Philip Gulley: Cabin Fever

The only thing keeping me from literary greatness is my lack of a perfect writing place.
This summer, my wife and I will drive to Maine to see the little shack where E.B. White wrote several of his books. It sits on the shore of his farm on Blue Hill Bay, just north of the town of Brooklin. Every morning, weather permitting, his handyman carried White’s typewriter to the shack for the day’s work. Several years ago, my son built a pleasant little building in the corner of our yard in Danville, and I suggested to my wife that she carry my laptop computer to it each morning so I could write. So far, she has refused. I’m hoping when she sees E.B. White’s writing cabin, she’ll realize how important the proper environment is to authors and do her part to help the cause of literature.

When we renovated the farmhouse where my wife was raised, I thought the space would be conducive to writing, but it’s so pleasant I can’t get anything done. I sit down to type, then notice the couch in the corner of the front porch and think how nice it would be to take a little break and read. We renovated the garage, too, and I can see it from my desk. I made a workshop in the garage, and I start thinking of it and eventually make my way out to sharpen the lawnmower blades or mix up weed killer—anything to keep from writing. We authors spend more time avoiding writing than we do on writing itself.

It occurs to me that I need to build a little cabin in the woods, just like Henry Thoreau did at Walden Pond, where I can work without the distractions of comfort and home maintenance. Across the road from our farmhouse is a trail that winds past two barns, up a steep hill, then through a meadow to a grove of trees. If I were to cut down two of the trees, roll them down the hill to the barnyard, load them on a trailer, and haul them to Mike Lowe’s sawmill to be cut into planks, I’d have enough lumber to build a modest cabin in which to write.

The place will, by necessity, be a simple structure. Thoreau’s cabin measured 10 feet by 15 feet, and I see no need to build my cabin larger than that. It would include three windows and a door, which I just happen to have left over from the farmhouse renovation. I can make my desk out of a wooden plank and have Mike set aside a log for me to use as a chair. The chair in my office cost several hundred dollars, but it hasn’t improved my writing, so I might as well try sitting on a log.

There won’t be any plumbing in my cabin, so I won’t have to worry about the pipes freezing in the winter. Although given the lack of a heater, I will have to worry about me freezing. Thoreau’s cabin had a fireplace on one end, but that’s beyond my budget, so I’ll put the third window where the fireplace would have gone. I suppose if it gets too unpleasant, I can install a small woodstove in one corner to beat back the cold.

Drinking water won’t be a problem. I can carry a canteen up the hill with me each morning and refill it when I go down the hill to the farmhouse for lunch. (I’m hoping I can talk my wife into having lunch on the table every day at noon.) There are lots of trees in the woods, so finding a place to pee also should be easy. I can tend to further sanitation needs at lunchtime. You might think that’s too much information, but issues of sanitation must be squarely faced when one constructs a writing cabin.

As for public utilities, there will be no electricity in my hideaway, either. When it gets too dark to write, I’ll walk back down the hill to the farmhouse. Plus, electricity leads inevitably to a radio, which requires a shelf. If I put a shelf in the cabin, there will be no end to the junk I’ll drag in there, and I want my cabin to stay simple. Besides, installing electricity requires a building permit, which results in a county inspector snooping around my cabin to make sure it meets building codes I have no intention of following.

In addition to my sitting log, I want to have another log in the corner in case someone stops by to see me. I’m hoping my granddaughter, Madeline, will be a frequent visitor. She’ll toddle up the hill and through the woods to find her grandfather hard at work, staring out the window, in search of a topic. There’s nothing between the farmhouse and cabin to harm a child. No pond to fall in, no dangerous road to cross, no wolves or bears. There are, if the farmer down the road has left his gate open, a dozen or so cows roaming around. But they pose no risk to Madeline, who in her first year of life in Hendricks County has already befriended all manner of livestock.

I don’t want the bottom of my writing cabin to rot, so I won’t place it directly on the ground. Instead, I’ll dig down at each corner and construct four stone columns for the shelter to rest upon. There’s a nice flat stone, about eight inches high and four feet across, in the back corner of the pasture that I’ve had my eye on for some time. It would make an ideal door stoop. I’ll get a farmer to dig the slab out with his backhoe and haul it to the site.

There will be no lock on the door. No one but me is ever up in those woods, and since the cabin won’t have a shelf, there will be nothing for a thief to steal except the two sitting logs. It’s amazing how much easier life gets when the only things you own are logs. And without a lock on the door, I won’t have to worry about losing a key, which I’m prone to do. Hardly a month passes that I don’t have to wriggle through our basement window to get in my house.

I currently end each day walking two miles, but once my cabin is built, I’ll get sufficient exercise traipsing back and forth from the farmhouse. The cabin will be a half-mile away. If I go back and forth twice a day, that will be two miles of walking, half of it up a steep incline. I’ll have the thighs of a Sherpa in no time from all of that climbing.

I haven’t decided when I’ll start building my cabin, and having never built one, I have no idea how long it will take to erect. But when I’m done, you’ll know it, because my writing will improve considerably.