Included on the John Adams DVD is a special feature on the author of the book, David McCullough. (Fans of the old Ken Burns Civil War documentary have met him before as the voice of that feature’s narration.) McCullough has had phenomenal success as a writer of history. He likes to think of himself as a writer who writes about real people in the past. With two Pulitzers under his belt, I suppose we can say that he’s done a pretty good job of it.
A fascinating revelation in this was the description of where McCullough writes. Behind his house, through a gate in a fence, in a wooded garden there is a small building, no larger than a small shed. In that ‘shed’ is no computer, no telephone, no connection with the outside world, no distraction. There is a typewriter, a desk, a couple of file cabinets, and solitude. This is where his books have been written.
On each side of the gate there are posts. McCullough’s rule is that when he is working no one taller than those posts is allowed to pass through the gate to interrupt him. But if one is smaller than the height of those posts, he is free to come and go at will.
I’m reminded of what I have heard about 19th-century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge whose study was in his home on the seminary campus. Adults knew not to interrupt him when he was working. But little ones? He had the latch removed from the door which opened to the house so that the door would swing freely at the touch of little hands.
Those who want to write (whether it is books, theology, or sermons) need to guard their solitude. They need to build fences around their time and their space which are inviolable. But those fences need to have human sized gates which reflect a balance between isolation and humanity.
McCullough sounds like a guy I’d like to meet.
But not when he’s working.