When the lovely, straw-colored Toyota came into my life, friends giggled at my choice of name. “Princess?” they asked. “Aren’t you afraid naming it ‘Princess’ is going to cause trouble down the road? What if it ends up expecting to be pampered, and demands new parts and service every other month?”
Politely but firmly, I corrected them. “She. Princess is a ‘she’, not an ‘it.’ And she’s going to be just fine.”
In fact, she has been fine. We’ve shared five years without any mechanical difficulties, and the rock-shattered windshields and dent from the flying ice chest were easily enough repaired. Two nearly-destroyed rocker panels — chewed up by squirrels, or rats, or El Chupacabra — had to be replaced, but the insurance adjuster wasn’t curious. “It happens more often than you’d think,” she said. “There are weird things going on out there.”Finding Princess was less weird than serendipitous. While traveling to Iowa in 2011, I nearly missed what appeared to be a child’s playhouse tucked into a bend of the highway just outside Coalgate, Oklahoma. Its red stone walls flickered in the rising light, complementing the hand-lettered sign.
For rent? I thought as I passed by. Furnished?
I turned around, headed back, and parked in an open patch of dirt. A house to the east appeared vacant, though an air conditioner hummed in a slightly larger brick cabin to the west.
Camera in hand, I walked around the car for a better look at the cottage, and found myself startled by an unexpected detail.
Above the battered door, a carved stone lintel betokened human presence; friendship and welcome; affection; familial bonds. Beautiful in its simplicity, it brought tears to my eyes and unexpected longing to my heart. Instantly, I wanted that cabin.
Common sense suggested it wouldn’t be the best place to live. The highway passed only fifty feet from the front door, and it did lack a few amenities, like window glass and a floor. But the roof looked solid, and the thick, compacted vines covering the walls 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 a table, chairs, and 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 the swirling dust and dessication of early autumn drought, the fragrance of leather-bound farm sale books, and the scent of freshly-mown hay.
In a space so perfect, thoughts would heap up like roiling summer clouds and words stream down like rain. Or so I imagined.
Later, back on my real-world highway but still entranced by a vision of perfection, I remembered Annie Dillard’s words on writing spaces:
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, but it will do.
Clearly, her 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 toward writers colonies, but thrived after returning to her family’s farm in Georgia. T.S. Eliot embedded himself into the literary life of England, while Wendell Berry returned to Kentucky and contented himself with wielding both a plow and a pen.
No doubt each of us functions best in a particular environment, and the places we choose can encourage productive work as much as any dictionary or thesaurus. Some favor cafés; some seek out libraries. Some prefer isolation; others find the bustle of open, public spaces stimulating.
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 compose by hand, while others depend exclusively on computers. Some enjoy the sensory experience of inked words flowing across leather-bound pages, but at least one poet in the world contents himself with a cheap ruled tablet and a clutch of number 2 pencils.
Whatever our preferences, we can’t help but hope that, once satisfied, they will move us toward writing satisfaction: keeping our imaginations lively, our spirits enriched, and our words flowing.
Today, I’m entirely satisfied with my own writing space: a desk, a computer, piles of reference books, and a window. And, despite having had to move on from fantasies about my Oklahoma writing cottage, the cottage now hangs on my wall.
When reader June White saw its photo in 2012, she decided to paint it for me. After the painting arrived, I was amused to see that she’d eliminated the “For Rent” sign, and asked her about it. “Well,” she said, “even if someone else moves in, or the forces of progress bulldoze the place, it still will be yours — at least, in a way. So, you don’t need the sign.”
When I passed through Coalgate in 2011, I’d been driving the automotive equivalent of that red stone cottage for more years than I care to remember. Perfectly acceptable for in-town driving, the car had begun to feel as though the wheels might fall off. Repairs were becoming more frequent and more expensive. Strange noises erupted, accompanied by inexplicable vibrations.
Eventually, I was forced to confront an unfortunate truth. No longer a care-giver, freed to indulge my appetite for travel, I had no dependable means of transportation. Humph, I said to no one in particular. I’ll have to think about that.
Home again from Iowa and distracted by the return to work and routine, I gave no more thought to a new car until, in an inexplicable frenzy of certitude, I acted. I knew what I wanted, and I knew where to find it. When I brought Princess home and left her to bask in the sunlight, I was certain we’d be happy. I was right.
For some, a dependable car might not seem a neccesary writing tool. Some would call it a distraction, or even a means of 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. With Princess, I’m able to read those pages, and enjoy the stories they contain.
Much of what piques my interest demands research, and much of my research stirs a deeper curiosity. Sometimes, satisfying that curiosity requires more than books. It requires replacing search engines with a real engine; that is, it requires travel.
Beyond that, I’ve always found my own best answer to writers’ block is a good engine block. Freedom to run the roads with confidence, hearing the music of life and sensing its rhythms around me, is an experience like no other.
And if, one day, I should happen upon Space and Time holding hands and hitch-hiking together across the country? So much the better. I’ll happily offer them a ride.