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Shedding writer's block

Retreating to the confines of a tiny shed is the first step for many writers in freeing their imagination.

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In May of 1845, Henry David Thoreau started building a cabin out of pitch pines and hickories in a young forest outside Concord, Mass. He went there, as many Americans have read, "to front only the essential facts of life."

Less known is that Thoreau also went there to write. In his two years, two months, and two days spent (in part) on the banks of Walden Pond, the 27-year-old composed his first book, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers." The cabin he built, which stood 10-foot square, served as a home and a laboratory for self-reliance. But it was also a writer's studio.

Writers before Thoreau had built similar structures. But the popular success of "Walden" - the chronicle of Thoreau's experiment - fixed in the world's literary consciousness the image of the isolated writer in a spartan shed, extracting poetry from solitude.

Call them cabins, huts, sheds, studies, or studios - the tiny structures have since become icons of the writing life and the unique demands the craft places on those who pursue it. They are normally one room, often unheated, undecorated, appointed only by a desk, a chair, and a window for viewing the world. Some provide beyond the basic creature comforts - modern electricity, plush carpeting, and antique furniture from floor to wall.

Key ingredient: solitude

Common to all sheds, though, is isolation. Even structures standing no more than 10 feet from the writer's house offer the precious gift of a separate space. A space dedicated solely to writing, even a veritable hovel, is, for some writers, more sympathetic and more necessary than a house, an office building, or a classroom.

"Writers deliberately put themselves in exile by going into a shed," says novelist and historian Jane Smith. "Completing your writing is a way of integrating yourself back into the world."

One school of writers decries comfort. "Appealing workplaces are to be avoided," wrote Annie Dillard in "The Writing Life." "One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark."


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