Last spring, I wrote an essay for The New Yorker about a notable habit common to professional authors: their tendency to write in strange places. Even when they have beautifully-appointed home offices, a lot of authors will retreat to eccentric locations near their homes to ply their trade.
In my piece, for example, I talked about Maya Angelou writing on legal pads while propped up on her elbow on the bed in anonymous hotel rooms. Peter Benchley left his bucolic carriage house on a half-acre of land to work in the backroom of a furnace supply and repair shop, while John Steinbeck, perhaps pushing this concept to an extreme, would lug a portable desk onto an old fishing boat which he would drive out into the middle of Sag Harbor.
My argument was that authors like Angelou, Benchley, and Steinbeck weren’t seeking pleasing aesthetics or peace (furnace repair is loud). They were instead trying to escape cognitive capture. “The home is filled with the familiar,” I wrote, “and the familiar snares our attention, destabilizing the subtle neuronal dance required to think clearly.”
Anyway, this is all just preface to me reporting that I recently stumbled across another nice example of this work from near home phenomenon. It came in an episode of Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic podcast featuring the bestselling novelist Jack Carr talking about his latest James Reece thriller, In the Blood. For our purposes, it’s important to know that Carr has a beautiful home in Park City, Utah, which, based on photos he’s shared on social media, includes idyllic spaces to write; e.g.:
And yet, at roughly the 16:30 mark of the podcast interview, Carr reveals that in order to help focus while working on In the Blood, he ended up renting a rustic cabin across town, where he would chop wood to feed the stove, and write at a simple table.
Home is where the heart is, but it’s not necessarily where the mind reaches its full potential.
13 thoughts on “Jack Carr’s Writing Cabin”
Don’t forget that there is something else common to all these situations. As well as escaping the familiar location, in each case the writer has also escaped familiar people. In many ways the cognitive capture from the people is worse than that from the location, as the people are an active distraction an not just a passive one. The longer you spend with a group of people, however caring and well-briefed they may be, the more familiar you become to them, and the more likely they are to interact with you, even if it is just a nod in passing, a side comment, an offer of a beverage, or “just a quick question”. Any of these can topple a meticulously constructed mental house of cards. I have found that I am not able to fully relax into the work if there is even the slightest chance of such an interruption.
The solution chosen by all the writers in this blog post gets them away from familiar people, even at the cost of a more difficult working environment.
This reminds me of the part in the film Phantom Thread, where the fastidious couture dressmaker is working, and his “muse” brings him unscheduled tea. He gets mad, and she says, okay, okay, the tea is gone! And he says, but the interruption is still here!
Thanks for sharing
I currently work fulltime remotely and anytime I am not in a call I do have to be in a place far away from distractions which are usually any screens (phones ,tv). I currently work in a small table looking at my backyard it feel calming. A space like the one Jack Carr has looks like something I would love to build to work someday.
Hello Cal, are there studies on this subject?
You suggested in one of your first books that a simple nightlamp on the desk you use for studying, can change the environment. How unfamiliar ones space has to be to produce these effects? And is there a limit? I imagine writing near furnaces was not comfortable, but is there a process to “getting used to” working in such environments?
This seems counterintuitive to me. As someone with ADHD, it is the UNfamiliar that draws my attention, not the things I know so well that I take for granted. It is, in fact, a problem, as post-it notes and other reminders I put out for myself fade into the background very quickly in my mind and no longer serve their intended function. Perhaps for writers changing locales creates a different cognitive awareness that is helpful for them, but as a lawyer I find that it is much harder to focus in unfamiliar surroundings precisely because there are so many new stimuli.
In law school, I had to commute to school where I would find a simple desk to study well before class. (I did not own a car, so I had to get to law school very early in the event of missing a bus, traffic, etc.) There was absolutely no stimulation at these simple desks except the text from the law book I was reading. I got a lot of work done this way. After class, I would sit at the bus stop with a portable night light reading law waiting for the bus. The material I read in these random locations has stuck with me for 20 years and I still remember the material. The lack of distraction and high intensity seems to cause neurons to connect and the connections to last with myelin sheathing. I eventually became a lawyer despite the fact a lot of my classmates did not pass through the bar admissions process and not having taken “pre-law” undergrad class during mechanical engineering school. This technique of distant locals seemed to have helped. This technique of finding an obscure location seems to work both for writing and for learning.
Oye. This resonates with me! I’ve moved my “office” from room to room, space to space…thanks to my ever-patient husband. I wrote my first book while I was alone in the house. Everyone was at school or work. It’s not the workspace that’s important…it’s the solitude.
This is why I am renting an AirBnB out-of-state at the end of the month to write my script for an upcoming course I’ll be filming. This was already planned before reading this article, but seeing the coincidental congruency here makes me feel better about the decision and investment.
Hey Cal, I remember that essay! I’m as far, profession-wise, from a traditional writer as it comes but I still find somewhere slow and where I can be in solitude to ‘go’ to get prepared for the minutiae of tasks I must complete in order to successfully be a great baker and business owner. All of the recipes I still regularly make, that I created, are currently fully memorized, including the doubled and alternate versions. It took many years to lay the foundation to do all of this at a high and professional level and I just couldn’t get it mentally impressed while literally in the kitchen space. It was out at the lake, an empty shopping center parking lot, a drive through a quiet part of town…with a cupcake in tow, for reference, of course.
I find I concentrate best when there is a lot of stimuli, i.e. coffeeshops and such, but I love the idea of a private retreat.