I suppose many writers entertain the hermit fantasy from time to time. For me, it came shortly after the publication of my first book, Dogwalker
. I felt certain that if I could hole up in a cabin somewhere remote and free of distraction, I would produce the next Great American Novel.
It turned out my friend Bill owned such a cabin, located deep in the wilderness of the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont. Bill needed money and sold the place to me for roughly half of the advance I had received on that first book. The cabin was built out of spare materials from Bill’s other construction jobs. It looked a bit like a Dr. Seuss creation. It was located high up on a mountainside, deep in the woods and so far from the nearest power line that living “on the grid” was out of the question. It had running water, which was nice, but I was warned never to let the pipes freeze; otherwise they would burst and repairing them was well beyond my capacity. Winters in the Northeast Kingdom are amazingly cold, often dipping below zero for days on end. I spent much of my time there chopping wood and feeding the woodstove. I never dared leave the place alone for long during those cold snaps.
I hadn’t properly thought through my Great American Novel plan. Not only did I lack a suitable plotline for such a book, I had little idea of how to establish a sustainable writing routine while living alone in the woods. I like to write at night, but because the place had no electricity, I couldn’t use a computer, and writing longhand wasn’t an option. So I got an old manual typewriter, a big clunker that shook the whole cabin when I smacked down on the keys. In order to keep the pages properly illuminated, I placed candles all over the room. The shaking from the typewriter caused the candles to drip and splatter wax everywhere. It was a mess.
The outhouse was also a problem. I don’t know if you have ever ventured to use an outdoor toilet in below-zero temperatures, but I can tell you that it is an unpleasant experience. I took to urinating in bottles and jars, and I’m ashamed to admit I often left these vessels sitting around longer than would be acceptable if I ever expected company to drop by. Of course, I never did expect company, and that was part of the problem. I was only accountable to myself, and I let things slide over time. A visitor to that cabin would have encountered a place scattered with half-typed pages, wax drippings, and covered jars of cold urine sitting on the windowsills… hardly the Walden Pond
fantasy I had envisioned upon moving up there.
It turns out I needed social interaction in order to function. I craved conversations and feedback, a community with which to interact. Sometimes I would drive into town, a bumpy journey some 40 minutes down a snow-covered dirt road, just to have a cup of tea and read a book within close proximity to other humans. Of course, during the wintertime, when I needed that companionship most, I couldn’t stay long; otherwise the woodstove would die down and the damn pipes would freeze in the cabin.
I did have a neighbor up there in the woods, a man named Richard, who was a real hermit. He lived in a little square shack even farther up the mountain. Richard didn’t even have running water. He lived by a creek and on cold days he’d break the ice with an axe so that he could fill up his pots. Eventually I befriended old Richard. He was 80 years old and had been living there since he turned 56. I’d stop by and sit with him next to his woodstove. He wasn’t much of a talker, though I do think he enjoyed my company. In fact, I got the impression he wanted me to stop by more often, a notion that made me sad and led me to avoid his place at times. Was that my future — 80 years old and breaking ice in order to wash my socks?
You’ll be surprised to hear I never did write The Great American Novel up there in Vermont. In fact, I hardly wrote anything at all worth remembering. But I did learn some valuable lessons about what it takes to lead a satisfactory writing life.
I believe writers must have social interaction on a regular basis. We need to get out of the house and have meaningful conversations, or at least observe them. Later on I moved to New York City, another place in which I found it difficult to write, but for the opposite reasons. There was so much going on right outside my door! Perhaps this is just a comment on my personal inability to settle into a chair and put words onto a page, but I do think there exists a sort of happy medium for people who by trade must work alone. My most productive times have come when living in cheap “college towns,” places where one can pay the rent with wages from a part-time job and not feel an outcast for lingering in coffee shops or other public spaces longer than usual.
These days I live in Portland, Oregon, and I have a family — a wife who works days and two young girls who are old enough to ride their bikes to and from school on their own. So those are my writing hours, the times when I get left alone in the house. I’ve come to enjoy them very much, but I know well the reason that I do is because soon the house will be full again. I will be held accountable. No half-typed pages and waxy messes. No more urine in jars.
Sometimes I do miss the cold solitude of that cabin in the woods, but it’s only a temporary longing. A few of the stories in my latest book, Turtleface and Beyond
, were conceived in that cabin while I was living like a hermit. But it turned out I had to move out of the woods to actually write them down.
is an O. Henry Award–winning writer and Emmy-nominated filmmaker. He is the author of Turtleface and Beyond
, and his writing has appeared in Esquire
, and Men's Journal
. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and serves as the co-director of Camp Jabberwocky, the nation's longest-running residential summer camp for people with disabilities.