A Shed of One's Own
This essay appeared in The Reader Number 20, Winter 2005, pp. 54-58. It is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license, August 2007. To order back issues of The Reader magazine, or to buy a subscription, click this link.
A Shed of One’s Own
In July 2003 I began building a writing hut; the idea had been brewing for a while. Working at home is fine until the doorbell rings, or the window cleaner calls, or you have people to stay and there is work to be done and nowhere to do it. As Virginia Woolf noted in 1929 a busy household full of visitors, children, and other distractions is no place for a writer. There was also the issue of the garden, which was starting to draw me outside more and more often. A few years before we had seeded it with native British wild flowers, so in the summer months it was a mass of campion and daisies and trefoils and a hundred other things. But even in the winter there were things to look at: an early daffodil shoot pushing up through dead leaves, a bird hunting for food.
I worked on the writing hut between July and October in the evenings, at weekends, and any spare days I could find. I was engrossed in calculations of the lengths of wood needed for each stage, the amount of pitch a roof needs to shed water, and how window frames are made. On holiday in Scotland that year I took notes on the construction of the roofs of crofts and worried that mine was built too light. And then there was the language. I learned to use phrases like “collar ties” (the cross-beams that hold roof trusses together), “studs and cats” (the vertical and horizontal beams in the walls), “soles and top plates” (the beams running along the top and bottom of a stud wall), shingles and eaves. During the day I was editing a book on the philosophy of language; I hammered and sawed until dusk.
By October it was finished and I started writing at the bottom of the garden in November. I still don’t quite know what it was that made me do it. The work was physically and mentally hard, but deeply rewarding. That first week, listening to the Lancashire rain pounding on the roof I made, and not coming in, I felt connected with something very old and very human. That feeling is also there in the process of writing itself. There is the construction, collecting materials and shaping them into something new, but there is also something more elemental: the need for shelter and to communicate are part of what we are. Perhaps for that reason writers have always been escape artists, constantly seeking a place where they can connect at a deep level with the world outside. For many that has meant running away to cabins in the woods, distant islands, and garden sheds. For others, like the American writer John Cheever, a windowless basement was enough. Every morning Cheever took the elevator down from his New York apartment block and worked on a bare wooden table facing a blank wall.
Some writers are very specific about the environment they can work in and go to great lengths to avoid working anywhere else. This was a particular problem in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, where even well-known writers were forced to work in shared offices, producing work to order. Raymond Chandler had an especially bad experience working with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity (1944). He didn’t like Wilder’s pacing up and down, his taking phone calls from women, or the fact that he wore his hat in the office and waved a baton around. Luckily Chandler was famous enough and valuable enough to the studio to wring an apology from the notoriously arrogant director.
Having learned his lesson, Chandler’s demands for finishing The Blue Dahlia (1946) were more exacting: if he was going to write for Hollywood, he would do it on his own terms and in a place where he was comfortable. In his case that was at home in La Jolla, with a supply of whiskey and coffee, round-the-clock secretaries to type up his dictation, and a fleet of limousines to ferry the script to the studio page by page as it was finished. Even so the arrangement nearly killed him and Chandler said of his experience: “I was convinced in the beginning that there must be some discoverable method of working in pictures which would not be completely stultifying to whatever creative talent one might happen to possess. But like others before me I discovered that this was a dream.”1
One of those others was William Faulkner who in the 1930s became well known for his successful escape attempts and did most of his work from home in Oxford, Mississippi despite the complaints from studio bosses. But being quirky and rebellious costs money and by 1941 Faulkner was desperate and broke. The regular paid work was all that mattered and he was signed up to Warner Brothers for seven years at $300 a week, less than half his salary with MGM five years before. He wrote scripts for such classic movies as To Have and Have Not (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946), and contributed uncredited hack work to many others, including Mildred Pierce (1945). But the contrast between what he was doing and what he actually was is rather sad. In 1948 Faulkner did uncredited “script doctor” work on a B-movie, Adventures of Don Juan; the following year he won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Hollywood during its golden age was a difficult place for writers, but the need for solitude and retreat has always been a high priority. So much so in fact that some writers have become famous for their quirky writing arrangements and in particular for working in garden sheds. George Bernard Shaw had a wooden studio built in the grounds of his house which rotated to follow the path of the sun, while Roald Dahl’s tiny garden shed stood at the end of a small avenue of pleached lime trees and was notoriously spartan and uncomfortable. More recently Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, has been “outed” as a garden shed writer, though since moving house he has donated his shed to a friend and moved indoors to a large study. Even so he claims to share his study with woodworking tools, so it remains a shed in spirit at least.
Mark Twain, who seems to have lived and worked in more Western towns than it is possible to visit in a lifetime, returned in the end to Elmira, New York, where his sister in law had built an octagonal cabin for him and which he later described as “a cozy nest.” But in the nineteenth century it was much more unusual for writers to have a separate place for writing than it is now. William Wordsworth, who did much of his composing while he walked on the Lake District fells, also managed somehow to write at home. In the second volume of his biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Richard Holmes describes the domestic hubbub that attended Coleridge’s arrival at Allan Bank, Grasmere, where Wordsworth lived with his wife Mary, their three children, his sister Dorothy, and an assortment of animals:
Domestic matters quickly engulfed [Coleridge]. Mary Wordsworth was about to give birth to her fourth child, rooms were still being decorated, De Quincey was expected, the Coleridge children were longing to see their father.2
Some more recent writers, including J.K Rowling, and Ernest Hemingway, have been able to work in noisy environments such as cafés and bars, perhaps like Wordsworth being able to escape to a virtual space of their own, but for most the idea of existing in close proximity to so many people and still being able to write is almost inconceivable: later in life even Hemingway had a wooden cabin where he did his writing. But the guru of all shed-dwelling writers from Shaw to Dylan Thomas is Henry David Thoreau, who moved into his cabin in the forest near Concord, Massachusetts on July 4, 1845.
The cabin had taken Thoreau two months to build and his experiences there would become the subject of his best-known work, Walden, a book with which he established himself as an observer of nature and as one of America’s great transcendentalist writers. Thoreau’s book is a celebration of the solitude he enjoyed in the woods and while his move began as an experiment in living without the comforts of modern life, Thoreau’s reasons for going there are more writerly than scientific: “I went to the woods,” he says “because I wished to live deliberately”.3 What he meant was partly to discover what it was like to live outside what he saw as the over-regulated, consumerist society of Concord, but he was also talking about the writing process itself. Thoreau’s need to “front only the essential facts of life,” and to do so in solitude, is one that most writers will recognise.
Over the following decades Walden was hugely influential. It seemed to touch on something in the American psyche that craved a reconnection with what F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby (1926) called “a fresh, green breast of the new world.” In the 1960s and 1970s Walden inspired a generation of hippies, drop-outs, and environmentalists to shun the materialism of their time, just as Thoreau had done for his own. But Thoreau’s retreat to the woods was driven only in part by a desire to escape from everyday life and live more simply: he also wanted a place to work. In the two years he lived in his cabin Thoreau not only maintained a journal that he would later write up as Walden, but he wrote his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). His cabin is a prototype to which writers have turned ever since.
Walden is full of detail about Thoreau’s life in the woods—the minutiae of his success growing vegetables, a description of tiny silver fish in the pond, how he cooked his food—yet what we learn from the book is as much about the life Thoreau left behind in town as it is about life in the woods. Thoreau’s distance from everyday life made him a useful and passionate social critic. In the suburbanized, information-driven twentieth century, where travel became very easy, the kind of escape Thoreau achieved gradually became more difficult, yet for many writers the need for retreat and reflection became more urgent. A dramatic example of this need to “live deliberately” is provided by George Orwell, who in May 1946 moved into a farmhouse called Barnhill at the northern tip of the island of Jura, off the west coast of Scotland. Following the death of his wife Eileen in 1945 Orwell hoped to make a permanent home there for himself and his son, Richard, but in the short term he was also looking for a place to write the novel that would become 1984.
Jura is a dramatic, beautiful, and savage place. Looking east in good weather from Barnhill you can see in the distance the low jagged shadow of the Scottish coast; to the north the treacherous Corryvreckan whirlpool and the tiny island of Sarba. Jura is small, just 24 miles long, with a single, narrow road running north from the jetty at the southern end along the eastern coast. In Orwell’s time the road ran for only 17 miles of the island’s length, so from the hamlet of Ardlussa where it ended he had a seven-mile walk home along a rough track. Suffering from the early effects of the tuberculosis that eventually killed him, Orwell often took to his bed and worked on the novel there, but when he felt well he took long walks on the empty hills. A setting more removed from the dystopian urban nightmare of Orwell’s best-known novel is difficult to imagine. I spent a few days near Barnhill in the late 1980s, sheltering from a violent, days-long storm in a tiny tent, and have never felt so untied from the modern world as then.
Orwell died in 1950 and the manuscript of 1984 was discovered at Barnhill some time later. Clearly Jura suited him, but for most writers solitude needs to be found closer to friends, relatives, and ordinary life. My own writing hut, nestled at the bottom of the garden and surrounded with wild flowers, has become a favourite place. In the spring and summer there is birdsong and the hum of insects; in the winter there is wind and rain to accompany the work. Thoreau catches exactly the feeling of having found a place to write: “I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining rod and thin rising vapor I judge; and here I will begin to mine.”4
1. Letter to Hamish Hamilton, November 10, 1950. In Frank MacShane (ed.) The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, New York: Dell, 1987, p. 237.
2. Holmes, Richard, Coleridge: Darker Reflections, HarperCollins, 1998. pp. 146-7.
3. Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (1854). This edition, Penguin, 1983. p. 135.
4. Walden, p. 143.