How shacks become nurseries

Table of Contents

The Magic Week is a staple of writing a book. It’s the time you promise yourself you’ll focus on nothing but drafting and revising. Lots of authors want to hole up someplace during the Magic Week.

If that author is well-set in their situation, they might be in line for a magic month. A legendary playwright tucked himself away in a spot on the outer bank of Cape Cod — and now that place is under fire from development.

The Dune Shacks have been on the outer side of Cape Cod for more than 150 years. These structures are tumbledown and small and beloved. Eugene O’Neill, who holds the record of four Puliter prizes, camped out in a shack on the Cape in the 1920s and 1930s. He’s probably the most famous writer ever to call the Shacks a studio home.

Now the National Park Service wants to take these buildings and make them a Park asset, moving out the owners because the shacks are on National Seashore land. If the NPS succeeds in its scheme, authors might still be writing in the shacks. The access could go up, but so will the price to occupy.

How in the world could a tumbledown spot make a difference in creating a book? The rules of inspiration are mysterious. An image or a concept or an association can occur in a workspace removed from your routine. You don’t need to be as remote as the Cape’s Backshore, as they call the outer bank of the spit creeping into the Atlantic.

A report from a National Parks expert says the Backshore “is the outermost edge of Provincetown’s fine arts colony, reputed to be America’s oldest, a gathering of artists, writers, and performers that has significance for the history of fine arts. Its creative expression extended out into the dunes, nurtured within the shacks, finding creative expression in unfettered solitude and reflected light.”

Even without a body of water, solitude can be right at hand. I coached one novelist who set himself up in a cottage in Wimberley, Texas for three weeks to crank out the end of his first complete draft. Many words emerged, although the end of the novel remained elusive. Still, he’d won some new material just by setting aside the regular, everyday world that taunts us. I’ll check email once more before I start. Those dishes could be washed. That sort of thing.
Bait House
I earned a great chapter in a Texas shack
I took my own crack at magic time one fall. I needed a deep, meaningful chapter for the novel, early in the story. I booked a pair of nights at Bait House, a one-room shack just off the road in northwest Travis County. It was appointed with a microwave, a sink, and a back porch to contemplate and concoct. My iPad has a keyboard and was a low-fuss laptop for me. 

Nothing about Bait House was as gorgeous as the Backshore. My bride and I savored the sound of that beach years ago, completely unaware of the Dune Shacks just a mile away. The sound of cars along the Bait House road was as common as waves on a beach. Hey, wait a minute. That’s a sound I enjoy. I put the rush of tires into my imagination as waves and could set the noise aside.

Some of the worst trouble that my heroine experiences in the novel came out of those two days. I could have written even more across the two afternoons and two mornings. It was only 13 pages, but hey, it was a baker’s dozen bits of a key part of the story.

O’Neill had been coming to his Dune Shack for more than 10 years before it started to slide into the sea. He called his hideaway “a grand place to be alone and undisturbed.”

He also had good work habits in place. There’s something about writing a project that you know will need other artists to become a reality. A script needs actors, a director, scenic wizards. Somebody is waiting for that output, perhaps. O’Neill already had a few notable plays when he made his way to his magic seasons.

My lesson and my advice from Bait House comes down to this: Have a goal that’s specific, make a promise you won’t want to admit you’ll break, and build in some rewards. Turning your gaze away from the world is good practice for writing a book or a play or a movie script. But set a reasonable expectation for your retreat. Observe your output at home and figure you’ll improve your word count by maybe 100 percent. Quantity might not be as essential as quality. That chapter that I wrote is one of my favorites, even three drafts later. 

Can you do this kind of retreating for yourself without a destination? It’s worth a try, if you have a way to create in a new space, even if it’s just a back porch or a deck (with a shade, if you’re in Texas). I would advise you to break ties with the Internet, something harder to do than I imagined at Bait House. “I’ll just look that up” is an easy thing to say, and you might just type [check this] in front of something that seems to require research.

A shack can become a nursery for newborn paragraphs, sections, or even chapters. You just need to feed it your solitude and a discipline like one you’d employ to keep an infant safe. Be the parent that your book deserves, especially if you’ll spend time working in the nursery.
Share this article with a friend

Create an account to access this functionality.
Discover the advantages

Create an account to access this functionality.