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Shedding writer's block

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Consider John Cheever's solution. While living in a New York City apartment, the fiction writer would wake up, have breakfast with his wife, take an elevator to the basement, and write all day on a card table facing a blank wall.

"I think the ideal writing room has to be a little uncomfortable - drafty is good," says Ms. Smith.

Other writers accept cushy appointments, or hoist their desks so close to a window that they seem to be writing more outside than in. Fiction writer Amy Hempel's shed on the east end of Long Island is, in the author's words, "almost too cute." The structure is 12-feet long by 9-feet wide, with pinewood floors, cedar shingles, and white paint trim. "It just sort of screams 'writer's studio.' Sometimes I'm self-conscious writing in there."

Proximity to a wood-burning stove is requisite. "It's a handy place for throwing what you wrote that day," says Ms. Hempel. "It's quite satisfying to watch it literally go up in smoke."

A distinguished pedigree of writers has incorporated sheds into their writing life. In 1906, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw built a hut on a rotating platform that he could move to follow the sun's path across the sky.

Mark Twain's sister-in-law built an octagonal one-room studio for the American humorist when he moved to Elmira, N.Y., in 1874. Twain exalted in the space:

"It is a cozy nest, with just room in it for a sofa and a table and three or four chairs.... And when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lightning flashes above the hills beyond, and the rain beats upon the roof over my head, imagine the luxury of it!"

Hold my calls

Writing sheds were considered eccentric through most of the 19th century, when the ideal of the writer's workshop was a quiet corner of the home. "At that time, I think, most writers wanted to project an image of being connected to society, as defined by 'home and family,' not solitary artists in their own private 'homes,' " says Stephen Railton, a professor of American literature at the University of Virginia.

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