The Writers' House: Turning a Cottage into a Creative Retreat
What does a writer need? Quiet, space, light. A place to escape answering machines, faxes, e-mail, telephones, and—for a few days or weeks—husbands or wives, children and pets. A place where the clatter of Boston or New York is far away. No sirens here, only owls, hawks, the blue herons that soar over the pond. The house is small enough to not feel overwhelming—you can clean it in 20 minutes or not clean it at all. There are no mail deliveries. No one will come down the dirt road unless she's an invited guest. One fall, a friend writing a book of essays said there had been German shepherds peering in the window while she worked. I had to inform her it was a family of coyotes. Another year, a poet friend saw a huge creature on the deck—one of the wild turkeys that roamed the woods had come to visit.
To be in the woods when writing is perfect. But even better to have a good neighbor. Our house is right next door, with its garden full of cherry tomatoes, basil, lettuce, peppers. There are some things a writer may not need that can still make the writing of a novel or a poem even more delicious: gazpacho, noodles with freshly made pesto, bread from the bakery, bottles of cold white and rosé wine. In August, there are blueberries, oysters, fresh peas. In September, there are wild concord grapes wonderful for jam and an orchard of peach trees with small fruit, perfect for pies.
Other factors help the imagination: shooting stars, wicker furniture on the porch, yellow water lilies dotting the pond, dragonfly season when the air is filled with thousands of dragonflies. In autumn, when bittersweet vines turn red, the crisp air smells like salt and hay. By winter many of the shops in town have closed down, but most of our guests would rather be in the writers' house, working on a book, or having a bowl of soup, or beginning to imagine a poem.
The furnishings here are simple. In the middle of the living room sits a big white table that serves as a desk. Nearby, a bureau with a cloudy mirror that reflects mood more than an actual image. A bookcase of hardbacked books about plants, dogs, travel. A modern Italian kitchen with marble counters and cabinets stocked with old blue dishes.
Some places drain a writer, and others inspire. A perfect hydrangea leaf, an hour of dark blue quiet after a storm. That's what our friends find. Time shifts out here, it expands, there's just more of it. There's nothing to do but write and perhaps eat a piece of pie, or go for a walk, then come back and write some more. A lovely friend once said she might not have written any stories at all that year had she not come to work at the cottage. Maybe it's true that houses, like people, need a purpose. Some are family houses, vacation houses, lofts for painters—this little glass house is the writers' house. In becoming such, it has become beautiful, with every nook serving a purpose—the porch a place to curl up with a manuscript, the old white bed perfect for editing or to fall asleep in and perhaps dream the first line of the next story or poem. In the end, the house became a gift to myself. When we have visitors, when our children return, or even when the lawn is being mowed, I slip away to the writers' house. Luckily, I have a key.
Alice Hoffman is the author of many works of fiction, including Practical Magic, Here on Earth (an Oprah's Book Club pick), Blackbird House (stories set on her Cape Cod farm), and most recently, The Third Angel , published by Shaye Areheart books.