What a Writer Does on a Peaceful Island Writing Retreat in a Cabin Nestled in the Woods Overlooking a Harbor

Surveillance team behind my cabin
Surveillance team behind my cabin
Focaccia
Focaccia on Facebook

She lies awake at 2:15 a.m. wondering about those gunshots in the distance. Large caliber gun. She’s no firearms expert, but this she knows. Eight gunshots, exactly. Not equally spaced out. She counts, because she is a writer, and details matter. Also so that she can inform the sheriff when he arrives to ask, “Did anybody hear anything suspicious?” and he will be impressed enough with her answer that he will suspect she writes mystery novels about an amateur sleuth. Perhaps, though, the gun is fired by a hunter? But who hunts in the dark? Is it an escaped felon who has fled to the island and is feeding off deer while living in a cabin whose inhabitants he has mutilated? Why don’t more convicts escape to this island? It would make a lot of sense to escape here. If the writer were a nasty criminal, she’d hop the first ferry to this island. Nobody locks their doors, she’s been told. She has left her ground-floor bedroom window open because it’s hot. She gets up and locks the window, trying to fumble at the unfamiliar latch in the dark so that the felon doesn’t see inside the cabin to detect a lone, short, Weeble-ish inhabitant, easily overcome by prison breath. The criminal has seen on Facebook posts that she makes excellent sourdough focaccia. He will not kill her. He will keep her alive and force her to keep the sourdough starter alive, but he will become irritated because she puts too many vegetables but no salami on the pizza.

Mystery bird
Mystery bird

She lies awake after what sounds like a bird being killed outside her bedroom window wakes her up. She had left her window wide open again, but, in case it’s not a bird but is an escaped felon being mauled by a cougar, she gets up and shuts the window. She continues to hear this bird call over the next few days, wondering what it can possibly be. Finally, the bird one night wails directly under her kitchen window. The writer locates her testicles and goes outside in the dark to shine her flashlight on the mystery critter, hopefully not provoking a cougar gnawing on a convict’s elbow. The mystery bird is a fawn. Fawns make sounds? The silent fawns and does and a young buck chew silently everywhere on this campus, silent, silent, with those accusing eyes (“Y’all have ruined the planet, so you owe us a carrot, at least!”). The writer has watched the fawn hoovering up dead leaves, thinking a leaf-eater like this one would be handy in her yard come fall. She didn’t know that deer prefer dead leaves. The fawn under her kitchen window cries and cries: “Mom! Mom! Mom!” Mom is at the bar downtown, apparently. The fawn circles the writer’s cabin over and over, crying for Mom. The writer knows just how the missing doe feels, sucking down her Jack Daniels far away from these cries.

Better than a rake in autumn
Better than a rake in autumn

She lies awake wondering what kind of owl that is. She is glad to finally hear the owl. She tries to record it on her crappy phone. She goes outside in her nightgown, again impressing herself with her bravery (there is no one else to impress), and multitasks by also using this opportunity to look at the stars: Orion! Oh, reliable Orion. She can check star-watching off her nature-week list now. She hopes she hasn’t locked herself out, now that she locks all of her windows and would not be able to climb back in in a pinch. She tries to write down the sounds of the owl so that she can use the “telling detail” in, well, in whatever it is she eventually writes. She writes hoo HOO Hoo HOoooo on an imaginary musical staff. She can’t make heads nor tails out of it in the morning.

She lies awake listening to occasional cars at all hours barreling up or down the peaceful, one-lane country road leading to this idyllic compound, the nexus of intense, meditative work. Where are they going so quickly in the middle of the night? Why so bat out of hell? What if a writer is outside in her pajamas trying to record an owl? And how did she end up with a cabin that backs against the road rather than bellies up to a waterfront view, like the serene front porch views other writers have been posting–stirring her wistful longing–since the inception of Facebook?

technical difficulties (1)
Perhaps not an example of “best practice”

She lies awake listening to the alarm going off in the locked closet at the rear of her cabin. She had wondered about the locked door and the mystery closet. How many unproductive writers put out of their guilt-ridden misery over not making their daily self-imposed word quotas are stashed back there? That afternoon, three men carrying a ladder and what looks like an old portable black and white TV—like the one she and her officemates watched 9/11 on—had traipsed to the back of her cabin. She doesn’t want to interrupt them, but this is her cabin, and they are poking about in its innards without permission. She is a writer. She is curious. She is an introvert, but what the hell? She goes to investigate. “It’s the surveillance unit,” the man answers her. “Something’s gone wrong with it.” My God, there’s a lot going on in that closet along with two water heaters. There’s a computer screen and keyboard and black boxes (could one be from a downed airplane?) and wires and plugs: it’s the Himalayan blackberry of surveillance equipment run roughshod over her water heater. She had seen the surveillance camera at the road behind her cabin. She thought it was a “show” camera, given what she’d heard about not locking doors. “The quail’s been on the camera, keeping a sharp eye out,” she informs the men. “Maybe you should just hire the quail.”

technical difficulties (3)After listening to the alarm for a half hour in the middle of the night, finally accepting that it’s not going to stop beeping and that it’s too soft to wake anyone else up but too loud for earplugs to work, since it’s right next to her bedroom wall, she can take it no more. She calls the caretaker at 1:30 a.m., rousting her from bed. It’s a husband/wife caretaking team, and it’s the woman who arrives at her door. The caretaker doesn’t think to bring a flashlight but the writer who counts gunshots of course has hers. “Huh,” says the caretaker, when she finally locates the right key in her jumble of 50 unmarked keys by the light of the writer’s flashlight, “I had no idea all this was back here.” The writer suggests they simply unplug everything, so she stands outside in her nightie shining light while the caretaker stands on tiptoe to pull all the plugs.

Unable to fall asleep again after creeping around outside in the dead of night in a thin shift like a polka-dotted heroine in a Wilkie Collins sensation novel, she stays up reading David Sedaris. She reads from his first book in 1994 and reads from his latest, 2013 book and thinks, wow, 20 years of working on craft really does improve a person’s work, even if you’re David Sedaris. If she ever gets any sleep, she’ll practice her craft.

She lies awake listening to the fly that’s been let in through the opened windows.

Ditto the mosquito.

And gnats.

She lies awake wondering if she’ll have no hot water in the morning. She does, but none of the cabins in the compound have internet service. Her cabin’s locked closet apparently houses the router, as well as the surveillance electronics, all quite logically attached to her water heater.

Territorial view
Territorial view

She lies awake thinking about the fact that her cabin has a view of the parking lot, while most of the other cabins have a water view. Is being in the no-view cabin—with people traipsing back and forth in front of her, and cars coming and going to the side and behind her—good for her writing, or not? If she had a nice view, would she be staring at the view all day, instead of writing? The only definitive conclusion is that she should have packed her bathrobe. Why would she need it, alone in a cabin in the woods, she had thought?

She does get to see exactly when the postal delivery truck arrives, so she can trot across the parking lot to hand him a postcard for her son.

She jolts awake at dawn to the sound of the garbage collection truck emptying the dumpsters across the parking lot from her cabin. How is it possible that all garbage collection trucks arrive at dawn, no matter where you are in the world? Do garbage collection trucks slip into a space-time continuum at, say, 1:53 in the afternoon? They all exist en masse at daybreak, and then they vanish.

She jolts awake before dawn when the alarm goes off a second night in a row in her cabin’s water heater closet. First she cries, then she girds her loins, finds her flashlight, and goes out back to find the key the temp tech guy has left under a rock for her, at her insistence, though he says she won’t need it because there’s nothing left back there that will beep. “I’ve taken away the battery unit,” he tells her, and she nods, as if that makes perfect sense. She stands there in the dark and looks at the ladder and looks at her nightie and thinks about how long it would be before anybody finds her back there with a twisted leg and her nightie twisted up around her. She locks the door on the beeping equipment and moves to the tiny couch, which fits about half her width and is in full view of the parking lot, with no blinds to shield her. She lies there thinking: why even have a security camera on a compound where nobody locks their doors? When it grows light out, the alarm apparently exhausts itself, and she returns to the bedroom. Before the next night, her last night at her peaceful writing retreat, the administrator issues his command to the tech crew: “Unplug everything until she’s gone,” and the camera goes dark.

She lies awake with existential thoughts: a writer in a new place should be out acquiring experience, looking out and up, giving her something to write about—not staring at a computer screen.

Because if she were never to leave her cabin “alone” in the “woods,” what on earth would she find to write about?

And yet, if she weren’t too exhausted to leave her cabin and too exhausted to be productive, she wouldn’t notice a flurry of movement outside her cabin window as she stares haggardly into space, and she wouldn’t go outside to investigate, and she wouldn’t see this just beyond her cabin deck:

Cedar waxwings (the Long Ranger Mask bird)
Cedar waxwings (the Lone Ranger Mask bird)

IMG_3886

IMG_3891

* * * * *

Image Credits:

Happy Focaccia: Allison Green

All other photos by Jennifer D. Munro

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3 thoughts on “What a Writer Does on a Peaceful Island Writing Retreat in a Cabin Nestled in the Woods Overlooking a Harbor

  1. I remember watching 9/11 unfold on that flickering, tiny TV. It is indelibly etched in the collective psyche of everyone in that room (what, 7 of us in a room smaller than most bathrooms?).

    • Isn’t that interesting? I thought about leaving that reference out, but it was such a strong reaction I had to the TV/box they were carrying that I had to include it. I loved those work years. I would sometimes arrive early, I loved it there so much. You as leader were a huge part of that atmosphere. Then whatshername got her knickers all twisted. Thanks for reading, Jackson!

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