A few months ago, I finished translating Column McCann’s Songdogs. Part of the novel is set in Wyoming. One of my sociologist professor from Syracuse University, a prolific writer and researcher, also went to Wyoming when he retired. Then I went to the bookstore, picked up a book by Annie Proulx. On the cover I saw that Annie Proulx also lives in Wyoming. Curious, I raised the question on Facebook: Why has Wyoming become a writer’s favorite place? My friend Kim answered that it’s because there is nothing there. She said there might be more cattle than people in that state. This makes perfect sense as writers can all use a little solitude. Sometimes when there are too many things going on outside, there is little going on inside and vice versa.
All my working life, I have been looking for the right place for writing or translation projects. In China, this was even more difficult because we all tend to live in apartments without much space to spare. I write in my living room, which could be rather bad at times, because as the name suggests, much of daily living took place in this space.
I am now living in a small house which still has some issues. For instance, in the middle of my writing or translation, I could be asked to help peel an onion, find a toy or who knows what. It’s not that I hate chores (well, maybe I do, occasionally), but there is a time for everything. To compensate for the lack of space, I work late at night, sometimes till one or two o’clock. This is taking a toll on my health.
When I look for a place, I am not necessarily just looking for a quiet place. There is a difference between “solitude” and “quietness”. At home, the slightest of sound demands attention. When I was in a cafe, I can always work, no matter how crowded it is. The sounds in the cafe are simply background noises that the mind does not bother to absorb. That’s why there is a saying in Chinese: “The greatest of hermits find peace in a marketplace.” Wyoming is not the only favorite place for writers. New York City too! The “place” I am talking about may not just be a geographical location, but any place conducive to thinking and writing. In this sense, such places may differ for writers.
In my search for a place, I went as far as Ireland. Last year, I won a grant from Irish Literature Exchange (Ireland’s literary outreach to the world) to stay in the beautiful artist resort Tyrone Guthrie Center. At the center, I met an artist from Canada, an American poet teaching in Egypt, an Australian playwright, a group of musicians from Dublin, a sculptor from North Carolina, a Children’s Literature writer and translator from France and many other interesting individuals. I found that I was not alone in the search for a place to accomplish some creative work. The resort is a place donated by Sir Tyrone Guthrie to the Irish government for artists and writers to find a safe haven for creative work. At the center, I finished translating Let the Great World Spin, and started translating Songdogs. When I told Column McCann I was working on Songdogs there, he was rather surprised: “Did you know that I actually wrote Songdogs at the Guthrie Center? The world spins indeed.” A place like this had helped him to finish his first novel.
Many writers write in a place away from home or work. At the end of Netherland, Joseph O’Neill wrote in his acknowledgment that “significant portions of this book were written at Ledig House and at Yaddo.” I am not sure what these places are, but they do not sound like his lawyer’s office, or the Chelsea Hotel that he lived in.
Writers’ resort is a wonderful concept and a great asset for writers. Inspired by what I learned at the Guthrie Center, I encouraged a businessman friend of mine to convert his farm into a “creative farm”. This gentleman, Mr. Yin Taiwu, bought a large farm land after he became successful in selling electronic products. His true passion, however, lies in farming and writing. He was constantly on the look for ways to develop a hybrid out of these two seemingly unrelated interests. Then one day, during his business trips to the United States, he came to my home for a visit. The two of us looked at the bamboos in my backyard and we talked about his dream again. I shared with him my experience at the Guthrie Center. The next thing I know, he went back and started to build a new apartment complex on his farm that are made for writers and other artists. He named it “bamboo sea resort”, which is free to use for writers at home and abroad. I plan to stay there during my next trip home.
Here in Oklahoma, my favorite place to work is Barnes and Noble. There is something soothing to be sitting among shelves upon shelves of books. I may come here exhausted, but I often return with joy and satisfaction, especially if I accomplished a lot. Folks at Barnes and Noble are very friendly. Nobody attempted to get rid of me there even though my visits do not always result in the purchase of books. I felt bad that traditional bookstores like these are laying off people or are going out of business. The intangible value they provide cannot be easily replaced by Amazon.com or other such vendors.
Lately, driving to and from Barnes and Noble is getting expensive. Ongoing chaos in the oil-producing North Africa is driving up the price of gas in the United States. I have to search for another “third place”. By the way, “third place” refers to “social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace. In his influential book The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg (1989, 1991) argues that third places are important for civil society, democracy, civic engagement, and establishing feelings of a sense of place.” (Wikipedia entry on “Third Place”)
Over lunch after the writer’s workshop on Feb 26, 2011, I asked fellow writers if they could suggest another place as a refuge for writing. One of them asked if I have a house. It is easy to turn a place in the house into a study. Common places for such usage include garages, stair landings, attics and tool sheds.
First I thought of the attic. That afternoon, I went back home, pulled down the ladder, and climbed up to the attic. At the top of the ladder, I read the warning sign that described a number of possible risks while moving in the attic. This projected all sorts of visions into my mind, such as a fall from the ceiling right into a boiling pot like the big bad wolf in the Three Little Pigs story. Then there are wires, nails and possibly hooks I could not see. It was very hot there too. I gave up the attic. I like writing, but being alive is pretty important too.
Converting the tool shed, however, remained tempting. The shed is away from the main building, behind a grove of bamboos and near the fence. Without further thinking, I started to move all the things out, the Christmas bells and whistles, balls and souvenirs, rakes and shovels. I moved many things either to the attic or elsewhere in the garage. Finally, the place is empty and ready to be changed into a work area.
I moved a fold-able desk and chair into the shed, sat down, and felt pretty good about the bright prospect that lies ahead.
Then I ran into another problem. Between the house and the shed I have to walk on muddy ground. That means I have to change shoes when going in and out of the door. Writing should be a lifestyle. What’s the point of writing, if a writer cannot even wear pajamas and slippers in his own home? I am a perfectionist in this regard, and I intend to stay that way.
I decided to pave the way to the shed. I spent an entire afternoon looking in Home Depot, Walmart, Ace Hardware, Lowe’s and Decorative Stone store on Broadway for building materials for the pavement. I finally settled on red bricks. It is perfect for my budget. Red bricks are also the most common materials one can find. They will still be available in the future if I choose to expand my pavement to cover the entire floor of the yard. Fancy bricks do not last as long. The next generations will have their own sense of fanciness.
I started to haul the bricks home using my car. That took quite a number of trips, caused a number of bruises on my fingers. I tell ya, this creative writing business is dirty, exhausting, and backbreaking!
I moved the bricks into the yard, started to pave my way to the shed. It was done rather quickly. Being an English-turned-education major, my knowledge of engineering isn’t very impressive. Therefore, my construction project is often rather shoddy and aesthetically challenged. Yet I have an excuse: I have had zero experience doing such work. In China, one usually hires a person to work on this.
I walked on the brick road back and forth, and full of happiness in spite of my craftsmanship at landscaping, or the lack thereof.
For a little illumination, I went to Walmart to buy four solar-powered lights, stuck them into the ground beside the bricks At night, these lights left spiked shadows on the bricks that looked like some exotic flowers. It was not bad at all.
As I sat in the shed, I noticed another problem. I didn’t have a bookshelf, or shelf of any sort here. After all, I was a qualitative researcher believing in “going into the field” and “let the themes emerge”, as one of my professors suggested in a research class. I didn’t have a blueprint at first. All I have is an urge.
Fortunately the brick road project has emboldened me.
I went straight to Home Depot, bought myself several pieces of wood, an electric drill and a box of screws. I came back home, made an easy shelf and turned into a self-made carpenter then and there!
All of this took me several days of hard work. Finally, I have an easy place to get away. One night, went I entered, something came whooshing at me. A bird or a bat flew out from the shed, almost directly into my face. This gave me a great relief. I can be sure that neither the lady nor the kids would come here to bother me while I am working now because they were all afraid of mosquitoes and moths, bugs, bats and strange birds.
As I did all such work, my wife looked with some amazement. I must have looked like a changed man. For a moment she must be thinking that I had finally given up translation and writing to pursue the more normal activities for a married man, such as home improvement and landscaping.
When she learned that I would use it as a study, she asked why not buy a bigger house?
I guess I had to spend a substantial time in the shed and write a lot of words to sell, before I can buy the kind of house she has in mind. From my perspective, a bigger house can be a problem, not a solution. After all the work involved in maintaining it, what time would I have to write?
So I gladly moved to the shed. By the amount of work I put into it, one would suspect I am on to something like Romeo and Juliet. Maybe I’m not going to write anything other than a blog post, but I suppose we’ve got to start somewhere, some time.