I have designed at least a thousand homes in my life. None of them built. Designing a home to suit a specific need has become my way of relaxing. It’s a quick and purposeful refuge from those realities I need to escape. Watching a baseball game is good, but not nearly as good.
Looking back over some of the designs, many of which took weeks to complete, I can trace my own intellectual and emotional history as well as my economic state of mind. The homes are smaller during periods of financial difficulty. They were largest when my bookshop business did best. But, more interestingly to me, they all have a central idea or purpose and looking at older plans now reminds me of dreams I’ve had and perhaps forgotten.
Most of my houses were designed for a rural setting. I have always wanted to live beyond the drone of cars, where the stars of the Milky Way pollute a deep black sky. I have always wanted to try my hand at gardening–carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, green beans. I like large fireplaces and the flutter and hiss of a fire. I am a connoisseur of well water. And I have always wanted one room built of stone where I could keep my books.
For perfection in that last regard, I cannot fully express my jealousy and admiration at first seeing the wonderful stone library built by John Adams at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. Of course, he earned and deserved that much.
It’s not a surprise then, perhaps, to learn that I have always lived in apartments. I’m told by people who assume greater wisdom that actually owning my own home would cure me of this foolishness. I, in turn, feel sorry for them for not properly appreciating their blessings. Forty-five years of apartment dwelling has given me a sense of certainty about my needs that is unswayed by issues with plumbing, painting, gutters, roofs, and all the rest. And besides, I have dealt with all of that during the years of operating my shop.
A key part of any of my designs has always been a desire to build the house with my own hands. This aspect of my dream has shrunk in recent years along with my economic and muscular wherewithal. And this brings me to a recent re-evaluation of Mr. Thoreau’s small project at Walden.
I cannot in any way be considered an ascetic and thus Thoreau’s cabin in the woods would not actually suit me. It is too small. I have slept in closets as large. I am not comforted by the closeness of the walls. There is a wood stove and not a fireplace. I like wood stoves, but I need a fireplace. The windows are too small. I like to look from my window when I write and when I pace. I pace a lot. The toilet there would mean an unbearable walk on a cold winter’s night.
Nevertheless, he built it. And he lived there. He sat at that small desk by that small window and wrote great words. The words did not mind. He lay at night in a bed that was little more than a bench and dreamed without restraint. And because his house was small, he got out a lot into the world about. I admit if I had my own dream home, I would have difficulty leaving it. Discomfort has its uses. But as I say, I am not an ascetic. I am not even a vegetarian.
But I am an architect of sorts. This is a fundamental profession of humanity. We don’t flourish in caves. Nests are inadequate for more than a season. Ants and beavers are good with mud, but their design lacks room for books.
It is my fault perhaps that I see the writing of a story in the same way I visualize a house. This is not a simple metaphor. The integrity of the finished structure is the object. What I want in writing is a finished product that serves a specific purpose and is a delight to look at. I need a fireplace for heat as well as beauty. I need a porch for the fires of summer and the colors of spring and fall. I need a library for background and study. I need a kitchen for food as well as the preparation of food. I need a bedroom for rest and pleasure. And I need a living room where the interaction of my family of characters is not only possible, but probable.
I understand that most novels are not written in this way now. It is the way Trollope wrote, and Victor Hugo, and Jane Austin. Merry-go-rounds and racetracks are better metaphorical examples for more modern works. And I see this as a fault in the modern world and not in my plans.
I used to plan great novels–epics and multigenerational affairs–great rambling country houses and post-Victorian extravaganzas. I could write for endless hours then. I enjoy reading mythology and enthusiastically mixed up a stew of gods and goblins and mortal dreamers. In fact, there is a science fiction story I have worked on for many years, and am determined yet to finish. It stands now at about a quarter-million words and I’m not half done.
But now, most of my projects are smaller. I write for about three hours each day. I don’t want the project to extend into years because I simply have fewer of those left in the pipeline and I have quite a long list of stories I want to tell. And so Thoreau’s little house takes on a new interest.
I design smaller houses now. Just a few rooms. A reduced kitchen for sustenance and coffee. A library for about three thousand favorite books. An indoor toilet with a shower is in order. I must have my shower in the mornings. Our children are on their own these days so one bedroom is sufficient, and a bedroom of less than Homeric dimensions is adequate. A living room that might assume a portion of several other parts will save space–but with at least one big window and a fireplace for the winters. And I’ll need a porch for the warmer weather and rainy days. There is little better time spent than standing on a dry porch during a summer rain.