Some compare a writer’s life to a monk’s: starved, withdrawn from the speaking/smiling world and — like author Annie Dillard — incarcerated in a closet-like room decorated only with a picture she drew of a cow pasture.
I’ve experienced hermit weeks, although starvation doesn’t enter into the equation. Because I can’t draw cows or anything else, I allow myself a window.
I’ve also holed up in libraries, more exciting than most imagine. Take the Notre Dame library, where I did research for a biography of St. Augustine. Entering the skyscraper bearing its gigantic “Christ the Teacher” mural (known to football fans as “Touchdown Jesus”), I dared not speak to anyone, as even janitors appeared to be Fulbright Scholars.
I fought with a computer catalogue, then hunted for an elevator, which I finally rode to the philosophy and religion department on the 14th floor. Encountering a locked door, I rapped on it.
I banged until my fists hurt.
Ditto. I’d spent forty-five minutes for nothing?
A brave aide on the elevator ride down asked if he could help.
“The philosophy and religion department is locked,” I griped.
“The philosophy and religion department is on the 13th floor. Father Hesburgh lives on the 14th.”
Taking a break from libraries, I traveled to story settings. Non-writers assume a publisher arranges free, first-class flights to exotic spots with four-star hotels. Instead, halfway to Cave-In-Rock, Illinois, I stayed at my daughter’s. Having been hugged, mugged and slimed by three sweet grandkids, a dog and a cat, I slept on a sofa. Eat your heart out, Karen Kingsbury.
Afterward, I drove to the enormous cave on the Ohio River where, during the early 1800s, enterprising pirates ran a tavern. They lured flatboat pioneers with “Last chance for a hot meal and mug o’ grog before the Mississip, matey!”
“Guests,” however, ended up at the bottom of the Ohio.
Climbing alone around the cave’s mottled walls, I listened to dead voices while the I-don’t-know-nothin’ river flowed past.
Maybe the Notre Dame library wasn’t scary, after all.
Many of my stories, though, take place in pleasant places:
- I’ve watched children in Peru, Indiana, defy gravity, homework and other laws of the universe by participating in their annual Youth Circus.
- I’ve visited all 31 covered bridges in Parke County, Indiana.
- I’ve ridden in an Amish buggy whose GPS consisted of the horse’s memory.
- I’ve traveled through Door County, Wisconsin, researching that Martha’s-Vineyard-of-the-Midwest setting, including exactly how many yummy cherries are used in their famous Door County sundaes.
Currently, I’m staying close to home. But not for long, because we writers are a brave, daring breed.
Maybe I should set my next story in Hawaii.
Your Extraordinary Ordinary: If you were (are) a writer, where would you place your story?