On God's Creek
I want to stay here in this cocoon of books (cue “I Am A Rock”: I have my books and my poetry to protect me) and not have to face the real world, the modern world, a world where people admire wealth over dignity, where talking nonstop about nothing is considered more admirable than studied silence, where your allegiance to your country is questioned if you ask too many questions about certain things, like the war or the coal industry or even the Ten Commandments, for God’s sake.
In my writing shack I don’t have to think about the latest school shooting (and by the way, how many shootings will it take before we impose some kind of stricter waiting periods on weapons and ammunition?) or that I have literally hundreds of emails that need a reply or that my beautiful but completely insane dog Riley has just pulled at least two dozen muddy sticks out of the creek and is right now in the process of leaving them all scattered about the back yard in varying states of gnawed, slimy decomposition. Instead, I can listen to the silence, peer out at the trees and the hint of low, gray sky behind them. I can soak up the vibes of those crowding in around me—Arnow, Cather, Erdrich, Hardy, Maxwell, Millay, Oliver, Stegner, Still, Walker—so close I can almost feel their literary breath on my neck. That breath smells like the inside of a book, of course, one of the best smells ever, right up there with woodsmoke, a pot of new coffee, pinto beans bubbling on the stove, a ripe strawberry, a baby’s head.
But to disappear into this book-created bliss, to drift off into this ecstasy of good words completely, abandoning all interaction with the outside world would be a mistake. As a writer—nay, as a human being—I need to have this place of solitude that I’ve created for myself in my writer’s shack. I need stillness and quietude in my life. But my responsibility as a writer is to also think about those school shootings, because part of my job is to try to understand—and articulate—the way human beings operate. And my responsibility is to study the movements of my crazy, beloved dog, because part of my job is to describe those things in a cinematic, interesting way. And yes, the modern responsibility is to even answer those emails. Because I’m a full-time writer. And part of that means I also have to be a businessperson some of the time. It’s a necessary part of the job. Some writers hesitate to refer to their writing as work, or as a job. But just because it’s something I love and crave doesn’t also mean that it’s not my job. It’s my work. People often say about their jobs, “It’s what I do for a living.” I’ve always found that to be a beautiful phrase.
What I do for a living.
And it certainly applies to being a writer, because writing not only pays my bills but it’s also something that I would die without. If I didn’t have some way to get all my thoughts and fears and joys out onto the page, I’d implode.
Although we are people of solitude, writers cannot be hermits. We have to steel ourselves and go out into the world whether we like it or not. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a thing to write about. There are only so many essays and books one person can write about the woods and the sounds of all the little live things. Those things deserve to have as much written about them as possible, but we also have to write about the problems of humanity, not just the joys of the forest. And to understand one we have to touch the other.
So we must be responsible and face the world even though, as writers, we usually don’t want to. We would rather be with a select group of trusted friends and family who understand us (those few, beloved souls), or those only other things that we feel understand us: music, books, the act of writing. And that is why I wanted to build this writer’s shack here by God’s Creek last year.
It has made all the difference.
I built the shack with my father. Actually, he built it. I just helped, just did what he told me to. I had to learn how to handle a hammer (The lower down the more swing. This is the most important rule of hammering. Ever.) when my family and friends all gathered together and built my house nine years ago. But I’ve never really mastered it, and I certainly don’t know how to make things square or how to get things in plum or any other number of carpentry terms that I don’t even know. Still, I enjoyed every swing as I drove those nails into the wood. Each pound of the hammer was one second closer to words being pounded out here on the banks of this creek, too.
The writer’s shack is twelve feet by twelve feet. Not even as big as most people’s bedrooms. But plenty big enough for my needs. I wanted the whole structure to be made completely of wood and light, so where there is not wood paneling and planks there are windows and glass doors, letting in the sky, the woods. Sitting here feels like being inside a hollow tree where I can spy outside.
My glass patio doors—on the eastern wall—face the woods, where I have an evergreen view since there is a small grove of hemlocks just across the creek. In the mornings, for a long while after sunrise, the sky behind them is lit with every good variation of pink and yellow. These doors open onto my small porch, which holds two rockers. This is where I enter and exit. It is also where my dogs Rufus (noble, fierce) and Riley (the aforementioned insane and beautiful) lie the entire time I am writing. They stretch out, keep guard, sometimes nod off, look at me quizzically when I holler out at some great realization about my current novel, or curse at the laptop for doing something inexplicable and spiteful.
On the northern wall is my picture window, which looks directly out onto a dogwood that is like magic in the springtime. To the west is the front door (never used), wood with a glass center. Beyond it is the first real slope of Slate Ridge, this piece of land I’ve known since childhood, this good rise of earth. Down this hill I have ridden sleds on both snow and deep leaves, rolled with arms crossed, smoked my first and last entire cigarettes (17 years apart—savoring the last one much more than the first), had my first kiss (if every kiss was as full of hope as that first one, I imagine we’d all flit about like those redbirds), thought through many a problem. And so on. In the evenings there is only the hint of red above this rise as it is too high up for me to see the sunset on the other side. Since the shack sets down in a little hollow, the gloaming starts there first. Down by the creek the night seeps in, a quilt of gray being eased up over the land. In wintertime this is the quietest part of the day, but in warm weather it will be the noisiest. However, that noise will be the best kind there is: cicadas, crickets, frogs, whippoorwills, katydids, peepers. Their songs usher in the darkness with prayer, and these exaltations are at their loudest (most joyous) down by the creek, on all sides of my little writing shack.
I have neglected to mention the southern wall of the building. I have intentionally not put a window on this side because I want my desk to face that way. The trees and sky and hillside are all too good to look at while I’m writing. I don’t want them to catch my eye behind the laptop screen. But I do want them within such easy reach that they can be seen by a slight turn of my head, by a shift of my eyes. Instead, there is nothing but this wall of wood. Upon it I have three treasured paintings (on the left, a redbird by Ray Harm; in the middle an old print of Cumberland Gap; on the right, the Spider Bridge over Troublesome Creek in Hindman, Kentucky, one of my favorite places on earth, painted by my friend Ruth Antle). Below them are collages of my own strange making, and they change nearly everyday. There are postcards, scraps of paper with notes for the new novel on them, a picture of Cate Blanchett ripped out of a magazine, a copy of the poem “Trees” by Merwin, several drawings by my daughters, who are, at 12 and 9, drawing all the time.
These are views I can control. I can remove them if they become distracting. I put things there that are not as likely to have action going on (as often happens with trees, for instance, with things like changing colors and breezes and birds and squirrels) but that are comforting to me.
I should say, for my father’s sake if not mine, that this little building is not really a shack in the way we normally think. When people say shack, most often the first thought is of a small house in disrepair, perhaps adorned by a hound dog on the front porch (or a granny-woman with a pipe in her mouth). This goes all the way back to where the work comes from, which is the rural English colloquialism “shackly,” which meant “rickety.”
But actually, Webster’s defines shack this way: “A room or similar enclosed structure for a particular person or use.”
This seems the perfect definition for a little house that was built particularly for me, and for my work. And I also call it my shack in tribute to my late friend Larry Brown, who built his own little writer’s shack on the banks of the pond he had known and loved and fished in all of his life. Nearing the end of his building that shack, Larry encouraged me to build one for myself. “A writer needs a place he can go to,” he said. “It’ll make ye a better writer, bro.”
I know how blessed I am to have this writer’s shack, this room of one’s own. I worked for a long while, setting some money here and there aside to have it. But in hindsight, I see that I have always created a room of my own, no matter my circumstances. At first, when I was a child and teenager, it was in my incredibly messy room, hunched over my little blue and red Royal typewriter. Later, when rooming with two messy boys in college, it was the small couch in the corner of our living room, whose décor was mostly empty Natural Light and Papa John’s pizza boxes. As a young newlywed with a new baby, living in a 14 x 70 trailer, I wrote in my daughter’s unused nursery (unused because we moved her cradle in right beside our bed and then didn’t even use it, planting her as close to us as possible) on a huge computer whose CPU sat on a diaper changing table and whose screen sat propped atop boxes of Huggies. Later, the screen porch of my house in warm weather, a table by the gas-log-fireplace in the wintertime. And finally, my own little shack there in the woods, by God’s Creek.
As writers, we have to find this place for ourselves. It will present itself. It doesn’t have to be like anyone else’s writing space, so don’t look to me or other writers for advice on that. Like writing, it has to be your own creation. Finding it will help you to find your voice, will help you to escape when the realities are so heavy and so much that the best thing you can do is to write about them, to understand them better, to find light in all the darkness.