Getting Off the Grid: A Re-Examination of the Writer’s Cabin

Getting Off the Grid: A Re-Examination of the Writer’s Cabin
Illustration by NatalieAnn Rich

The writer’s cabin. You know the one—snow-crusted, pine-paneled, remote. You have to get there with chains on your tires. You are advised to bring copious amounts of rye whiskey, your best wood-chopping axe and fingerless gloves along with that manuscript you’ve been carrying around in your head. Also, the writing process works better if you’ve built the cabin yourself.

Ever since Henry David Thoreau, that original hipster, built his “airy and unplastered cabin” beside Walden Pond, detailing the subsequent improvements and additions to the 10-by-15-foot dwelling in Walden, male writers have been rushing to get off the grid—and tell you about it.

In his book “A Place Of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder,” Michael Pollan points out that many architects throughout history have used the hut or cabin as a basis for expounding theories about their craft (Vitruvius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier), and many writers have done the same (Michel de Montaigne, George Bernard Shaw, and of course, Thoreau). Asceticism, loneliness and DIY are all principles that inform the cabin fantasy, and which seem to particularly draw men of letters. As Ken Gordon writes in his essay “Cabin Fever: My Own Private Walden Pond” about his own attempt to build a writer’s cabin: “For the writers who can muster it, building the cabin is as important as inhabiting it. These are male writers, as far as I know, and they get great joy out of detailing the steps in the construction process. Fran Lebowitz once said that men ‘have this sneaking suspicion that writing is not the most masculine profession.’ So they relish the shop-class aspect because they know the disparity between describing something and actually doing it.”

 
… the patriarchy made it “impossible for [women] to realize the aims of economic individualism.”
 

Nowadays, male writers tend to write about their cabin-building follies by first acknowledging, with self-deprecating good humor, their lack of experience, knowledge and manual dexterity. Then, they can’t resist detailing all the steps involved, fascinated by what they’re really doing. Pollan, for example, writes a whole book about making a not very nice cabin, not very well, at a not-at-all-modest cost. His reasons for building a cabin are threefold: to have a space of his own in which to write, to build that space in order to “add to the stock of reality,” and because his wife is about to have a baby (in other words, very much adding to the stock of reality). He wants not only to get away, but also to make his own escape: “I wanted not only a room of my own, but a room of my own making. I wanted to build this place myself.”

The book isn’t supposed to teach the reader how to build a cabin, or place the cabin in a greater historical, literary or social context. It also doesn’t do any deep self-reflection. With chapter titles like “Framing,” “Windows,” and “The Roof,” Pollan wants to make sure we know that while this may be another book he’s writing, he sure as hell did something.

In his essay “Farther Away,” the novelist Jonathan Franzen decides he needs to get to a remote cranny of the world to jolt him out of a period of malaise, grieve the death of his dear friend, the novelist David Foster Wallace, and look at a bird. Nobody’s outdoorsman, he describes the patent foolishness of his journey to Masafeura, a tiny volcanic island in the South Pacific with no human inhabitants. From his “little orgy of consumerism” at REI to the inadequacy of his printed-out Google Earth map, Franzen is in on the joke.

Through the course of the essay, he takes an hour-long trip to purify some drinking water, “bushwhacks” his way across a ridgeline to search out the rare rayadito bird, comes perilously close to falling off a cliff and ultimately winds up sleeping in the shelter that he set out to ignore. While he touches on the discomfort of writing “within [his] despair” and, for a time, writes movingly about the death of his friend, he can’t resist also making the essay a treatise on the history of fiction, relating his journey to Ian Watt’s “The Rise of the Novel” and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The scene in which he scatters Wallace’s ashes is close to slapstick. He goes farther away to get closer to himself, then grins and pontificates when he gets too close.

 
“A woman must have money and a room of one’s own to write fiction.”
 

“The Rise of the Novel” claims that the form became dominant when the middle class (particularly women) had time to read. Yet even Watt concedes that the patriarchy made it “impossible for [women] to realize the aims of economic individualism.” Perhaps they could read, but they couldn’t write. Virginia Woolf expresses this plight from the female writer’s perspective in her 1928 lecture to two women’s colleges at Cambridge: “A woman must have money and a room of one’s own to write fiction.”

In her lecture, which became the extended essay “A Room of One’s Own,” Woolf tells a fictional story of a semi-fictional “I.” It begins (forebodingly enough) with her sitting on the banks of a river. She has a thought, but everywhere she goes to examine it, from the grass by the river to the library, she is waved away by the male beadles who preside over the university. Because she is an unaccompanied woman, she has to scram. After having had a luxurious lunch at the men’s college and a paltry dinner at the women’s college, she considers the difference between the two meals. Among the women, “Not a penny could be spared for ‘amenities.’ To raise bare walls out of bare earth was the utmost they could do.”

“Why did men drink wine and women water?” the narrator asks. “Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?” Woolf theorizes that only chance made it possible for the talents of, say, Jane Austen to bloom into literature: “her gift and her circumstance matched each other completely.” Everyone else was beat by the common sitting room, with its constant interruptions and intrusions. At the same time, any woman who did manage to make her own money owed that money to her husband. Underneath Woolf’s tempered voice are the desperate pleas of all the women who didn’t want to bang on nails to feel productive, but just to have a space to call theirs and the freedom to enclose themselves within it.

In the preface to “A Hut of One’s Own: Life Outside The Circle of Architecture,” architect and critic Ann Cline describes her book as “an essay that attempts to overturn Architecture’s victory over Individual Experience.” In her exploration of buildings on the fringes, she spends a sparse sentence dealing with the first phase of construction of her own hut: “To begin I built a simple platform—six feet by eight feet—with four corner columns supporting a pitched roof.”

 
Even now, when the female artist is largely free of legal or social impingement, living out the cabin fantasy is only feasible if she has no other responsibilities (like kids, a household or a job).
 

She continues in this vein to describe the hut’s expansions and improvements, but always with an emphasis on the almost mystical practice of shaping the space, from both persuading the junkyard chief and his team to help her extract a pane of window from its steel I-beam to considering the sound of an overripe pomegranate splitting open on a tree outside. For her, hut improvements are about creating a space for her simple possessions to rest, a “poetry of pure experience.” “As my dwelling took shape, it began to shape my life as well,” she writes. “Like finding the firmness of scale through the placement of windows, I had found the commodity of my dwelling through the poetry of its use.”

“A Hut of One’s Own” is an architect’s statement against architecture. Writing in the mid-1990s when mass media and consumerist culture were meeting with the information age, Cline’s exploration is edged with social criticism. The primitive hut, particularly the one built with her own hands and molded to its environment, is a strike against that culture that replaces deeply personal experiences with designed ones. She references Woolf not just in the title, but also when she suggests that both men and women must create their own spaces in order to find their voices—to “experience the poetry of life (even before the issue of writing comes up).” Making a hut is not about pounding two-by-fours and saying, “Look what I made,” but tapping into a level of experience that is cleared of distractions.

For women and cabins, individual experience—and making meaning out of it—is the victory. Even now, when the female artist is largely free of legal or social impingement, living out the cabin fantasy is only feasible if she has no other responsibilities (like kids, a household or a job), or that those can be easily shed. (Just a note on Thoreau: his delightful, hand-hewn cabin was a short walk away from his family home. During his experiment in radical self-reliance, his mother still did his laundry and made him pies.) It also bears noting that the idea of a woman retreating alone to a cabin evokes horror movie strings and friends murmuring, “I told her she should have at least brought a cell phone.” Women who get off the grid are apt to be thought of as eccentric, cat lady-ish or just plain foolhardy. These less institutionalized constraints have led to the creation of all-women writers’ retreats like Hedgebrook, a no-cost getaway on Whideby Island north of Seattle, or foundations like A Room of Her Own, which gives female writers cash awards (including the $50,000 “Gift of Freedom” grant) and hosts yearly writers’ retreats. Work and reflection are the aims here, not keeping the hands occupied.

And of course, if the tradition has been historically male, it’s not because women don’t escape to make art, too. For every Bon Iver, who produced his much-lauded debut album after retreating to a cabin in Wisconsin, there’s an Annie Clark. Clark, the front woman of the band St. Vincent, recorded her album “Strange Mercy” over a month in October 2010, not in a cabin but in an Ace Hotel in Seattle. She describes the experience in an interview with Vulture magazine as a “technological detox” in which she had only the barest social contact. She calls it “a succinct process.” The short storyist Amy Hempel and poet Rita Dove have declared their love of cabins (sometimes sheds) to pursue their literary lives, as has Annie Dillard, author of the most famous modern transcendental mash-up, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” Back in the 19th century, Mary Ann Evans (also protecting herself within the barriers of the male pseudonym George Eliot) lived away from the prying eyes of society with her married paramour, once writing in a letter that she had been “cut off from what is called the world” in order to live the creative and personal life she wanted.

My original idea was to write this essay in my own cabin, a place where I could experience being a woman alone, off the grid, with the sole goal of writing. That didn’t work out. Instead, I’m cat-sitting for friends who are out of town. There is not less life in here; there is different life (feline instead of human). There are not fewer books, but different books (instead of Plath and memoirs, I read Lorca and noir). I still have the distraction of the phone and the screen, but at least here there is an opportunity for quietude. I’ve cracked a window but this far east, this far uptown, this late in the year, there’s little noise save the occasional muffled horn or snatch of music unfurling from a passing car. There’s a broken clock on the wall; the second hand twitches in time without ever moving forward a step.

For Woolf and the other women who were attempting to write fiction in Woolf’s time, much was needed: money, freedom to experience, a place to examine that experience. These days, we have to be reigned in, to force a pause in our work, responsibilities, ambitions. Finding that place will never be simple, but it doesn’t require a cabin in the wilderness or an education in draftsmanship. Magazines like this one are also a room of our own—as Cline calls it, a “deeply inhabited space”—in which we can examine the world and our place within it. As I write this, I’m in a room of my own—one that’s temporary, not built by my hands, and not even my own. But I’m writing, and I’m drinking wine.

This feature originally appeared in the Minimalism issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Minimalism issue here or read What Growing Up Poor Can Teach Us About Bridging the Class Divide.

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