing you need to write a good song?” “My guitar,” he said. “I write the words down eventually, but that’s never where I start. I start with the music, because that’s where I find the words.”
Clearly, each of us has needs that, once met, help to move us down the road to writing satisfaction. Sometimes declared needs are quirky and frivolous, like avocado sandwiches for lunch, or Debussy playing in the background. Others are more substantial, and include the tools that allow us to keep our imaginations lively, our spirits enriched and our words flowing.
Despite my brief infatuation with an Oklahoma cottage, I’m entirely satisfied with my own writing space and the tools arrayed around me. Everything I need for actual writing is either at hand or easily accessible. I wouldn’t change a thing.
But much of what piques my interest demands research, and much of my research stirs deeper curiosity. To satisfy that curiosity requires more than books. It requires replacing search engines with a real engine – that is, it requires travel.
Unfortunately, I’ve been driving the automotive equivalent of that red stone cottage for more years than I care to remember. A 1988 vehicle may be perfectly acceptable for in-town driving and hauling wood-working tools, but recently I’ve begun to feel as though the wheels might fall off – literally. Repairs have become more frequent and more expensive. Strange noises come and go, and inexplicable vibrations.
On my recent trip to the midwest, it was a road leading to a rural Kansas cemetery that forced me to confront the unfortunate, ironic truth. Free at last to indulge my appetite for travel, I had no dependable means of transportation. Humph, I said. I’ll have to think about that.
Home again and distracted by the return to work and routine, I gave it no more thought until a week ago. Then, in an inexplicable frenzy of certitude, I acted. I knew what I wanted, and I knew where it was. I had the money, and the deal was better than good. Her name is Princess, and I presume she’s outside my door, basking in the sunlight. I think we’ll be very happy.
Like avocado sandwiches, Debussy sotto voce, cinder-block walls or a leather-bound journal, a new car might not seem a neccesary tool for writing. Some might call it a distraction, even an escape from the demands of paper and pen. But for a history-lover, a curiosity-seeker and a wanderer at heart, the roads of the world beckon as surely as the pages of an open book. Now, I’m free to read them, and the stories they contain.
Was J.J. Cale thinking of writers when he penned his paean to getting-up-and-going titled Any Way the Wind Blows? Probably not. Were he and Eric Clapton thinking of essayists, poets or novelists when they recorded the song for The Road to Escondido? I’m sure not.
Still, Any Way the Wind Blows resonated as I headed down the road last weekend to spend my “extra” hour of post-daylight-saving time enjoying my new ride. I’ve always found a good engine block to be the best answer in the world to writers’ block, and a new engine block’s even better. I’m free now to run the roads with confidence, hearing the music and feeling the beat of life swelling up around me. If I happen upon Place and Time holding hands and hitch-hiking together across the country, so much the better. It’ll give me something to write about.
If time don’t tell you then don’t ask me
I’m ridin’ on a hurricane down to the sea,
If you can’t hear the music, turn it up loud
there’s movement in the air and movement in the crowd.
Some like this and some like that,
Some don’t know where it’s at.
If you don’t get loose, if you don’t groove,
Well, your motor won’t make it and your motor won’t move.
Easy come, easy go,
Any way the wind blows.