Thoreau’s glorified camping trip at Walden pond has shaped the American imagination and perspective on writers. Of course, writers holed themselves away in order to write far from the madding crowd long before Thoreau. But Thoreau embodied the rigorous independence, the resistance to the unnecessary and contrived, and the love of solitude that are often elevated as fundamental virtues in the life of the American writer.
Writers are often outspoken in their Luddite leanings; their refusal to write on anything but typewriters; the fun they have, chopping their own wood in their private, forested compounds in Maine. Although we do have others “livestreaming” their novel-writing processes, or going gaga for Twitter, there is a surprisingly large population of writers who eschew technology and society. Why are these writing types so often so grumpy about reading books on fancy screens or typing poetry on a computer? Why would a writer move from Rome to the outer reaches of Scotland? Why does another recommend spaying your laptop? I can think of several reasons.
Writing takes concentration. This is so obvious, it hardly bears mentioning. Except, writing well doesn’t just take a room of one’s own: it takes titanic effort. Excellent writing is achieved by the best craftsmen-and-women of a language, with much sweat and tears. Concentrating one’s whole attention and ability on a work is not something that is eased by having YouTube and Facebook open in other tabs. There is a consensus among a surprisingly large number of writers that to write on a computer with internet available is not to write – it is to procrastinate. The prospect of hard work makes us welcome any and every distraction, and those committed to a work they hope to be worth while need a certain austerity to sustain real concentration.
Writing takes silence. A writer needs to develop a unique style. Perhaps this is why so many writers are choosy about what they read, the way someone who believes “you are what you eat” is picky about food. Writers incorporate and are influenced by a variety of voices, but must develop their own cadence. So writers often find it necessary to plug their ears against our culture’s endless din. If our minds are indeed ‘blank slates’ in some Lockian way, it seems that everything – from billboards to pop-up adds to new hit singles – clamors to be inscribed on it. To attend to the work of their own minds, rather than to fill or occupy them with the work of others, is the task writers set before themselves. And all the world sets itself against this task. Is it any wonder that writers head for the hills? Provided those hills are scarcely populated?
Writing takes time. Though writers are known for sweating under deadlines, quality thought and quality expression take time. Good writing take unglamorous, excruciating revision and editing. Annie Dillard has quipped that she wishes writers still carved their thoughts with difficulty into clay tablets – she is appalled at the sheer number of unnecessary paragraphs published. “You’ve got to slow down, you’ve got to think,” Dillard argues – and in this age of the tweet and the status update (and, yes, the blog), giving time and attention to the written word feels like a charming anachronism. It remains vital to writing that will last, however. Writers intuit this, or discover it, and must find a hiding place to do the long work of writing and rewriting.
It is an cultural given that we now have less space, less time, shorter attention spans than ever before. But America’s serious writers remind us (from their mountain cabins, via their typewriters) how necessary these threatened things are to writing well. Though the complexities of our technologically-enmeshed society are here to stay, writers seek a Walden away from such enmeshment for good reason: what larger culture views as a void to be filled (an empty stretch of highway, a vacant lot, down time, a quiet mind) is the natural habitat of creativity — and an endangered one. ‘