For the past week, I’ve been on a Writing Hermitage at our cabin in northern, lower Michigan. My husband and I acquired this beautiful place about ten years ago, and we come here several times throughout the year for long weekends together. But I’ve never spent time here solo for longer than two or three days. This has been a wonderful experiment mimicking Walden, and it is certainly something I will plan to do every year that I am physically able, in the future.
Our Walden is twenty acres of amazing forest land, in absolutely the middle of the most beautiful nowhere, surrounded by more forest land, with an off-grid “tiny house” log cabin. There is no indoor plumbing, no television, no air conditioning, with only solar power for our dorm-sized refrigerator and to charge small electronics (and a backup gas generator… just in case). We cook on a propane two-burner camp stove or the grill. We light the two rooms with candles or battery-operated lanterns, and “town” (each with a tiny post office, grocery, hardware, gas station, a McDonald’s one way and a really great BBQ place the other) is a good twenty or thirty-minute drive, depending on which way you travel.
Yup, that’s it, just two knotty-pine rooms… 324 square feet of luxurious simplicity with no people for miles. It’s incredible, and over the years, it’s become our sanctuary.
I packed simple, yet indulgent foods. I can’t remember what Henry David did about food and cooking (someday I really should re-read that book; it’s been years!), but I saw no reason to torture myself with dehydrated tree bark style menus. Actually, we’ve been eating really well… Charlie demands the last bite of everything, ignoring his kibble until he’s satisfied – except at breakfast. He’s not really into Cocoa and protein bars… but on those mornings when I made sausage and toast, he was right under my feet. So, shrimp scampi, venison stir fry, chicken stir fry, burgers, soup and mini-sub sandwiches with my favorite meat and cheese… along with the mandatory camping side-dishes of carrots, cucumbers, chips and chocolate cookies have satiated me well. I’ve always loved simple foods anyway, so this isn’t that big a change for me. I do miss baking and slow cooking, though. We don’t have an oven or a crock pot up here. Note to self, find an inexpensive propane toaster oven and a slow cooker. A combo unit would be ideal to save space… but I don’t think those exist.
This is a photo of the shrimp scampi we had for lunch on our first day at the cabin. Charlie helped me eat most of the carrots before the plate ever made it to the dinner table. Charlie LOVES carrots!
Drake and I have been tremendously creative in this wonderful, woodland space. He’s always enjoyed writing up here, which seems odd for a duck, to be so attached to the forest… the nearest body of water requires driving. But who am I to argue with the predilections of a muse-ical fowl?
We came to the woods with the intention to complete two of the five WIPs on file and make headlong progress on the three others. We were teeming with ambition. Here’s what we learned. When in the middle of nowhere, it is far simpler to focus on just one plot line at a time. The world slows down. The details are easier to uncover. The characters speak louder. The impulsivity toward the shifts that boredom or multitasking demand don’t echo as loudly without the walls, noise, and light pollution of the city. So, we’ve been joyfully focusing all of our attention on completing just one novel. It’s a new approach for me, but I’m okay with that.
Concentrating on the political thriller, American Plague, that’s been churning around in my imagination for about five years now, Drake and I resumed where we left off in the winter, pre-COVID. At that time, the manuscript was at about 65k words with lots of plot holes, missing characters, vague motivations, and weak transitions. In the first week that we’ve been here, we’ve made some great progress, adding about 14k words to the story, fleshing out characters, locations, motivations, and tightening those pesky transitions. Does anyone actually enjoy writing transitions?
Most significant for me this week has been the frustration with which Drake and I write bad guys and violence. Filling the holes in this story meant that we needed to confront that reality. Never having been a tremendous fan of either (although we know the importance of villainy to some extent in every story), this is the first time we’ve ever really been smacked in the face and up to our neck feathers in the seedy underbelly of life. Blood, treachery, and immorality… we’ve always found it a challenge to create anything with an inherent evil and/or a lack of conscience. But, with practice, we’re getting better at it. We are thankful for the examples written by Kate McNeil, Andrew Allen Smith, and D.A. Reed, and the visual writing prompt practice from Caroline Topperman which guide us along this fascinating journey. I believe it is true that doing the work that scares you sometimes, makes you a better writer. Here’s hoping my editor will think so, too.
The wonderment of being so detached from the city as we write is the phenomenon of being able to pick up where we last left off, even overnight, without distraction or interruption. The Internet signal here can be problematic and tortoise-slow. Therefore, the enticement from social media, compulsive email checks, deep research rabbit holes, and YouTube amusements is severely curtailed. That leaves only storytelling and watching the trees move outside the window as you brainstorm... and it’s glorious.
After devoting all my energy to story creation and occasional trips outside to stretch with Charlie during the day, I indulge the bookend time (either in the morning as I’m waking up, during mealtimes, or at night as I’m settling in to sleep) with the storytelling of others. During the six-hour round trip, I typically listen to audiobooks, avoiding the intermittent gaps that traveling from radio station to radio station can create. Once at the cabin, I spend my bookend time listening to storytelling podcasts that I’ve downloaded to my phone, or reading astounding books from a few favorite Indie Authors that I brought with me (the books, not the authors; but how cool would THAT be!). I think it was Stephen King who said so adamantly that writers must be readers, and that is certainly true for me. I can’t imagine writing novels without being a voracious reader. It just wouldn’t make sense to me. Here's a link to a storytelling podcast called "Selected Shorts" you might enjoy. And here's a link to LeVar Burton Reads... I can't tell you how happy I am that this gentleman is reading stories to me again!
The photo above is the view from our front deck. My hammock usually hangs between that pole on the left and a tree, out of frame. A storytelling fire ring, as I'm sure you all know, is an essential component to any cabin in the woods.
So, as I begin week two of the Summer Writing Hermitage 2021, I’m looking forward to discovering all the words flying across my screen, bringing to life the characters and situations that Drake has already figured out. He’s a dependable duck, most of the time… but he only gives me what he knows I can handle in the moment. Oh, we negotiate sometimes, but he usually wins. Changing our environment occasionally, works to his and my benefit.
Will we still write when we get back home? Of course, we always do… when the duck splashes and quacks around a plot line, he’s difficult to ignore. The city provides its own intriguing stimulation. There are eavesdropped conversations, the disposition of a throng of people pushing physically and emotionally in different directions, and the electricity of a crowd (even when you don’t see them) that can be best replicated on the page when we experience it first-hand. Those familiarities are all just as valid to our writing process as a few weeks of seclusion with Mother Nature.
I’m excited, too, about the opportunity to meet with my writing group, PPA (Prose Procrastinators Anonymous) in person again. We can do that now with the fading mask mandates and vaccine compliance. I’ve always believed in writing with a community of like-minded souls where the energy of creation is so vivid. But I’ll remember, too, the importance of trips like this, where solitude and vulnerability can show us words that perhaps we wouldn’t have found otherwise.
In all things, balance. Now, for a bit of lunch and back to working on the novel.
You'll find some interesting stuff here... some Op Eds, some Information, Book Reviews, and More. Poke around the categories and see what ruffles your feathers... in a good way!