The Lure of the Writer’s Cabin

Much has been written about the writer’s cabin. Among the most notable recent books on the topic are “Heidegger’s Hut” by Adam Sharr and “A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams,” Michael Pollan’s account of  imagining and then actually constructing his own writing space. A standard Internet search can quickly yield images of the writing rooms (cabins, huts, sheds) of legendary scriveners: Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Roald Dahl, Carl Jung, Henry Thoreau and — a writer of a markedly different sort —Ted Kaczynski, to name a few. And Jill Krementz’s 1999 collection of photographs “The Writer’s Desk” gives us tantalizing glimpses of writers sitting at their desks. But why the interest? Have these places somehow become secular sites of the sacred?

A statue of Henry David Thoreau and a replica of his hut are on display at Walden Pond Reservatio

A statue of Henry David Thoreau and a replica of his hut are on display at Walden Pond Reservatio

Who has not fantasized about the books they would write if only the right conditions could be found! I have carried around just such a dream, sparked by a weekend alone in an austere mountain cabin in the Austrian Alps when I was a boy. Rumination was unstoppable, and poetry just poured out.

For the most part, these buildings are small, plain, unprepossessing and sparsely furnished. This poses a problem for my first hypothesis — that the fascination of these dwellings rests on the hope that we may glean something of the secret of the writer’s genius from the creative space to which they habitually retreated. For we might well conclude from Wittgenstein’s famously almost empty college room in Cambridge (in which he had a deck chair), and indeed from the plainness of so many of these huts, that far from giving expression to, or feeding in some revealing way, the otherwise inaccessible inner workings of the brilliant mind, they reflect a disdainful resistance to the importance of surroundings, an asceticism, an architectural tabula rasa. This would explain why some people work well on planes, in hotel rooms, library carrels, even monastic and indeed prison cells. (Boethius, Bunyan, Gramsci and Negri all wrote significant works while imprisoned.) They are relieved of distraction. Sartre was famous for writing in the corner of Les Deux Magots – cafe privacy, where the white noise of conversation and cutlery damps down distracting input, fashioning a creative cocoon in the midst of the world.

It is not clear, when we look at Heidegger’s writing scene — the wooden desk, with the ink blotter, the old chair — whether these items have some deep meaning, or whether they are the recessive background that makes possible a certain concentration. Most of the items visible in the images available to us are generic and without distinction. Perhaps that is important. The sad truth may be that while we (especially we writers) hope to learn something of the secret of the author from his or her workspace we are often disappointed, just as meeting a famous person can be a letdown.

Theodore Kaczynski’s cabin in the woods near Lincoln, Mont., in 1996.

Theodore Kaczynski’s cabin in the woods near Lincoln, Mont., in 1996.

Photographs of writer’s retreats fall into three broad categories: exteriors, interiors and prospects (views from within), and each has a distinct significance. Exteriors give focus to the imaginative challenge: what was going on that room? It seems a touch more decipherable than what was going on in her head? Interiors, especially those furnished as our own spaces might be, with a desk and a chair, allow us to make comparisons imaginatively to transpose ourselves into that space, even as we mark the distance. But there are distinct details of the writer’s room, too, ones we can never assign to ourselves: the fat fountain pen on Freud’s desk — now an anachronism, as well as a cliché. Or his row of Egyptian figurines? Were they vital parts of his creative process? But ultimately, it is the typical ordinariness of these interiors that is of real interest.

The third category of perspective — prospects, the view outside from within — offers a different sort of insight.. Bertrand Russell’s house, at Plas Penrhyn, near Portmeirion, in Wales, is somewhat plain, but its distant view up the Glaslyn estuary to the slopes of Snowdon is spectacular. As it happens, we do not have many photos of the views from writers’ cabins, and of them, Heidegger’s is the prettiest, if not exactly sublime. From the dozens of such cabins that I have inspected — some personally, others in books or through Google — it is clear that most of these  spaces look inward rather than outward.  Desks are often in the center of the room, rather than at a window, as if the view of the outdoors was not at a premium. To the extent that some satisfaction is taken in being in nature, it is not so much having a view of nature as being part of it.

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