Where writers write
Escape the distractions that cramp, thwart, and frustrate every book in progress — if you can
I am finishing my first book.
That is, I am finishing my first book when I am not doing laundry, watching marathons of “House,’’ or reorganizing my closet. Writing at home is difficult — almost impossible for someone as easily distracted as I am — which is why a few months ago, I began looking for a place to retreat, a place without MTV or a toilet that needed scrubbing.
I figured there would be hideaways for writers all over New England. After all, this is where people finish big, important, best-selling novels. John Irving has written books here. So have Jhumpa Lahiri, Stephen King, and Tom Perrotta. And then there are all of the those deceased greats, the Willa Cathers and Louisa May Alcotts. Surely those people found peace in hidden cabins in the Vermont woods or by the water in Maine. Surely they had their own problems with procrastination, just like me.
Or not. I remember Chuck Hogan (author of “Prince of Thieves’’ — which became Ben Affleck’s “The Town’’) telling me during an interview last year that he was more than capable of writing in his home office. He explained that he treated his writing like a regular job. He went to his desk in the morning and returned to his family around dinner time. Good for him.
Anita Diamant, author of “The Red Tent’’ and 2009’s “Day After Night,’’ told me she has retreated to the Public Library of Brookline. No need for a cabin in the middle of nowhere.
I was starting to feel bad about myself until I talked to children’s author Susan Lynn Meyer, who wrote the recently-released novel “Black Radishes,’’ which won the Sydney Taylor Honor Award for Older Readers (ages 9 and up). A professor of English at Wellesley College, Meyer, like me, is aided by seclusion. She finished her book, about a Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied France, in a cabin in Maine with a view of Bear Island. She told me that many writers need to remove themselves from society in order to get things done, and that Cather wrote “My Antonia’’ on Mount Monadnock. A change of scenery can be a wonderful thing.
“It’s very quiet,’’ Meyer said, of the neighborhood that became her hideaway. “That’s my ideal thing, to have a working vacation. To get away from the distractions from home.’’
I went to the cabin Meyer had rented, driving through snowy Somesville. It was the kind of place where one would write a book in a movie, close to Bar Harbor on icy Mount Desert Island. On the road that winds around Somes Sound I found the tiny, perfect Somesville Library, a cottage with stacks of books and candles in the windows. The cabins that line the frozen water are ideal havens for people who need to be left alone.
The scenery was so inspiring for Meyer, it made it into “Black Radishes.’’ She writes on Page 222, “The crumbs floated and drifted down, white specks against all that blue.’’ That water she describes is the Atlantic between her cottage and Bear Island.
There is water in my book, and for a minute I thought this scenery and seclusion could inspire me to finish what I started.
But then, suddenly, I was somewhere else, at a nearby wine and antiques shop where I bought strawberry-flavored honey mead. I got into a long conversation with the owner of the place. I’m telling you, I can’t have any distractions. I’ll find them, wherever they are.
And that’s why I also checked out a secluded spot recommended by “The Divorce Party’’ author Laura Dave. Her first novel, “London Is the Best City in America,’’ is a tale of a wedding gone awry, and is set partly in Rhode Island. Dave told me she went to Rhode Island to isolate herself and get inspiration for the book.
“I liked to visit the Bon Vue, which is a pub. But before the crowds come at night, it can be a great place to see and read and take notes,’’ she wrote in an e-mail.
Dave told me she has also found success writing at Rao’s Coffee in Amherst and the Montague Bookmill, about 15 miles north of Amherst. Of course, there’s no way I could do much in a coffee shop (too many distractions), so I drove to Narragansett to check out the Bon Vue.
It was fine. Quiet. Cold. Beautiful. In the winter, the Rhode Island shoreline made me think of “Ethan Frome.’’ But once I was inside the pub, there was too much to look at.
I thought about Maine again — and author Becca Fitzpatrick. My teenage cousin and I recently read Fitzpatrick’s “Hush, Hush,’’ a “Twilight’’-esque young adult novel about a fallen angel who lives near Portland. I called Fitzpatrick to see where she holed up to write it. She quickly admitted that she had never been to Vacationland, but has always been fascinated with it. She put up pictures of scenic Maine attractions in her Colorado writing space to make her feel as though she was steps from Old Orchard Beach.
That wouldn’t work for me. I’ve tried putting up pictures in my apartment to help me pretend that I’m somewhere else, but deep down, I know when my television is a few feet away.
Ellen Doré Watson, director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, told me that she found success at classic writers’ retreat centers, and in New England, there are many. The Wellspring House in Ashfield was on her list. She said a place like that is just remote enough for someone who’s looking to put off work.
“If you’re in a city — or in a town like Brattleboro — I’d go shopping. Or I’d go to the movies.’’ Of places like Wellspring, she said, “You’d have to get in the car to go anywhere. You tend to just get some groceries and hunker down.’’
It sounded like a good idea — except the idea of having writers nearby put me off. I’m too social. Wouldn’t I just knock on doors and ask them about their books? Wouldn’t I be tempted to ask them out to a nice dinner or suggest that we spend an evening reading each other’s works?
My last call was to Stephen McCauley, author of the 2010 novel “Insignificant Others,’’ whose first book, “The Object of My Affection,’’ became a movie starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. Both Meyer and Diamant told me that McCauley has a reputation for taking retreats. He’s been all over — never quite committing to one special writing place because, he said, the perfect place doesn’t exist.
“Even looking for the perfect place is pointless. The spell, for me, would wear off in six months . . . a year.’’
McCauley said that as soon as he gets too comfortable working in a hideaway, it starts to feel like home. Like me, he starts cleaning. He used to retreat to Rockport, and eventually bought a place there. Now it’s too familiar. He has had luck at writer’s colonies, but those, too, worked only for a while.
He did find success writing at Diamant’s house. And he has written at St. Mary’s, a monastery in Petersham.
“Honestly, I’m like the least religious person in the world,’’ McCauley admitted. But, at monasteries such as St. Mary’s, “They feed you. There are just no distractions.’’ The rooms, he said, are like cells.
“I do find when I go there, I do go to services, just for something to do.’’
McCauley’s latest place to write is the new Cambridge Public Library. “It’s like a glass box,’’ he said.
There’s some action — teen chatter and pretty scenery — but not enough to stop him from working. McCauley’s been there for a while now, so he’s on borrowed time. Soon, he’ll probably want to pop into the bathrooms and clean the toilets.
I drove by the library to see if it’d work for me, but it just seemed too close to home. Which is why I decided to get over myself, turn off my television, and finish the book in my apartment — because I want to, and because I know I can.
I can finish it here. And I’ll start. I swear. Any second now.