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The perfect place to write

FOR the first half mile up, the creek bed was dry. It had been a long, rainless summer. But then we began to encounter small pools scattered in the deep gully, some topped with miniature waterfalls, still barely running down stream-smoothed basalt into natural cups, which brimmed at their downstream ends, the overflowing trickle sinking underground. One, especially beautiful, deeply secluded, lay under overarching rock banks. In the play of light, water striders cruised on the pool, their tiny legs dimpling the surface and making snowshoe shadows on the sandy bottom.

Delighted, we sat a long time. Pebbles tossed in produced the usual rings of wavelets, echoed in rings of light on the overhanging rock. The sculpted stone above the pool formed natural seats. Time seemed non-existent.

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My friend made a remark I have often heard. ``You could really write if you had a house here.'' It was a good place to sit, to watch, to listen -- a good place to visit, but I wouldn't want to write there. However, if writing were to be done, and I were there, I would try. One can write almost anywhere, putting one's mind to it -- even in an enchanting place.

Some years ago, ambitious students at the college where I teach built a snug little cabin on high river bluffs and called it the ``Writer's Cabin.'' It was supposed to stir the creative juices. It is almost never used. Deadlines are not met by people gazing at clouds and water.

When I was a student, one of my professors inadvertently taught me something about places to write. He had recently completed a book on Henry James. On the spur of the moment he said he wanted to show me where he had done the work. He took me down a creaking stairway into a fieldstone-walled basement and pointed out a small, green-painted table on which a gooseneck lamp cocked its dented shade. ``I worked down here every night after supper,'' he said.

The room was dim and dank, the air musty. My initial impression of gloom and deprivation, though, gave way to a revelation as I climbed back up the stairs. The surroundings did not matter. It was a place. It had the asset of being quiet. The book was written because he wanted to write it. I imagined him seated and engrossed, his surroundings receding from him, his thought expanding around him. He created his own environment. And his basement, unlike the mountain stream, did not insist on itself.

If it had, by either beauty or noise, he probably would still have written the book under the urgency of his feeling for the subject. My various visits to the Monitor news room, with its bustle, phones, quiet conversations, and clicking computer keyboards, have also been convincing reminders that serious writing is done daily in the hurly-burly of a large communal room. One can't pass through the room without seeing people isolated in the silence of their own thoughts, hands on keyboards, alone with their composition.

One hears often, from nonwriters, that they always were going to do some writing, but conditions never were supportive. It is not conditions that make writers, but writers who make conditions.

I was pleased to walk up the dry stream bed, more pleased to enjoy its special pool with my companion, and it was another pleasure describing it. I was also glad to have a notebook with me in a particularly dry meeting so I could let a trickle of mountain water into my thought and out onto the page as people talked, starting this essay.

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And I have been often grateful to my friend who showed me the dark basement his research and composition illumined. It is possible for nonwriters to begin any time. Now.

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