I read recently that the author Amy Tan has fantasized about being locked in a prison cell where she can do nothing but write. Jail doesn’t appeal to me, but I have, over the past year, sentenced myself to extended periods of solitary confinement in a windowless, stone-walled, subterranean room known as “the cave.”
The cave is located in the cellar of a restored Victorian mansion in Pleasantville, N.Y. The cellar is rented by a group of Westchester-based authors, including Benjamin Cheever, Simon Schama, Joseph Wallace, Kate Buford, Mary Murphy, Bob Sullivan, Deborah Schupack, and myself. Our group originally formed so that writers in the community could connect with one another. But for some of us, the opportunity to “disconnect” has proved equally valuable.
In the cave, there is no texting or tweeting (forget Wi-Fi—the place barely has air). There’s no networking or developing one’s “author platform.” You are forced to stop talking about your writing and just do it. And when you’re forced to “just do” your writing... well, your writing gets done. Our writers’ group has been especially productive of late, with three new books from our members out this winter. Wallace, my fellow cave dweller, holed himself up for months to write Invasive Species (Berkley), an apocalyptic thriller. “The world really could have ended outside and I probably wouldn’t have known it,” he told me afterward.
Sullivan, whose memoir, A Child’s Christmas in New England (Bunker Hill Publishing) was a surprise holiday hit, also views the cave as an inspirational force. Meanwhile, my own book, A More Beautiful Question, coming in March from Bloomsbury, required that I contemplate the value of quiet reflection and deep questioning—and the cave certainly allowed me to do that.
Everyone knows that writing a book requires deep immersion in the task, yet it seems harder now for writers to cut themselves off from constant distractions and interruptions. Blame it on new technologies, or the new realities of today’s publishing business—wherein an author is expected to be more social, self-promotional, and more engaged with readers.
These are not necessarily bad things, but I have noticed it can be difficult for some writers to step back from socializing and return to being quiet, solitary wordsmiths. Writers are as susceptible as anyone to that little dopamine jolt that comes from discovering that someone is talking about them on the Internet. And scanning the Twitter feed is certainly more fun than confronting the blank screen.
Writers have always secretly welcomed distractions, though we never had so many to choose from as now. We complain about being swamped with messages, and yet keep checking them, in part because, as one writer/artist I know explained, “It is easier to react than to create.”
In this new hyperconnected environment, writers and other creators may need to find some version of what Monty Python cofounder John Cleese calls “the tortoise enclosure”—that secure place where you can be alone with your imagination. As Cleese notes, it’s important to create “boundaries of space and time”—to go into your shell and stay there long enough for ideas to form, for characters and stories to take shape. (I typically spend four hours in the cave before permitting myself to stagger out, blinking in the daylight.)
Of course, you don’t want to spend too much time being cut off. Realizing this, our writer’s group occasionally throws open the doors to our basement lair, inviting the outside world to come in and observe us in our natural habitat. We serve wine, read from our books, and have group discussions on quirky themes, like “Writing About Pets.” Sometimes we hand-sell our books to visitors, with help from the local independent bookstore, whose owner sets up a small table.
These events never fail to remind us that, indeed, it is good to connect, directly, with the world around us, and especially with readers. And it’s wonderful to talk about our work, and to each other. The members of the group help each other with the myriad challenges of being a writer in today’s world—and, yes, we often discuss those practical issues of networking, marketing, and building the dreaded author platform.
But when the events are over and the guests have left, and when we are done sharing survival tips and promotional strategies, then, inevitably, one of us trudges alone to that cave in the cellar. The door closes, and the real work, and joy, of being a writer begins again.